Vauxhall's Astra GTC is the most driver-focused model the brand makes. Jonathan Crouch drives it.
Ten Second Review
Vauxhall's Astra GTC offers couture styling with blue-collar underpinnings. It's a great combination. Powerful engines are available, but you don't necessarily need them for the feel-good sensation that comes with GTC ownership. It's a relatively affordable compact coupe that can stand wheel-to-wheel with apparently more exalted rivals - and often come out on top. Wouldn't it smarten your driveway? Many potential buyers will think so.
Vauxhall, you know, has quite a performance heritage. From the Prince Henry of 1911 to the fire-breathing Firenza models of the Seventies, the Eighties Chevette HSR rallycars or the Lotus Carlton super saloon, the last century saw plenty for the driving enthusiast to get excited about behind the wheel of something bearing the Griffin badge. None of these models though, were cars that sporting motorists were particularly likely to want to use every day. Which was why in 1990, Vauxhall launched the Calibra, an affordable compact coupe based on ordinary underpinnings that was super-stylish, sensibly practical and, in its more potent forms, really very decent to drive. It was different enough from humbler Astras and Cavaliers to be desirable. Yet similar enough to remain affordable both to buy and to run. Curiously, the Calibra wasn't replaced, nor was it really replicated in the Vauxhall line-up - until late 2011 and the launch of the car we're going to look at here, this one, the Astra GTC. This Vauxhall made its debut on the UK market at a time when interest in compact coupes seemed to be on the rise, with all-new models like the MINI Coupe and the Hyundai Veloster arriving to join a revised version of Renault's Megane Coupe, the still new and exciting Peugeot RCZ and perhaps this car's toughest competitor, Volkswagen's Scirocco. None of these cars would have been seriously troubled had Vauxhall done little more than dress up a three-door version of the ordinary Astra family hatch - as had been the case with the previous Astra Sport Hatch and Astra coupe models that tried and failed to replicate the old Calibra's appeal. But this GTC, this 'Grand Touring Coupe', is different. Sharing not a single body panel with an ordinary Astra, it's wider, longer, lower and more athletic looking. And though the engines are familiar, a clever HiPerStrut suspension system means that it should feel very different to drive. It is, in short, a very desirable Astra indeed. And we're going to put it to the test.
You could be excused for approaching a drive in this GTC model with rather low expectations. After all, it succeeds a couple of Astra coupe models that were no more exciting to drive than the frumpy five-door hatchbacks they were based upon. And quick glance at the badgework and under the bonnet might suggest that we're again looking at something similar here. You might think that. Your friends might think that. But you'd both be wrong. It's true that apart from the potent 2.0-litre petrol turbo used in the flagship VXR version, GTC engineware is identical to that you'll find in any ordinary Astra. But that's only because engineering effort and investment has been directed into areas far more important to driving satisfaction. Sharper steering, a wider track and, most importantly, a completely different suspension set-up all combine to make this the most engaging driver's car Vauxhall makes. Only a £30,000 Insignia VXR gets its power down and turns into corners as sharply - and that's only because it shares this car's clever HiPerStrut suspension system. Before I drove this car, I wouldn't have thought it possible for an Astra - any Astra - to offer a more rewarding drive than a rival Megane Renaultsport or a sporty Focus ST. I was wrong. Better still, you don't have to spend extra money on Vauxhall's hi-tech FlexRide adaptive damping system to really enjoy it, so well-judged is the ride and handling balance, especially tuned for our appalling British roads. If you can't stretch to the frantic 280bhp VXR 155mph high performance version, then the only engine in the mainstream range likely to really get your heart pumping is the one I tried, a 16v 1.6-litre petrol Turbo unit developing a useful 180PS. Its torque figure of 230Nm isn't quite as impressive compared to obvious rivals, but this model's still quick enough to flash past sixty from rest in just 7.8s on the way to 138mph. And there's a lovely rorty engine note to go with it. Most GTC customers though, will probably opt for something a little more sensible. There are a couple of 1.4-litre petrol Turbo units developing either 120 or 140PS, the faster of which is still able to make sixty in 9.0s. Or there's a choice of either 1.7 or 2.0-litre CDTi diesel power which can get a bit clattery in the upper reaches of the rev range. The 1.7 comes in either 110 or 130PS states of tune, while the 2.0-litre unit is altogether punchier with 165PS and 350Nm of torque, enough to make this variant feel probably the most potent of all the mainstream GTC models. All drive through a reasonably slick six-speed manual gearbox, with an auto gearbox option available on 1.4-litre petrol Turbo 140PS and 2.0 CDTi diesel models.
