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Vauxhall Astra vs rivals

The new Vauxhall Astra is a crucial car for the firm. We take arch-rivals from VW and Ford to meet one of the first cars off the UK assembly line.

There are high stakes involved with the launch of the new Vauxhall Astra.

It’s the sixth generation of the top-selling family car to be built at the Ellesmere Port facility in Cheshire, and its success will be pivotal to the British plant’s future. We couldn’t wait to deliver our verdict on the most important new Vauxhall of 2009, so we grabbed the keys to its biggest rivals to greet one of the first cars off the production line.

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

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Waiting at the factory gates were the Volkswagen Golf and the Astra’s arch nemisis, the Ford Focus. The VW is fresh from victory at our annual New Car Awards, while the Focus has been a regular at the top of the sales charts since it arrived at the end of 2004. It still sets the dynamic benchmark in this ultra-competitive sector.

Headline news for the Astra is the introduction of a new 1.4-litre turbo engine, but the Golf has the award- winning 1.4-litre TSI unit in its arsenal already. The normally aspirated 1.6-litre Ford risks being outgunned in this company… so let battle commence.

Verdict

Few cars to wear the Griffin badge have been as eagerly anticipated as the new Astra. It has huge boots to fill, as the outgoing model has been a constant fixture at the top end of the UK sales charts.

The new car is an improvement across the board, but it doesn’t do enough to beat the VW Golf, which is still our class champion.

Standards in the family sector are so high that any new entrant needs to be better than its rivals, or provide something genuinely innovative or unique to get noticed – but the Astra does neither.

It’s an assured and attractive offering, with excellent low-speed ride comfort, but the classy Golf is incredibly refined, better equipped and cheaper.

Make no mistake, the Astra is a good car, but it feels as if the firm has played it safe – and it lacks personality as a result. It needs a standout feature to elevate it above the competition.

The good news for Vauxhall is that it beats the Focus. In this test it makes the Ford look overpriced and underpowered. However, the blue oval’s hatch is still the dynamic benchmark in the class – which is no mean feat.

* 1ST: Volkswagen Golf Still the class leader. The Golf’s classy cabin and long-haul refinement give it a premium feel that’s missing from its rivals, while generous equipment and an attractive price seal the victory.

The 1.4 TSI engine also punches above its weight in this company.

* 2nd: Vauxhall Astra The new Astra is a tremendous improvement over the old car, and that’s great news for the firm. But it doesn’t lead the field in a particular area.

Comfort is impressive, but it lacks the bold styling of the Mazda 3 or clever seating of a Honda Civic, for example.

* 3rd: Ford Focus The Focus is showing its age but remains a practical, durable and spacious family car.

It’s still the dynamic benchmark against which all others need to be judged in this sector, but otherwise it is beginning to look dated – it doesn’t even have price on its side.

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