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Generation Game: New Vauxhall Astra vs original Mk1

Over 30 years separate first and latest Vauxhall Astras - we hit the road to compare them

The all-new Astra’s mix of technology, weight-saving and driver involvement marks a new dawn for Vauxhall’s family car. But back in 1980, the launch of the original Astra was arguably even more significant.

• Win an Astra for a year: enter HERE

At the time, the brand was struggling to maintain its position as a front-runner in the sales charts. Ageing models such as the Viva and Chevette were being shown the way by a new wave of rival hatchbacks that offered more practicality and family friendly features, and Vauxhall was in desperate need of a front-wheel-drive hatch to compete.

Thankfully, sister company Opel had launched the Kadett 12 months earlier, so Vauxhall added a Griffin badge to the nose – as it had done with the larger Cavalier – and called it the Astra.

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Line them up side-by-side, and the seventh-generation model towers over the Mk1, even though it’s smaller than the Mk6 it’s just replaced. There’s a stark contrast in their design, too, with the first generation almost entirely made up of geometric shapes and straight edges.

The black bumpers, rubbing strips and smattering of chrome trim are all very much of their time, while the solitary driver’s side wing mirror signifies that the car in our pictures is a lower-spec 1300 L.

The spartan spec continues inside, where you’ll find a two-spoke steering wheel ahead of the upright dash. This shows the bare minimum of information, with a speedometer, fuel and water temperature gauges, while the ‘luxuries’ start and end with the rudimentary heater and a radio that in its day received only medium and long-wave stations – this model doesn’t even have a cassette player.

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• Vauxhall Astra review

In contrast, even the entry-level version of the latest Astra is sumptuous, while climate and cruise control, and a trip computer, had barely been introduced on even the most luxurious limos of the early eighties.

And then there’s the safety kit. With six airbags and a host of electronic driver aids, including lane assist and city braking, the new Astra is miles ahead of the old car, which makes do with three-point belts and head restraints for the front seats only. Those chairs are pretty soft, and the carpet-style upholstery is extremely retro compared to the smart trim in the latest model.

• Win an Astra for a year: enter HERE

Yet at the time the Astra was a class leader, thanks to its front-wheel-drive layout, spacious cabin and powerful overhead-cam engines. Driven today it feels outdated, but there’s a great view out thanks to the slender window pillars, while the 1.3-litre motor’s rasping exhaust eggs you on.

Unassisted steering and wooden brakes mean you must plan each manoeuvre well in advance, but with no electronic assistance you feel every bit of the road underneath you.

The suspension is a little saggy – as you’d expect after 30-plus years – but driving the old Astra gives a great insight into how far the model has come over the years.

In contrast, the current version starts without fuss, is easy to drive at any speed and has every mod-con you could desire. Yet both are great examples of the brand’s 35-year commitment to delivering class-leading compact family hatches.

Vauxhall Astra Special

Which Astra do you prefer? Let us know below!

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Senior test editor

Dean has been part of the Auto Express team for more than 20 years, and has worked across nearly all departments, starting on magazine production, then moving to road tests and reviews. He's our resident van expert, but covers everything from scooters and motorbikes to supercars and consumer products.

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