Vauxhall Astra GSe review

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Is Vauxhall's Astra GSe really a hot hatch? Jonathan Crouch decides.

Ten Second Review

Vauxhall's Astra GSe is the first model from the company's EV sporting 'Grand Sport Electric' sub-brand, a PHEV targeted directly at Volkswagen's Golf GTE. It's a little less of a hot hatch than that Wolfsburg model, but it's not for the want of trying, handling and suspension tweaks aiming to elevate this Astra a little above the usual Plug-in Hybrid family hatch and estate choices you could make.

Background

After forty years of fast Vauxhalls, some great, some not, this apparently is where the company's performance pretensions enter a new electrified era. And on initial inspection of the car in question here, brand's Astra GSe, it doesn't sound all that promising: 1.8 tonnes of weight, eco-conscious tyres, automatic transmission and an engine from the Stellantis parts bin. Yes an engine. This fast Astra may be the debut model of the marque's new electric performance brand but it isn't fully electric (though these days, you can buy an Astra that is).

Instead, the GSe uses the fastest 225hp version of the 1.6-litre Plug-in Hybrid powertrain already in use in 180hp form by the Astra PHEV. Other similarly-sized Stellantis Group models like the Peugeot 308 and the DS 4 offer the faster of the two versions of this drivetrain with nothing more than an expensive price hike and the models in question have largely stayed rooted to the showroom floor. Vauxhall's been a bit cleverer, re-packaging the 225hp PHEV Astra model with all the GSe tinsel you see in the pictures here to better justify its ambitious asking price.

Students of automotive history might remember that the GSe badge first appeared on Vauxhall Opel models back in the '80s with the big Monza coupe. But then, the letters stood for 'Grand Sport Einspritzung' (German for 'Injection'). Today, the acronym has been reborn as designating 'Grand Sport Electric' and, we're told, here offers us a glimpse into the future of warmed-up Vauxhalls.

Driving Experience

You might at least be pleased to find that this is rather more than an Astra PHEV with an inconsequential power hike and a body kit. Lots of work's been done on the suspension, though you can't specify switchable dampers in the way you can with this model's Golf GTE arch-rival. Instead, special Koni shock absorbers have been fitted with a clever bypass valve to aid ride control. Apparently, there are slightly more permissive stability system settings too, plus a lower ride height and a faster steering rack.

None of which you'll really need because the powertrain characteristics don't encourage you to drive this car like a hot hatch. It's a PHEV package designed for an eco-conscious hatch not a shopping rocket and since it hasn't been altered for this installation, the driveline vibe you get is slightly out of kilter with the sporty looks and firm ride of this GSe. You don't even really feel the extra 45hp over an ordinary Astra PHEV (the torque figure is the same) though the stats say that this more powerful variant is fractionally quicker against the stopwatch; rest to 62mph takes 7.5s (a way off a rival Golf GTE's 6.7s) but at least (for what it's worth) the top speed is a very un-EV-like 146mph.

To recap, in case you're not familiar with the four-cylinder 1.6-litre turbo petrol powertrain in use here, it's assisted by a 107bhp electric motor powered by a 9.9kWh battery and drives through the front wheels via an 8-speed auto gearbox. EV range in the Hatch is rated at 40 miles. That's limited by the 1.7-tonne kerb weight, one of the things that discourages you from throwing this car about too much. Another is the drivetrain's momentary hesitation when you step on the throttle, which eventually elicits a rather thrashy engine note. At least the handling tweaks were quite well - the darty steering and damping that keeps body roll in check but isn't too busy over coarser surfaces.

Design and Build

Vauxhall has tried to set this GSe model apart from humbler Astras with unique bumpers, a contrast-colour black roof and special 18-inch wheels. Either way, there's the usual choice of hatch or Sports Tourer estate body styles.

You might hope for a slightly more bespoke interior. Actually though, the only reference to this model's sportier credentials lies with a couple of GSe badges added under the front seat headrests, neither of which can be seen while you're actually driving the car. The sports seats could do with a bit more lateral side support to suit the kind of car this is trying to be, but they do at least come appealingly clad in Alcantara. Otherwise, the cabin is much as in any other plushly-specified Astra, a welcome recipient of the company's current 'Modern Solid' design language. Here, nicely judged additions like padded leather and metal touch points do just enough to justify the exalted asking price.

