In the UK market, for almost 40 years, the battle for sales supremacy of what is known as the C-segment, or also the medium-sized family car, has been between Ford and Vauxhall. Both moved over to front wheel drive and hatchback bodies within a few months of each other in 1980 and ever since they have vied with each other for the affections, and sales, of company car drivers and those making a private purchase alike. There have been times when one product was clearly superior to the other. In the early days of this rivalry, the Astra was a clear winner to many, with much more refined and potent engines, and better suspension, but by the time that the Escort gave way to the Focus, the boot was on the proverbial other foot, with the Focus wowing everyone for just about everything and the Astra coming across was a rather stodgy if worthy alternative. With the odd exception, it is the Ford-badged product which has claimed the sales leadership over its GM rival on a consistent basis throughout this time. Look across the rest of Europe, though, and Astra sales – helped up by strong market acceptance in Germany, the region’s largest car market – have ensure that the Ford has been in sales catch-up mode. Neither, of course, can get close to the supremacy of the VW Golf, which continues to dominate the class just as convincingly in 2018 as it has done for decades and in recent years its sales volume in the UK have grown steadily, such that sales supremacy for this market sector is no longer the two-horse race that it used to be. And let’s not forget that this market sector, which attracts huge volume, is replete with alternatives from pretty much every volume manufacturer, with strong competition coming from the Kia Cee’d and Hyundai i30, the French trio of Megane, Peugeot 308 and Citroen C4, as well as the platform-shared alternatives from the VW Group, the Seat Leon, Skoda Octavia and the posher Audi A3, and let’s not forget the Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, Honda Civic and slightly oddball Subaru Legacy. So there’s lots of choice and almost without exception, a plethora of excellent cars. The typical model cycle for all of them is between 6 and 7 years. Opel/Vauxhall launched a new Astra, the seventh generation to bear the name, at the 2015 Frankfurt Show, with sales starting a few weeks later. All-new, with sharper-edged styling, a significant weight reduction over its predecessor, and a range of new engines underpinned by a revised platform, it was an attempt to try to better that long list of rivals. Initial reviews were pretty positive, and its maker must have been delighted when it was accoladed as “Car of the Year” in 2016, though as has been proved countless times over the years, this is no guarantee of commercial success. Sales have been strong, but – no doubt to Opel-Vauxhall’s chagrin – no stronger than those of its predecessor. Even so it is is a common sight on our roads, so a car I was keen to try. It’ has in fact been some time since I last drove any Astra. I did experience a number of different versions of the fifth generation car in the period 2007 – 9 and at the time concluded that the car was the equal of the Focus, beating it in some areas but bested by the Ford in others, so meaning that personal choice as to which attributes mattered most would probably be the order of the day when it came to picking between them. But then the supply of Astra models in the rental fleets seemed to dry up and the sixth generation car eluded me completely, despite having a six year production life. However, recently Hertz in the UK seem to have signed a new deal with Vauxhall for cars other than the Corsa and Mokka, so there were quite a few of them parked up at their Heathrow location when I arrived back in the UK from my Spring 2018 US trip, so I was pleased to be allocated one and keen to see how it compares not just to its closest rival from Ford, but also with other cars in the class.
The car I received was petrol powered and had the 1.4 Turbo engine with 125 bhp, which seems quite a lot for a car of this size, but when you remember how heavy cars have become, you realise that it is probably about what is needed, and indeed what is available from most of the Astra’s rivals these days. This engine was newly developed for the Astra, and it follows the now common trend of reduced capacity but higher output. It is certainly smooth and refined, but truth be told, this Astra was not that rapid. It was not embarrassed by any means, but it never felt particularly brisk. Blame the gearing for that, which has clearly been chosen to help with the all-important CO2 emissions number and fuel economy. As with most modern petrol engines, you will need to use the gears – of which there are six forward ones – a lot to get the best out of the car. That proved to be no particular hardship as the lever moved between ratios very cleanly, though I did find the shape of the gearknob rather awkward making it less than natural to hold. First gear was very short, but once underway in some of the middle gears, the ample quantities of torque kicked in and the car would do mid-range acceleration quite impressively. Sixth gear is definitely intended for steady speed cruising, and with reduced revs and low levels of engine noise, it did mean that the Astra was quite restful cruising on the motorway as I headed home. I kept the car for a few days and covered a total of 457 miles, during which time it consumed 54 litres, which computes to 38 42 mpg, a very respectable result.
