2007 Vauxhall Astra 1.6 SXi 5dr (GB)

Received wisdom will tell you that the Ford Focus is still the car to beat in the highly competitive medium-sized hatchback market, offering a range of virtues from class-leading steering and handling, willing performance, good gear change, decent build quality, comfort, enough space, competitive pricing and ready availability of dealers. Whilst it is true that in the UK market, it has been the top selling car in its segment since inception, it does certainly does not have the market all its own way. Taking Europe as a whole, and especially when the sizeable German market is added to the final count, it loses out to GM’s Astra by a surprising margin. Even in the UK, the battle between Focus and Astra remains heated and bloody. So, it was with some interest that, nearly 10 years after I last drove one, I managed to get my hands on an Astra, to test out the latest model. The test car was a 1.6 SXi, a model pitched somewhere in the middle of the range in terms of engine size and power, and trim levels.

I picked the car up in the dark, in the Bristol rush hour, and in the pouring rain, and the first task was simply to get home. So, one of those tough tests on how intuitive the car was going to be, to get everything adjusted, and to be able to drive an unfamiliar vehicle in traffic. The Astra passed this with flying colours. A simple set of (manual) adjustments to the seat and steering column had me sitting comfortably, set the mirrors so they allowed me to see out of the car, find the light switch and off I set. Just as, so they say, you form your first impressions of a person in the first 30 seconds after meeting, so it can be with cars, and I did indeed form many impressions as I made my way all of 8 miles, to home.

Performance first. 1.6 litres is almost below average now for a car of this size, yet the Ecotec engine installed in the Astra certainly felt well up to the task of propulsion. Without a direct comparison, it’s hard to be sure, but my very subjective impression is that it is just that little bit more eager and willing than the equivalent Ford engine. Certainly it revs well, and smoothly, and there were no issues when a sudden burst of acceleration was called in the cut and thrust of driving across a wet city in a Friday rush hour, nor of joining a busy motorway, and then keeping up with the flow. At motorway cruising speed, the engine is quiet and subdued, and even when you put your foot down for a little more “oomph”, it does the job in a fuss-free manner. This is all helped by a cleanly changing gearbox, which allows you to slot the lever between the gears with precision, without any feeling of baulkiness. Slightly surprisingly, the lever itself did seem to be mounted a little too far back. Now, granted I have short legs, so sit well forward, but this used to be a GM problem with the early front wheel drive Cavaliers and Astras, and although nothing like as pronounced as it used to be in those cars, the placement did not feel absolutely ideal. However, it was not a real issue, and is doubtless something with which you could become very familiar very quickly, and would doubtless cease even to notice.

Other dynamic attributes gave little cause for concern or criticism, either. Again, without a direct comparison, it is hard to be sure, but I would be inclined to say that whereas the Ford just loses out on the engine, it just wins on steering and handling. The steering is certainly light, but it felt quite precise, and from what I could learn about the handling from a couple of sweeping curves off the motorway, and progressing around roundabouts, it seemed that nothing is untoward in this respect. The Astra rides quite comfortably, and there were no issues with the brakes.

Cars in this class can live or die not so much by their dynamics as by what they are like inside, and how practical they are. As a five seater, mid sized hatchback, with a fairly upright rear hatch, you’d expect decent space for people and luggage, and you will not be disappointed. There is ample space in the rear seats, and the boot is a decent size, though the loading slot is narrower than on some cars, because of the horizontal stacking of the rear lights. I was slightly surprised to find that, as far as I could tell, when the rear seats are folded, the rear cushion stays in situ, which means that there is no barrier to the front seats, and also that the extended load area has a pronounced slope upwards. However, in this mode, there is a cavernous amount of room for extra luggage.

The cabin of the car is well finished, with good quality soft-touch plastics used on the dashboard. The dash itself is very cleanly laid out, with just three instruments in the main binnacle. I was slightly apprehensive of the dreaded “one-touch” column stalks, but actually this time had no issues with them at all, even managing to switch off the rear wiper without splashing the rear screen with washer fluid. Though, given the propensity of the rear of the car to suck up the road filth, this would have been less of an issue on a day such as the one when the test took place. Both the indicator and wiper controls had a positive click so you could tell you were turning them off by flicking them in the same direction as you used to turn them on. I still think that this is a solution to a problem that was not really there, but at least the solution is usable! Only other comment about the interior concerns the rather low mounting of the air conditioning controls, which are set right at the bottom of the dashboard, but again, this is doubtless something which would quickly become an non-issue, and at least they were both intuitive to use, and effective at keeping me warm, and the car demisted on a cold and wet morning, and then one where the sun was trying to shine through the clouds.

Summarising, then, there don’t appear to be any significant weak points with the Astra. Whether you’d prefer it to the Focus may simply come down to personal preference, who would do you a better deal and which brand has the more accessible dealer. The slightly sharper steering and handling of the Focus may have to be traded against the slightly better engine of the Astra. A different comparison point – the diesel models, for instance, may even give you a different result.

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