Plymouth new car road test: Vauxhall Astra 1.7 CDTi ecoFLEX, by James Garnett
CONFESSION time. Put me in a big room with five of the best hatchbacks, ask me to choose, and I probably wouldn't walk towards the Vauxhall.
That's a purely personal preference and I'm not sure why, because there's nothing wrong or offensive about them. It's likely to be something absurd such as I don't like the look of the typeface they use on the controls, or the drive is too "heavy".
But once I'd tested this Astra for three days on our roads, I began to see the light. By the end I didn't love it, but I came very close.
I was in some pain at first. The handbrake has been put too close to the six-speed gearbox so I kept thwacking my fingers on its hard edge. Ow. A design flaw that baffled.
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But forgiveness came quickly once I'd put the car through its paces on roads around Plymouth and the twisties to Looe.
This Astra has a Watt's linkage system in its rear axle, plus a FlexRide adaptive suspension system which varies according to the driver's needs. Its wheelbase has also been lengthened by 71mm.
Combined, these features deliver first-class grip and handling. The car feels anchored to the centre of the earth but remains supple.
Good soundproofing and vibration control increase the feeling of reassurance, although the diesel's growl was a little stubborn. With strong torque and acceleration delivering 0-60mph in just over 10 seconds, this Astra has some punch.
Set this alongside its high fuel efficiency and carbon emissions below 100 g/km (thanks to Start/Stop technology), its performance ticks the right boxes. Apart from that handbrake, inside Vauxhall has thought things through and delivered genuine value for money. Standard features on this model include, among others (deep breath), Electronic Stability Programme (ESP), driver's and front passenger's airbags and full-size curtain airbags, air conditioning, CD player and DAB digital radio, USB connection, electronic windows and mirrors, remote central locking, cruise control, ambient lighting, satellite navigation, 17-inch alloys and leather-covered steering wheel.
The model I tested also had LED lights (£145) and gorgeous two-coat "Deep Sky" metallic paint (£525) options added. Both are worth it.
The designers have crammed the Astra with bespoke storage areas. You'll find homes, Vauxhall say, for the 20 most common items people carry in their cars, from iPods to drinks bottles. Smart stuff. The generous boot also has moveable floor space. Cabin materials are sound if a little uneventful, although I liked the 30-degree angled centre console and beautifully smooth gear stick. And there's plenty of room inside, with strong and supportive seats.
Vauxhall's designers have given this new Astra coupe-like lines with a "blade" line sculpted into the side panels. With eagle eye-shaped headlamps, there's a note of aggression and purpose which forces your eyes to linger over its shape. It's satisfying and makes you think: Yes, for 20 grand, I've bought very well here.
For me this Astra is the difference between handsome Gore Tex hiking boots and a glistening pair of pointy-toed Italian leathers. The latter you may covet, but will they last a lifetime, stop you from slipping and keep out the rain? This Astra is those boots, and I strongly suggest you try it for size.