Whilst the Astra has often bested the Ford for its engines, ever since the arrival of the Focus, it has never beaten it on steering and handling, and that remains the case with this generation model, even though this one was apparently developed extensively on UK roads, The steering is light and lacks that precise feel that so characterises the Ford, though in comparison with other cars in the class, it is much more on an even footing with them. Putting the car into Sport mode did add a little more feel to the steering, and I could not really discern any penalty for so doing. Otherwise, you get typical predictable front wheel drive handling, with lots of grip and on the road the ability to corner tidily and quite enthusiastically. Ultimately, no doubt the car would understeer, but that was not really evident the way I was able to drive it. More importantly, the ride was compliant, making the car comfortable on the varied and often poor surfaces of our road network. The brakes seemed to need quite a firm push before they became effective. A conventional pull-up handbrake is fitted between the seats, an increasingly rare feature in cars of this class. Visibility was about as good, or bad, as you find in modern cars with their raked screens and thick pillars. In the Astra’s case, the C pillars are very wide, so over the shoulder visibility at oblique junctions was particularly poor. These days the focus (no pun intended) seems to be more on electronic safety aids, and this car featured Lane Departure Warning, and Lane Keep Assist, this last making the steering feel rather sticky as it tried to rebuke you for what it thought was something you had had done wrong.
There’s a definite GM Europe family feel to the Interior. The overall effect is what you would call neat, without being unduly fussy. It does not particularly ooze class even though the materials used are at least as good as you will find in most of the Astra’s direct rivals. The dash moulding lines up well with the door casings and it is made of reasonably soft touch plastic with a pleasant texture and gloss black inlays and some chrome highlighters. This trim of the Astra has a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearknob. The design is cohesive suggesting that everything that features was thought about at the design stage. There is a raised hump in front of the driver to house the instruments. Two large dials for speedometer and rev counter are to the outer sides of the cluster with smaller dials for with fuel level and water temperature inset between them and above a digital display area with trip computer data which you cycle through using a button on the left hand column stalk. The steering wheel looks rather busy, with plenty of buttons there. Audio repeater functions and cruise control are operated from here. Two chunky column stalks are used for indicators and wipers, whilst the lights operate from a rotary dial on the dash to the right of the wheel. The upper centre of the dash contains the 7″ colour touch screen used for the IntelliLink infotainment system. There are a limited number of buttons immediately below the unit. The touch screen was easy to use and the system was generally pretty responsive. All versions of this generation Astra include a DAB radio function and as presented in SRi trim there is also a 4G LTE wifi hotspot which allows it to offer OnStar functionality. Below this are two rotary dials and a row of switches for the air conditioning system. This did not seem that effective, and the fan got rather noisy in operation.
Seat upholstery in this trim is a kind of patterned cloth typical of mid-market models, which whilst not that luxurious feeling is perfectly serviceable. Seat adjustment is manual, with height adjustment included and there is a turn knob on the side of the seat for continuous adjustment of backrest rake. The steering wheel telescopes in and out as well as up and down.. I quickly found the right driving position to suit my relative proportions and found the seat to be comfortable when perched on it for a couple of hours.
This generation Astra is slightly shorter than its predecessor, and also a bit lower, but this has not had any detrimental effect on rear leg room which is within an inch or so identical to that which you will find in any of the Astra’s direct rivals, and slightly more generous than its immediate predecessor. Pronounced cut outs in the rear of the front seats help to liberate that bit of extra room. If the front seats are set well back, leg room is just about adequate, but set them well forward and there is ample space for even the quite tall. There is not much of a central tunnel to get in the way of a middle seat occupant and the car is just about wide enough to accommodate someone here. Headroom was sufficient such that my head did not quite touch the rooflining. The rising side window line may make smaller children feel a little claustrophobic if sat here.
