By Andy Enright
If your business driving tends to be more multi-mile than multi-drop and payload capacity is less important than personal comfort, you might well need a van that's more car than a commercial vehicle. Vauxhall's Astravan is just such a model; not the biggest van on the market, but one with the looks, composure and class of a common or garden small family estate. Here's what to look for when shopping for a used example.
3dr light van (1.4 petrol, 1.2, 1.7, 1.9 diesel [Club, Sportive, Sportive SE, ecoFLEX])
This fifth-generation version of the Astravan appeared in dealers in September 2006, marking a continuation of Vauxhall's longest-established van nameplate. Its genes could be traced right back to 1981 when the first Astravan replaced the Chevette-based Chevanne. The second-generation Astravan debuted in 1985 and included the high-roof Astramax variant (later replaced by the taller Corsa-based Combo). The third-generation Astravan appeared in 1992, ushering in new levels of build quality and commercial vehicle dynamics, before being replaced by the current model in 1998, which did extremely well in the absence of a direct Ford Focus commercial rival. The 2006 model brought added sophistication and build quality, the range being keenly priced from £9,995 and launching with a 90PS 1.4-litre petrol engine and three diesels: the 90PS 1.3 CDTi, the 100PS 1.7 CDTi and the 120PS 1.9 CDTi, the latter available with manual or automatic transmission. There were two trims, Club and Sportive, with Vauxhall introducing a ritzier Sportive SE a year later. The Astravan proved very popular with buyers who liked the way it drove. It won best car-derived van at the 2008 Professional Van and Light Truck Awards, as well as being commended in the Commercial Motor Tester's Choice awards 2007 and carrying off the What Van? Editor's Choice accolade the previous year. It also contributed to Vauxhall's record commercial vehicle sales in 2007. In 2009 the all-new Astra car range was launched, but the existing Astravan model continued, bolstered by what Vauxhall called its 4x4x4x4 deal, namely four years zero per cent finance, four years free servicing, four years roadside assistance and four years warranty. The introduction of an ecoFLEX model into the range saw the Astravan through to the end of its production run in 2012, Corsavan and Combo models taking up its baton instead.
What You Get
The Astravan's origins will become instantly apparent to anyone who's familiar with the styling of the 2004 to 2009-vintage fifth generation Vauxhall Astra. It's a modified version of the Estate model from that line-up that's designed to retain the feel of the passenger carrying base vehicle while adding extra load-carrying capacity in the form of a long, low area immediately behind the front seats. The Astravan inherits the Astra's sharp lines with the prominent V on the grille, the large pointy light clusters and the roof line sloping away towards the rear. By the modest standards set by rival compact vans, it's a very good-looking vehicle indeed. The Astra Estate's rear glasswork and seats obviously got the chop in the Astravan conversion process but the commercial modifications go considerably further than that. A half height steel bulkhead comes as standard fit and buyers from new had the option of extending this to roof height with a mesh partition. This set-up is known as the Flex system and by means of a flap in the bulkhead and a folding passenger seat, it allows longer items to be accommodated. In standard form, the load area is 1,780mm in length and 900mm high but the absence of any side access means that you often have to physically climb inside to retrieve items that have slid down to the far end. A load liner protects the floor and there are six tie-down points for securing cargo, something that it would be wise to do before exploring the Astravan's impressive handling package. The 1.6m load volume and the 650kg maximum payload mean that carrying capacity isn't the Astravan's strongest suit. Commercial vehicle interiors are usually bland, no-nonsense affairs with the emphasis placed on tough materials and sturdy construction but the Astravan's close links to Astra passenger cars pays dividends here. The design and materials that position the Astra as one of the top family hatches on the market make the Astravan arguably the top light van for interior sophistication and comfort. The two-tone dash and door panels take on the sharp, angular theme from the exterior, with the controls intelligently positioned and the aluminium-ringed instruments easy to read.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The Astravan has earned a strong reputation for reliability, that coming through many years of continual development. As a result, it doesn't have any particularly glaring reliability issues. Build quality is leagues ahead of its predecessors, as is the technical excellence of the diesel engines. The 1.7-litre diesel is a bit rattly on start-up but soon settles down. Aside from obvious body damage, just ensure that the van has been well looked after. The electronic control system that marshals the stereo system isn't the most intuitive to use, but you will get used to it with perseverance. The same can be said of the one-touch indicators, which will probably frustrate you immensely at first.
(approx prices, based on a 2008 Astravan 1.4) A new clutch assembly is £145, whilst front brake pads can be found for around £20. Rears are nearer £35, whilst a radiator for an air-conditioned car will; cost around £130. Alternators are slightly pricier, nudging the £300 mark, so make sure your prospective purchase is generating a healthy current to its battery.
On the Road
Very tall drivers may have a problem with the restricted seat travel but those of around six-feet in height should have no problem reaching a very comfortable driving position with the aid of the rake and reach adjustable steering column. The seating itself is firm and supportive with strong side bolsters that become even more pronounced on the sports seats fitted to the range-topping Sportive versions. The driving position is exactly as you'd find in the Astra passenger car, which means it's far less upright that in other compact vans. This makes repeated entries and exits more of a chore but is infinitely preferable on longer journeys. The Astravan engine line up yields a good degree of choice, with no fewer than three CDTi common-rail diesel engines and a 1.4-litre petrol option. It's the diesels that most buyers will concentrate on but making a decision between them is far from straightforward. For a start, there's only 29bhp between the lot. The line-up opens with an 89bhp 1.3-litre option that produces 200Nm at 1,750rpm. This is an impressive unit and, to be honest, it should prove quite adequate for most operators thanks to muscular responses that belie its modest size and stunning fuel economy that approaches 60mpg on the combined cycle. The 1.7-litre CDTi engine comes next and it's both quicker and less economical, but only just. Here, you get 99bhp and 240Nm from 2,300rpm. The 1.9-litre CDTi range-topper packs an impressive 118bhp and 280Nm at 2,000rpm, its power delivery being smoother with less turbo lag than you'll experience in the 1.3-litre van. It feels strong through the lion's share of the rev range as well and of all the engines, it's best equipped to make the most of the Astra's involving chassis. You can still expect fuel economy in the region of 50mpg too. The Astravan turns in an accomplished performance on poorly surfaced roads with the front end soaking up the bumps very effectively. There's tons of grip as well and this inspires confidence even in wet conditions. The well-weighted steering and accurate gearchange mean that this is a van that you can really enjoy driving, even if the `box does feel slightly reluctant when moving through the lower gears. The MK5 Vauxhall Astra was a fine-handling family hatch, so it stands to reason that the Astravan will be a fine handling van. In fact, in the absence of any direct competition, it's probably the finest driver's van on the market. On longer trips, the only drawback is the level of noise emanating from the rear. The engines are reasonably refined but there's a lot of tyre roar echoing around back there and holding a conversation in the front can be difficult.
The Vauxhall Astravan now looks a bit old-hat compared to more modern cityvans with their bigger load bays and shorter overall lengths, but it's exactly because the market has turned away from these estate-car derived vans that they are now such bargains. Clearly there will be some operators for whom a used Astravan just doesn't work, but there are still a great many for whom it will. If you're running an urban business start-up and are looking to keep a cap on your distribution costs, a used Astravan makes all kinds of sense. A £5,000 outlay will see you end up with a smart, reliable and presentable van that's good to drive and still leaves you a bit of cash for signwriting. This vehicle was a huge seller in its day and now might be the time to rediscover why.