Recent news that Ford is killing off the Focus - the Vauxhall Astra’s long-time nemesis - must have been music to Vauxhall bosses’ ears, especially in the same year that they launched this all-new and much improved version of its family hatchback. There’s still the small matter of the Volkswagen Golf, the Honda Civic and the Peugeot 308 and Citroen C4, both of which share a platform with the Astra, but it gives Vauxhall more of a chance in the still-competitive segment.
Although it shares its platform, engines and a lot of tech with them, the Astra still doesn’t have either the premium flair of the 308 or the eye-catching quirkiness of the C4. Nonetheless, it’s a fairly handsome thing, especially in our test car’s combination of dark grey bodywork and gloss black wheels and trim, which emphasise and enhance the modern “Vizor” grille front end and low, broad stance. The decision to go with a few slim details in the body panels and lighting gives it definition without feeling fussy.
While black-on-grey works for the exterior, a similar colour scheme inside means the Astra feels a little gloomy and the whole cabin feels like a mixture of good and bad. There’s a clear and logical layout of the main controls with just the right number of physical switches for key functions along with two clear 10-inch screens for instruments and media/navigation. It feels more well thought out than the Focus and less buttonless hellscape than the Golf. However, decent quality finishes in some places mix with some dubious plastics elsewhere, leaving the Astra trailing rivals like the Mazada3 and even the related Peugeot 308.
Like the 308, space for the driver is generous but rear leg and headroom is no more than average for the class. Otherwise, there’s a good use of the available space, with practical storage solutions and a 422-litre boot that puts it some way ahead of most rivals.
A hot plug-in hybrid GSe version of the Astra is on its way offering 222bhp and a retuned chassis. However, in the meantime you can have a 178bhp PHEV, 128bhp diesel or the straightforward 1.2-litre petrol engine we’ve been testing. It’s one of those engines that seems to crop up just about everywhere but with good reason, it’s a rock solid unit that over delivers on its on-paper stats. There’s a detuned 108bhp version but we’ve been driving the 128bhp which offers a sensible balance between performance and economy. There’s a reasonable responsiveness at lower speeds, despite a 10-second 0-62mph time, and the quoted 50mpg is perfectly achievable. The three-cylinder can get rowdy under hard acceleration but the Astra’s impressive noise insulation means the intrusion is never too serious or long-lasting.
Part of the brief for this new Astra was to be more comfortable and more dynamic than the lacklustre seventh generation and there’s no doubt that it achieves that. It rides and handles far better, with decent body control and grip and relatively quick steering. However, more attention was clearly given to the comfort side of the equation than dynamism. There’s little in the way of steering feedback and the damping setup is more relaxed than something like a Focus or Mazda3, meaning impressive ride quality but slightly dulled responsiveness.
While the GSe will hopefully bring the actual sporty performance, the GS Line is all about sporty looks and decent level of equipment. So the black Vizor grille, wheels and trim are part of a package that also included dark tinted rear glass, bigger body kit and sports pedals. Although mid-spec, GS Line also brings impressive equipment levels for its £29,000 price, including adaptive cruise control, auto-dipping LED headlights, wireless phone mirroring and heated seats and steering wheel, along with seats approved by Germany’s Campaign for Healthier Backs.
That’s a decent spec for the money but it’s not streets ahead of rivals, which rather sums up the Astra. This new model is a real progression from its predecessor, with good looks, excellent comfort, a decent engine and comprehensive equipment levels. But those improvements bring this famous name in line with its key rivals rather than launching it beyond them.
Vauxhall Astra GS Line
Price: £28,710 (£29,310 as tested); Engine: 1.2-litre, three-cylinder, turbo, petrol; Power: 128bhp; ; Torque: 169lb ft; Transmission: Eight-speed automatic; Top speed: 130mph; 0-62mph: 9.7 seconds; Economy: 48.7-50.4mpg; CO2 emissions: 125-131g/km