Design and Build
You expect a three-door coupe to be smaller than the five-door Hatch it's likely to be based upon. But that certainly isn't the case here, this GTC longer and wider than its more ordinary stablemate and featuring a larger wheelbase that explains the remarkable amount of space it can offer for both rear seat passengers and their luggage. We'll get to that in a minute. But let's begin with what will probably sell you this car in the first place: the way it looks. Stylist Mark Adams and his team have created a shape that shares nothing but the roof ariel and the door handles with the 5-door Hatch, the differences further emphasised by a wider track, front and rear, plus a lower stance and much larger wheels. Lift the tailgate and you'll find yourself gazing at a boot that at 380-litres is actually 30-litres larger than that provided by the five-door hatch and free up 1165-litres of total volume - a space nearly 20% bigger than you'll find provided by some obvious rivals. Plus of course you can extend it by pushing forward the 60:40 split-folding rear seats. This all comes courtesy of this model's lengthened wheelbase, something that also benefits rear seat passengers.Two adults will be more comfortable back here than in anything else in the class - even on longer journeys. Getting in behind the wheel means opening one of the huge doors that are needed thanks to the extended wheelbase and coupe bodyshape - and that might be an issue if you're tightly parked. Once installed behind the wheel though, it's all pretty user-friendly, even if it isn't very different from the layout you'd find in an ordinary Astra Hatch, despite Vauxhall's attempts to lift the atmosphere with faux aluminium inserts on the centre console, air vents and doors. What is different from the Astra Hatch is the rear screen - which is a pity as it's smaller in the GTC, slightly restricting rearward visibility.
Market and Model
Whichever Astra GTC variant you choose - 1.4-litre or 1.6-litre petrol Turbo, 1.7 or 2.0-litre CDTi diesel or even the 280bhp VXR - you should find it to be reasonably well equipped. Entry-level Sport-trimmed models include most of what you'll want - air conditioning, a decent quality MP3-compatible CD stereo with Aux-in point and USB functionality, daytime running lights, seat height adjustment and a remote control alarm system. They even include 18-inch alloy wheels, cruise control and a DAB digital radio. At this level though, some will feel that this car still doesn't feel quite special enough, an issue that's partly addressed by specifying your car in 'SRi' trim - like this one here. The extra £1,300 or so this will require on top of the price of your chosen variant buys you the 'nice-to-have' touches - a leather-covered steering wheel, front door sill covers, dark-tinted rear windows, sports front seats and front foglamps - as well as a bit of extra high-tech (auto lights and wipers, a multi-function trip computer and a hill start assist system to stop you from drifting backwards on uphill junctions). You also get an electronic parking brake - though that, to be honest, I could do without. As for options, well I don't see too many GTC buyers going for the auto gearbox that's an option on the top 1.4-litre petrol Turbo and 2.0-litre CDTi diesel engines. A key decision all GTC buyers will have to make though, will be whether to find an extra £800 for the FlexRide adaptive damping system that enables you to set the suspension up to suit the mood you're in and the road you're on. Many will feel that the standard UK-developed damping set-up is good enough not to need it and may be more tempted to spend a similar amount on Vauxhall's clever Adaptive Forward Lighting system. Here, a set of bi-xenon headlamps will adapt thenmselves across eight different settings tailored to different roads and light conditions. Other key options include the heated, leather ergonomic six-way adjustable sports seats I have here and a 315W 7-speaker Infinity Premium Sound System.
Cost of Ownership
Day to day running costs are not going to be markedly different from any other Astra model. In fact, when the higher residual values this GTC model will enjoy over a normal Astra hatch come into play, it's likely that this car will be cheaper to run than its ordinary stablemate. Thanks to the a start/stop set-up standard on all models bar the 1.6-litre petrol Turbo - a system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, waiting at the lights or stuck in traffic - carbon dioxide emissions certainly look competitive enough. The entry-level 1.4-litre 120PS model emits 140g/km, a figure that falls to 168g/km in the 1.6 petrol Turbo. Go for the 1.7-litre CDTi diesel model in either 110 or 130PS tune and you're looking at 119g/km in standard guise, but just 109g/km if you order one of the Ecotec models. The 2.0-litre CDTi variant meanwhile, manages 127g/km - that's a tax band lower than a comparable VW Scirocco 2.0 TDI 170, not at all bad for a car that generates 165PS. Fuel economy is also competitive. Regardless of whether you opt for the 120 or 140PS variant, the turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol engine returns a combined return of 47.1mpg, a figure that falls to 39.2mpg in the 1.6-litre petrol Turbo. The diesels of course are better still, with the 130PS 1.7-litre CDTi that many will choose virtually duplicating the figures of its closest rival, Volkswagen's Scirocco 2.0 TDI 140. That means you can expect to record 62.8mpg on the combined cycle, a figure that falls to 58.8mpg in the pokier 2.0-litre CDTi variant. Either way, Astra GTC diesel drivers will often find themselves eking over 700 miles from a gallon of derv, which by any standards, is quite an achievement. Insurance groupings for mainstream models range between 13 and 25.
It would be easy to imagine many potential compact coupe customers not even trying this car, seduced as they might be by the fun of a MINI Coupe, the quality of a Volkswagen Scirocco or the style of a Peugeot RCZ. And that would be a mistake. Unlike its direct predecessors, this is much, much more than just a three-door Astra Hatch in a dress. In fact, it's arguably the best handling car in its class, certainly the most practical choice and probably the most affordable too when you take dealer offers into account. None of which would count for very much in this market if this car didn't also look great. But it does. It's true that the interior could be more exciting and that some of the lower-order engines are unremarkable. But then, that's also true of a number of obvious rivals. Ultimately, if you can get over the issue of buying into an Astra when maybe you'd started your search in this segment with an eye on something with an apparently more desirable badge, then this GTC is unlikely to disappoint. A performance car for the everyday. And a big step forward for Vauxhall.