Vauxhall Astra Twintop

Can GM’s family hatch finally overcome its arch rival in CC guise?

So near, yet so far. That often seems to be the story of the Vauxhall Astra. A good car, but rarely a great one, it has never quite hit the same heights as the Ford Focus and VW Golf.

But could this change here? Vauxhall has gone to great lengths with the TwinTop. Designed and developed by German firm CarTopSystems, it has a three-piece roof that can be operated on the move or via the keyfob, a ski hatch and a clever Easy Load facility. Neither rival offers as much on paper.

And the designers haven’t been twiddling their thumbs, either. The TwinTop is identical to the sharp-looking hatch up front, and the rear is equally good, with a rear deck that’s not too long. Roof up or down, the Astra has greater presence than the Focus.

As with its rivals, dropping the top requires nothing more strenuous than pressing a button, either on the header rail or the key. Doing so activates five electric motors and eight hydraulic cylinders. These are comparatively noisy, though, and there’s a lot of whirring and clicking before the metal itself starts to move.

But even letting extra light in doesn’t make the cabin look any better. As with the Focus, things have been left alone inside, and the design does little to inspire. The upright centre console isn’t the most attractive or easy to use, and the fundamental architecture now appears dated. But it’s well constructed, although not all the plastics are as high a quality as those on the top of the dash.

Access to the back seats is good, thanks to the long, if rather heavy, doors, and although the 610mm legroom measurement lags 20mm behind the Eos and the seatbacks are upright, it’s more generous for passengers than the Ford. However, as with the Focus, the driver sits too high on a seat that lacks underthigh support, and there’s not enough storage space, either.

Unfortunately we were unable to get hold of the equivalent 1.9 CDTI to test against its oil-burning rivals. From previous experience, we know that with 148bhp and 320Nm of torque, the diesel TwinTop isn’t short of performance and the engine, although not as smooth as the Ford’s TDCi unit, is more refined than the VW’s.

The same can’t really be said of the 1.8 petrol. You may save more than £1,500, and the engine is comparatively eager with good throttle response, but it has to be worked hard for comparatively little gain in speed. And although it sounds more pleasant, it isn’t much quieter than the diesels. Performance is modest – despite low gearing, we didn’t expect it to come close to the diesels for in-gear thrust, but even with 138bhp it lagged nearly a second behind the Eos from 30-70mph.

The five-speed gearbox is also a weak link, failing to slot home cleanly every time. But from there, the driving experience picks up. The TwinTop isn’t as polished and reassuring as the Focus, but it handles sharply and is quite entertaining. The trouble is that the Astra doesn’t have such impressive structural rigidity, and is more prone to chassis shudders and steering tremors. There’s also more engine noise on motorways, and in general it feels busier on the road.

Cruising with the roof down is peaceful, though. In fact, at 61dB, it’s actually 1dB quieter at 30mph with the roof down than with it raised, and turbulence isn’t too much of an issue as speeds rise. The TwinTop is a well engineered and attractive car – could the Astra finally get the better of the Focus in this clash?

Details

Price: £18,465Model tested: Vauxhall Astra TwinTop 1.8 SportChart position: 2WHY: It’s tested here in 1.8 petrol trim, but a potent 148bhp 1.9 CDTI diesel is offered from £19,995.

Economy

A diesel TwinTop would have come close to matching the other two for economy, but the 1.8 petrol didn’t fare so well, returning 28.3mpg. That doesn’t affect its running costs too badly, since neither rival can better its 46.7ppm rating.

Residuals

Shedding a little over £3,000 a year in value, the TwinTop loses £1,500 less than either rival over the first three years. Opt for the 1.9 diesel-powered Sport, and residuals aren’t as good, Expect to hold on to around 49 per cent.

Servicing

The days when diesels were more costly to service are over, although the TwinTop’s £508 total was the lowest here. Intervals of 20,000 miles are generous, but you’ll still need an annual check-up even if you don’t travel that far in a year.

Tax

Although it has a dirtier exhaust, the Astra sits between its rivals for tax charges. Petrol doesn’t have the three per cent levy that’s attached to diesels, so despite sitting in the 24 per cent band, the lower list price helps keep costs in check.

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