Nearly 18 per cent of all the new cars sold in the UK come from the fiercely contested family sector – so it’s hard to understate the importance of Vauxhall’s new Astra. The company needs it to make a big impact, but first impressions are mixed.
It’s 170mm longer than the outgoing car and its neat proportions are attractive enough, but it looks too similar to other compact hatches for our liking.
Video: watch CarBuyer's video review of the Vauxhall Astra
A rounded tailgate, rising waistline and reverse angle C-pillar are all common styling cues in this market, so it’s very easy to confuse the new Astra with a SEAT Leon, Mazda 3 or Renault Mégane from a distance.
Move closer and its distinctive light clusters and Griffin badge set it apart, but the Astra doesn’t stand out – it blends in. The Vauxhall looks much newer than the Focus, but in contrast, the upright Golf is immediately recognisable.
Higher spec SRi, SE and Elite Astras all have classy chrome window surrounds, but our lower-grade Exclusiv spec goes without. It’s also the only model in our trio to feature plastic wheel trims – the neat 10-spoke rims fitted to our test car are a £300 extra.
Do matters improve on the inside? The answer is an unqualified yes. The first thing to hit you about the cabin is the sheer number of buttons on the centre console, but the high quality switchgear gives the busy interior a premium feel. The Vauxhall doesn’t have the clean layout of the Golf, but its ambient lighting creates a classy atmosphere at night.
Rear leg and headroom are competitive and its 370-litre boot places it between the smaller VW and larger Ford in the load hauling pecking order. However, the cabin offers little in the way of innovation. The Vauxhall’s rear seats don’t fold completely flat, there is limited cubby space up front, and the door pockets are small.
Another oversight is the location of the handbrake. Higher trims come with an electronic parking brake, but the lever on S and Exclusiv cars can pinch stray fingers against the raised gearlever surround.
Thankfully, the firm’s designers paid more attention to the driving position, because the wide range of steering wheel and seat adjustment makes it easy for all shapes and sizes to get comfortable.
And comfort is really what the Astra does best, as its supple suspension and quiet cabin give it a grown-up feel. Cruising refinement is impressive, and the Vauxhall also has the best low-speed ride of our trio. However, it can’t match the agility and composure of the Focus or the grip levels of the Golf. And while its steering is responsive, the Astra provides precious little feedback.
It’s not as fun as its rivals, then, but with progressive brakes and the sharpest Vauxhall gearshift we’ve experienced in years, the Astra is a big improvement on its predecessor.
Under the bonnet, the new turbocharged 1.4-litre engine is designed to replace the old 1.8-litre unit. It develops 138bhp at 4,900rpm, making the Astra the most powerful car here.
However, it doesn’t press home its advantage, as its on-paper pace doesn’t translate to the road. The smooth-revving unit doesn’t seem like it’s turbocharged, as there’s no tell-tale whistle and its power delivery is linear. But it’s hard to tell that it produces 138bhp – the 120bhp Golf feels more responsive.
Where the Vauxhall does score points is for economy and emissions. A CO2 output of 139g/km is the lowest of our trio and a huge 20g/km ahead of the normally aspirated Focus.
Is that enough to trump the UK’s current best seller, or will the Astra's uninspiring looks and handling be its downfall?
Chart position: 2
WHY: Hotly anticipated Astra is on sale now, with deliveries starting in December. Its 1.4 Turbo engine is all-new.
* Price: £17,290
* Engine: 1.4-litre 4cyl, 138bhp
* 0-62mph: 9.0 seconds
* Claimed economy: 47.9mpg
* Annual road tax: £120