We've brought together our current class favourite, the VW Golf, as well as Ford's Focus, the stylish Renault Mégane and Peugeot's spacious 307.
First up is the new Golf, and it's immediately clear that our 1.6-litre FSI-engined model puts image and refinement ahead of all else. While its familiar styling appears conservative alongside the Astra, the VW's cabin is a model of executive class. But that's not to say it's perfect - some interior plastics are rougher than before, while the steering wheel feels a little cheap, too.
However, the driving position is adjustable and comfortable, while clever use of space means the rear seats are big and the boot practical, particularly compared to the Vauxhall. The direct-injection petrol engine is another highlight, boasting improved economy and torque over rivals. VW claims 41mpg, as well as Euro IV compliance for the four-cylinder. The six-speed gearbox is a big selling point, and makes the most of the power, while the shift is slick, too.
Finally, VW has improved the Golf's driving experience considerably. Best of all is the smooth low-speed ride. It's not necessarily an improvement on the Astra's, but it lends the German hatch a big car feel which is unmatched here.
However, it's the Ford Focus that still has the sportiest set-up in our group - despite improvements to the Golf's chassis and the Astra's impressive ride. Thanks to a competitive price and generous 100,000-mile warranty package, sales also remain strong. More than 13,000 Focuses found new homes in 2003, making it the best-selling car in Britain. The Astra will have to go some to better this.
But the writing is on the wall for the ageing Ford. While its new edge design still looks up to date next to the Astra, the car will be replaced in the autumn. Nevertheless, the Ford's basics are still very impressive. The seats are supportive and the steering wheel is comfortable to hold. And although the dash is far from attractive, it's well equipped without being over-complicated.
There's a surprising amount of space in the back of the Focus, too - only the Astra caters better for five people. However, the Ford loses points for the absence of an external boot release.
Mechanically and dynamically, it remains competitive. With 100bhp and 145Nm of torque, the Focus is not the most powerful car here, but the sharp steering, ride and handling more than make up for this. The hugely responsive Ford is by far the most rewarding car in our group to drive, despite the busy ride, plus it's comfortable, too.
Modern rivals would do well to take note.
While VW opted for an evolutionary approach to redesigning the Golf and Ford maintains its attention to ride and handling on the Focus, Renault decided on a bolder, revolutionary strategy for its Mégane. Not even the new edge Focus had as much impact at launch, and the French car has somehow stolen the thunder from the new Astra's styling.
Despite the suggestion that the ultra-modern look will date quickly, we feel the Mégane's bold shape is likely to stand it in good stead for some time.
There's an airy, modern feel inside the Renault. The light colours used in our test car's cabin help brighten the atmosphere, and this is further enhanced by the uncluttered dashboard.
But while the styling lifts the Mégane to the top of the class, in terms of practicality it finishes at the bottom of our line-up. The Renault is cramped - the rear seats are small, while access to the boot is restricted by the design (as is the case with the Astra).
The Mégane's 1.6-litre powerplant is refined and reasonably responsive, but it's at its best on the motorway. Meanwhile, the ride is impressively refined, and refuses to be ruffled by even the bumpiest of British roads.
However, the Renault doesn't quite have the Ford's silken damping or the Astra's superior body control - and it loses a considerable number of points for both. This is a shame, although it's a good illustration of the dangers of putting style over substance.
Our final contender is the Peugeot 307, which has been a firm favourite at Auto Express since its launch in 2001. Some mourn the fact that Peugeots are no longer regarded as pure driver's cars, but the improvements made in terms of practicality and build quality must be applauded. There's also plenty of adjustment on the excellent driver's seat and the steering wheel, although marks have to be deducted for blind spots created by the steeply raked A-pillars.
The 307 proves itself to be a usable family car as well, thanks to the spacious rear passenger compartment and handy cabin stowage areas (such as the deep door pockets and under-seat trays). And while the boot doesn't quite match the standards set by the Golf, there's stacks of room with the seats folded, plus the space is more practical than it is in the Astra.
Under the bonnet, the 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine is powerful and picks up well from low revs. As with the Golf, it feels rough when worked hard and becomes coarse above 5,000rpm.
Yet the 307 is still good to drive, with sharp turn-in and decent body control. It's not as much fun as the Focus or as polished as the Golf or Astra, but then the ride and refinement make the Peugeot a highly capable cruiser.
Make no mistake, the new Astra will make a huge impact on the family hatch market, and is sure to become a familiar sight on UK roads. However, it's not all good news, as the Vauxhall is narrowly beaten by the Golf. In 1.6-litre petrol guise, we feel the VW is a better, more practical all-round package. But if price is a factor, Luton's latest family model could be the more tempting choice, as the Golf costs a massive £700 more than the Astra. The Vauxhall has hounded the Golf all the way to the top spot, and finishes ahead of the Focus, Mégane and 307. Final ranking:
Vauxhall Astra 1.6S *****
Volkswagen Golf 1.6 FSI S *****
Ford Focus Zetec 1.6 ****
Renault Megane 1.6 Privilege ***
Peugeot 307 1.6S ***