The Astra has a deep boot of regular shape, slightly larger than that of the Focus and slightly smaller than in a Golf. and the floor is slightly ribbed, the idea being to stop items sliding around There is no spare wheel, just a tyre repair kit, so there’s not really any place under the boot floor for any bits and pieces. More luggage space can be created by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests down. The resulting load bay whilst much longer is. however, not flat. Inside the cabin there are plenty of different places for odds and ends, but none of them very big. There is a modest glovebox, a lidded bin over the driver’s right knee, a small recess in the lower centre of the dash, an armrest cubby and a pair of cup holders in the centre console. All four doors have pockets on them, though these are all on the small side and there are map pockets in the back of the front seats.
As you might expect, the Astra is available in a wide variety of different versions. The number of body styles has been reduced, so it is now only a five door hatch or a five door estate. But factor in the engines and trims, and there’s a long list of possibilities. The Astra’s engine line-up starts with a 99bhp 1.4-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine, followed by a 103bhp three-cylinder, one-litre unit ahead of a couple of turbocharged 1.4-litre blocks producing 123bhp and 148bhp respectively. The petrol range is rounded off with a 198bhp turbo-boosted 1.6-litre engine. The diesel range consists of an 1.6-litre unit in numerous outputs – 108bhp, 134bhp and 158bhp – which is also twin-turbocharged. Despite Vauxhall saying that they had simplified the Astra model range with the launch of this generation car, it remains complex with lots of trim levels, and sub variants of most of them. The chassis settings are the same on all them, with the exception of the size of the wheels fitted. Design is the entry level version, then comes TechLine, aimed at the business user, followed by SRi and then Elite as the main ones but there are all manner of sub-versions of most of them. Vauxhall made sure that they all come well equipped. Even entry-level Design models include 16″ alloy wheels, air con, cruise control, daytime running lights and the Intellilink infotainment system. Operated through a seven-inch touchscreen on the centre console, this includes DAB radio, Bluetooth, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration – meaning, of course, you don’t have to worry about paying for a sat nav-equipped model as you can simply pipe the app on your phone through the screen. Popular with many buyers is the SRI trim as worn by my test car. Notable among its features are larger 17″ alloys. front fog lights, sportier seats the OnStar suite of connected services, including wi-fi and emergency crash response. But be warned that Vauxhall intends to shut down these services after the end of 2020. The SRI also includes a front camera system with autonomous emergency braking, and Astra safety standards rate highly – the car earned a top five-star rating when crash-tested by EuroNCAP in 2015, and this was without the AEB taken into account as it was not standard equipment. SRi models include a Sport mode setting which allows you to sharpen up the steering and throttle response. The Elite trim adds luxuries including electrically folding mirrors, dual-zone climate control and heated front seats. Sub-variants add an integration Navigation system and these feature a slightly larger 8″ display screen . There are also VX-Line trims which try to add a bit of a sporting flair to the appearance, though nothing changes mechanically.
At the time of this Astra’s launch, Vauxhall said that around a quarter of all UK motorists have at some time in their motoring history owned or driven an Astra for a significant period of time. It has consistently offered an affordable, competent and pleasant experience, if somewhat lacking in excitement. And on the evidence of this test, the seventh generation is unlikely to see any deviation from that. This is almost certainly the “best” Astra yet, with no serious weaknesses. But it has to compete in a class where similar levels of excellence are the norm, so it is perhaps not a surprise that it has not been able to improve its sales position relative to its rivals. I’ve not yet driven the most significant of all of these, the seventh generation Golf, but I have sampled pretty much all of the others, and I would really struggle to choose between them. What I can conclude is that the latest Astra is a very capable if not that exciting a car. If you find one of these at the rental car agency – and the chances are quite high, at present, if that company is Hertz – then you should not be worried, as it is perfectly pleasant. Just don’t see the SRi badging and think that this will be the sporting treat that it used to mean in the 1980s.