It’s been more than 40 years since the Vauxhall Astra first hit the roads.
Built here in the UK, the family hatchback has had a major role in the motoring lives of many of us. Vauxhall reckons a quarter of all British motorists have owned or at least driven one.
Over those 40-odd years, the Astra has gone through seven generations and is due for replacement in the not-too-distant future.
That incoming version will be based on a platform shared with various Peugeots and Citroens but in the meantime the GM-based model has been updated.
While this isn’t a ground-up new car it does bring some significant updates.
Not that you’d guess that by looking at it.
Vauxhall say the old Astra’s looks were so popular they didn’t see the need to do much beyond a new fascia, grille and headlights. Even under scrutiny it looks near-identical to the old car and compared to its key rivals - Focus, Corolla, Golf, Mazda 3 and Ceed - it’s pretty bland.
There have been some other subtle exterior modifications to add active aero shutters and remodel the underfloor in order to make the Astra the most aerodynamic model in its class. In fact, the Astra estate has the lowest drag coefficient of any estate in any class.
That’s important to Vauxhall as the main focus of this revised model is to make it cleaner and more economical than before.
To that end, the Astra’s powertrains are completely new - smaller, lighter and more efficient than those which came before.
For the first time, the Astra is offered only with three-cylinder engines. Petrol buyers get a choice of a turbocharged 1.2-litre with 108, 129 or 143bhp or a 143bhp 1.4 turbo, which comes exclusively with a CVT automatic transmission.
A single 1.5-litre diesel comes with either 104 or 120bhp and a choice of a six-speed manual or new nine-speed automatic. The nine-speed is smooth in operation under constant acceleration but brake into a corner then power out and you’ll be waiting a second or two for it to drop back down the ratios.
Across the range, economy has improved by an average of 12 per cent, with the manual 143bhp 1.2 a massive 21 per cent more fuel efficient than the old 148bhp 1.4.
That drivetrain, expected to be the biggest seller, offers economy of 53mpg and CO2 emissions of 121g/km.
On paper the top-powered 1.2 sounds reasonably lively, with a 0-62mph time of 8.8 seconds, but on the road it needs to be worked really hard to get moderate performance, with a complete lack of pulling power until you’re well up the rev band.
In fact, the 120bhp diesel feels more muscular despite giving away nearly 30bhp, thanks in part to its 221lb/ft torque (210 in the auto), which gives the car more impetus at low revs.
Although their frugality is an improvement on the old car neither engine offers substantially better economy than rivals such as the Focus and Ceed, and they feel distinctly less responsive. However, thanks to the low CO2 emissions and meeting RDE2 standards they do offer business buyers some significant savings.
The Astra’s also not a match for the Focus in its driving experience, despite suspension and steering improvements. It’s more closely matched to the sensible Ceed - secure, predictable and controlled but less likely to inspire you to take the long route home. Whether that’s a big deal will depend on how you plan to use your family hatchback.
Inside, the Astra has been gently refreshed with some new materials, new instruments with optional digital displays and some minor layout changes. As before it all feels well built and has a level of quality that old Astras could only dream of. Higher grade models also now get fantastically supportive and comfortable “AGR” ergonomic seats.
The media system is also new and stands out as particularly slick-operating and good-looking among its mainstream rivals. Lower-spec cars get a seven-inch screen without navigation while top-of-the-range models get the Insignia’s eight-inch internet connected navigation setup. Every version gets smartphone mirroring.
Pricing for the Astra starts at £19,090 as part of a “simplified” range that still features seven different models.
Alloys are standard, as is cruise control and air conditioning - with electronic climate control on pricier models. SRi models and upwards get the excellent seats, LED headlights, and an improved front camera with traffic sign recognition.
Push all the way up to the Focus Vignale-rivalling Ultimate Nav - starting at £26,755 - and you’ll get heated leather seats front and rear, a heated steering wheel and front windscreen, a Bose sound system, front and rear parking sensors and rear camera, wireless phone charging and Intellilux matrix LED lighting - the only car in its class with this smart dipped-beam technology.
The Astra’s refresh is hardly groundbreaking. That’s no surprise since this is a stop-gap before the all-new model arrives but where it has changed, it’s for the better.
The new engines are an improvement and offer business buyers (that’s most of the Astra’s market) some real savings over rivals. For private customers, though, their fuel economy is nothing special and they lack the responsiveness of many rivals.
Changes to the interior and specification also keep the Astra competitive but this is a tough segment and it does little to make itself stand out. If you’re looking for a straightforward, competent family hatch, the Astra is worthy of consideration but, then, so are several other models.
Vauxhall Astra Elite Nav
Price: From £26,715 (£28,395 as tested); Engine: 1.5-litre, four-cylinder, diesel; Power: 120bhp; Torque: 210lb/ft; Transmission: Nine-speed automatic; Top speed: 127mph; 0-60mph: 10 seconds; Economy: 56.5mpg; CO2 emissions: 131-132g/km