The centre monitor incorporates 'Apple CarPlay' and 'Android Auto' smartphone-mirroring and there's the option of a Head-up display. For the automatic gearbox, you get a sliding selector in place of the usual stick, which frees up space for extra storage and an additional cup holder. In the back, there's decent space for rear seat passengers. And this current Astra's relatively generous wheelbase length provides for a large-ish cargo area, though compared to a conventionally-engined model, that falls in size from 422 to 352-litres. With the Sports Tourer estate, the reduction is from 597 to 516-litres.

Market and Model

As usual with a PHEV, there's quite a price premium to pay for being able to plug-in. Pricing for this GSe model started from just over £41,000 at the time of our test in Autumn 2023, with a £2,200 premium to pay on top of that for the Sports Tourer estate body shape. That's only £150 more than Vauxhall wants for the plushest 'Ultimate'-spec version of the 180PS Astra Plug-in Hybrid model, but you can get that 180PS variant with less exalted 'GS' trim from around £38,000. For reference, the full-EV Astra Electric is priced from just over £40,000 in Hatch form. And 'GS' and 'Ultimate'-spec Hatch models with conventional 1.2-litre petrol power sell in the £30,000-£33,000 bracket. More relevantly for an Astra GSe customer, the most obvious rival to this top variant, the Volkswagen Golf GTE, was priced from around £40,500 at the rime of this Review.

Go for this Astra GSe and you get a smarter look with a contrast-colour black roof and special 18-inch wheels. Plus re-calibrated sports steering, a unique chassis set-up and special ESP settings. Otherwise, the kit list is much as it is on the 180PS Plug-in Hybrid model. That means you can expect features like full-LED headlights, digital instrument dials and standard 'Apple CarPlay' and 'Android Auto' smartphone-mirroring for the centre dash screen.

The driver is supported by state-of-the-art assistance systems ranging from the 'Intelli-HuD' head-up display to the semi-automated 'Intelli-Drive' assistance system and the 'Intelli-Vision' 360-degree camera. And the brand expects the intelligent 'Intellilux' headlights to be frequently specified option. These use state-of-the-art LED pixel lights. There's also extended traffic sign recognition, rear cross-traffic alert and active lane positioning, which keeps the car in the middle of the driving lane.

Cost of Ownership

As we mentioned in our 'Driving Experience' section, up to 40 miles of battery running is claimed from both the Astra GSe variants, while CO2 is rated at up to 25g/km. This means an affordable 12% BiK tax rating. There's the usual rather fictitious 3-figure PHEV combined cycle fuel reading - in this case 256mpg. You can maximise efficiency by regular activation of the provided 'B' gearbox button, which emphasises regenerative braking, harvesting energy as you cruise or brake to replenish the battery.

From a household plug, both Astra GSe variants can be replenished in five and a half hours. Plug into a 3.6 KW home wall box or public charger and replenishment will take three and a half hours. Connected up to 7kW home wall box or public charger, you can reduce that to an hour and 55 minutes. If you do have a 7kW home wall box, it would make sense to pay Vauxhall the extra £500 it wants to upgrade the car's standard 3.7kW on-board charger to 7kW status - which would halve the vehicle charging time. So that you don't have to use valuable charging energy with the climate fan cooling or heating the interior when you first get into the vehicle, the Astra GSe offers a thermal pre-conditioning function. Insurance for both GSe variants is group 31E.

Summary

As long as you don't approach the Astra GSe expecting it to be a fully fledged hot hatch and provided you're accepting of its ambitious asking price, you might quite like it. The handling is quite sporty; so are the looks. And you get all of that with the potential frugality PHEV technology that's looking quite a good current bet as our country's EV charging network struggles to cope with public demand.

For all that though, an Astra with a performance badge ought to add up to a little more than this. We'd hoped with the relinquishment of its GSi and VXR sub-brands in recent times, Vauxhall would bring us one that would. This isn't it. The GSe has its market, but it's very much for those who've out-grown any sort of GTi.

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