HILLCLIMBING. Some say it’s a pointless pursuit, putting in all that uphill effort only to come down again a few hours later. A bit like skiing in fact, only at least on the piste there’s usually a chairlift or some other mechanical device to take away much of the hard bit. Hills are great – for looking at from a distance – and so far I’ve largely managed to avoid the temptation to investigate them at closer quarters.
However, thanks to the people at Vauxhall, I found that hills do actually have some purpose other than adding to the visual quality of life – one hill in particular, at Shelsley Walsh in the English Midlands.
For the benefit of the ill-informed, it’s a revered place. First used in 1905, it’s the oldest motorsport venue in continuous use in the world with an even longer racing heritage than Le Mans, Indianapolis and Monza. The track is demanding to say the least, just 1,000 yards long, it rises 328 feet in that distance and is only 12 feet wide, with some fearsome bends, allowing no margin for error. The fastest recorded time for thrashing a car up the track is just 22.58 seconds.
Vauxhall dragged me there to show off their Astra GTC and let me put it through its paces on the hillclimb track. In a standard car with road tyres, I took almost twice as long as the record but in a still reasonable time of 42.9 seconds.
So what does that prove, apart from the fact that if I was 30 years younger and half as heavy, I’d have recorded a better time? Well for one thing it shows that at the age of 104, Vauxhall may be the oldest surviving British motor manufacturer, but hasn’t lost any of its sporting heritage.
The GTC follows in a fine tradition of sports models, such as the Astra Sports hatch it replaced, the Astra GTE of the 90s, the Chevette HSR which dominated so much of rallying in the 80s, the angular Firenza HP “Droopsnoot” of the 70s and right back to Britain’s first true sports car, the 3.0 litre Prince Henry of 1911.
So it has the right pedigree but how does it fare in the more usual environment on the road? For that, I took the mid-range 1.6 litre 16-valve turbo version for a few days around a wide range of Scottish roads, conditions and surfaces and overall it performed well. Its performance heritage is evident, largely due to its sophisticated HiPerStrut front suspension, derived from the larger Insignia VXR, which gives it superb handling and stability and makes it feel very secure whatever the road conditions. It also helps prevent torque steer, a trait of many powerful front-wheel drive cars, which leaves the driver free to make full use of the performance without having to battle to control the steering.
Britain will be the biggest market for the GTC, which is why the development engineers carried out much of their evaluation on UK roads with our unique variations of undulations, cambers, rough surfaces, apexes and crests and more than our share of potholes. They worked on the basis that if the system operates well here, then it should be perfect for all the other European markets too. The GTC’s ride height has been lowered by 15mm, compared to the Astra Hatch, with a longer wheelbase and wider track to give the car a stronger on-road presence.
There are three petrol and three diesel engines and six-speed manual gearboxes are standard with auto optional on the 1.4 turbo petrol and the more powerful 2.0 litre diesel.
The GTC is the third body style to come off the Astra’s Delta platform, following the Hatch and the Sports Tourer, but the only exterior design elements the GTC shares with its siblings are door handles and roof aerial.
Many of the design team are British and they know how important the UK market is. The smaller Corsa is the biggest-selling car in Scotland with the Astra in third place, beating both the Ford Focus and VW Golf. My only misgivings about the GTC are that it is on the pricey side but you are paying for the engineering you don’t actually see but you can certainly feel on the road.
Just after I’d been in the GTC I had a brief spin in the brand new, more aggressive and purposeful Astra VXR. It was stunning and if I could afford it, I think I’d splash out the £5,500 extra and get out into the country even quicker for that nice view of the hills.
CAR Vauxhall Astra GTC 1.6i 16v Turbo
PRICE £21,480 (£22,670 as tested)
PERFORMANCE Max speed 137mph; 0-60mph 7.8s
MPG 39 combined
CO2 EMISSIONS 168g/km
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North