New Astra Driven

10 Jul, 2009 4:02pm Andrew English

We hit the road in Vauxhall's new family star...


The new five-door Astra is a great-looking car, with an equally attractive cabin and room inside to spare. The uncomfortable ride of the old model appears to have been banished, although we need to drive the car in more representative conditions to be sure. The handling is as sharp as ever and quality levels are very impressive throughout. Is the Astra better than the Golf or Focus though? Well, on the evidence of this drive in a prototype, it’s certainly one of the best models in its class and shows a lot of promise. If it’s priced right, there’s no reason why this new model won’t be as popular as the excellent Insignia.

Emerging like a phoenix from the ashes of General Motors, Vauxhall’s new Astra is here at last – and we’ve driven it! Auto Express was invited to get behind the wheel of a prototype of the newcomer on a secret, late-night test in Germany. Like the Insignia, it’s a car that Vauxhall is very proud of – but is it better than a Ford Focus or VW Golf? 

Well, the exterior is certainly a real transformation. While the outgoing five-door Astra is far from ugly, it is uninspiring. Out go slabby panels and in comes an organic, curvaceous Insignia-inspired look that hides bulk, cheats the wind and looks terrific. The Insignia’s hockey-stick lamp style is used, but inverted, as is that car’s distinctive concave door pressing.

Video: watch CarBuyer's video review of the Vauxhall Astra

On the Astra this L-shaped pressing also moves from the front to the rear doors where it tricks the eye by visually reducing the length. New Astra is 18cm longer than its predecessor, with a 7cm longer wheelbase to accommodate new pedestrian protection structures.

It is also 1cm taller, a around 3cm wider, with a front track that is 6cm wider and a 7cm wider rear track. The boot has the same 375-litre capacity, but with no clutter from the rear dampers thanks to a wider track. The result is, we estimate, about 60kg heavier than the outgoing model.

Inside, the high quality General Motors Europe cabin is still present, but in a new curvy, multi-surfaced style that looks borrowed from a bigger car – in some cases that’s because it is. The Astra uses the Insignia’s steering wheel, gear lever and instrument binnacle to great effect.

The dashboard has been lowered and moved forward away from the driver, which improves the visibility and driving position as well as giving a feeling of spaciousness. The storage space has been heavily revised to make it more useful and the rear-seat accommodation is large enough for three large adults for a long journey.

Underneath the skin new Astra takes its MacPherson-strut front suspension straight from the Insignia and the rear torsion-beam suspension has a number of changes to improve ride and cabin noise – weak points of the outgoing model. Most notable of these is the inclusion of a Watt’s Linkage to the rear axle.

This 220-year-old design dates back to the earliest days of the steam engine, but has been used since to reduce the rear-steer effect of side loadings when cornering. Vauxhall engineers have updated the linkage to reduce the unwanted movement of the torsion beam and in the process have replaced the hard, noise-transmitting mountings with much softer hydraulic units.

And it works. The Astra is noticeably quieter and more compliant than before. The ride is much improved, and the handling, which was sharp on the old model is just as precise. Job done then? Well not quite. The steering is light and lacks the feedback of a Focus.

You can specify a £700 optional Flexride variable damping system which allows drivers to choose from ‘normal’, ‘tour’ and ‘sport’ settings. It offers lots of choice but isn’t really worth the money. As for the engine, it’s strong from low revs and can hit 0-60mph in less than eight seconds, with a top speed of 140mph. It all bodes well for the future.


Key specs

* Engine: 1.6-litre, 4cyl, turbocharged
* Power: 178bhp
* Transmission: Front-wheel drive, six-speed manual
* 0-62mph: 7.8sec
* Top speed: 140mph
* Economy: 36.7mpg
* CO2: 216g/km
* Equipment: Air conditioning, aluminium alloy wheels, electronic stability program, anti-lock brakes.
* On sale: December