2019 Vauxhall Astra 1.0T 103 SRi (GB)

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There is always an element of lottery associated with rental cars, so despite what you book you are never quite sure what will be available and allocated to you. That often extends to the category or group of car that you reserved, as the rental car companies have to review what they have available against all the bookings they have got to avoid downgrading any customers, so it is not uncommon to get an upgrade for free, though is not something you should rely on or expect. And then there is the question of what cars they even have in the fleet. In the US, the answer is “almost everything that is currently on the market” but in Europe where fleets are smaller, it generally comes down to the sort of deals that the purchasing department have done with the manufacturers, some being much more eager to sell their cars this way than others. Time was in the UK that if you booked a typical hatchback in the UK you would be highly likely to get a Ford of the requisite size, and if you wanted the rival Vauxhall product, they were in short supply. That meant that there was one whole generation of Astra, for instance, that I never got to experience at all. But currently at Hertz in the UK, things are very much reversed, and there are few Ford models on fleet and a glut of Vauxhall cars. So when I booked a Group C car to allow me to get back home from London Heathrow at the end of my late summer US trip, it was indeed an Astra that was allocated to me. I’d already driven an example of the current Astra around 18 months earlier and found much to like in this former “Car of the Year” so was not entirely unhappy at getting another go in the car. Since that 2018 test, Vauxhall has updated the model, though it will take a trained eye to spot what has changed, with most of the alterations being under the bonnet with the introduction of engines from the Peugeot-Citroen family and with detailed changes to the specs. If you really know the Astra, you might just spot the visual changes which are only really evident at the front. The twin chrome lines that previously flanked the central brand badge on the grille were replaced by a single silver strip. That flows into the daytime running light elements in headlamps that with this post-’19 design feature full-LED illumination in most models. Careful scrutiny of the car told me that mine was a pre-facelift model. The paperwork told me something that the car did not, that this was a 1.0T SRi, and like all Astra hatch models of this generation it had 5 doors, the only other body style now offered being a commodious estate. Although the market shift to crossover type vehicles has reduced sales of all cars of this type, the family hatch remains a commercially significant model in every volume brand’s range, so question was how this one would stack up in 2019 in what is still a competitive market segment.

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The 1.0T engine has been offered in the eight generation Astra from the outset, included in the range as a petrol-powered but economy oriented model to sit near the bottom of a range which mostly used familiar 1.4 litre petrols in various states of tune or the GM 1.6 litre diesels. On start-up there is that characteristic 3 cylinder noise from the engine though it is more something you hear in the background rather than anything particularly dominant. It is certainly pleasingly smooth and refined and surprisingly good at powering the Astra even though 103 bhp is not a lot for a car of this size. To get the best out of it, you will need to work the engine quite hard, as is generally the case with all of these small capacity engines but if you do so the car was surprisingly lively, admittedly driven one-up. Fill the car with people and luggage and it may be a different matter. Interestingly, the quoted performance data for this car shows that it performs far better than the old school non-turbo 1.4 litre even though it only has a 4 bhp advantage. There is a Sport mode available, which did not seem to make much difference to anything, though it is supposed to crisp all the responses such as throttle and steering. These days you are quite likely to find an automatic gearbox even in cars of this type, but that was not the case here as this one was a manual. More surprisingly, it was a 5 speed manual. The gearchange quality is good, with the lever slotting cleanly between the gears. I covered 247 miles in my time with the Astra and it needed 22.6 litres to refill it, which computes to 49.6 mpg, which is a good result for a petrol powered car of this type and again, signifcantly better than the likely figures that could be achieved by the non-turbo 1.4. It also has a far lower CO2 rating.

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The Astra has always played second fiddle to the Focus when it comes to driving dynamics and although the gap has closed in recent years, it is still the case today. The steering is light and does not have as much feel as you will experience from a Focus, but it is precise enough and it does make the Vauxhall easy to drive and especially so to manoeuvre. Handling is good, though again the Ford does it better but there’s not much in it any more. This version of the Astra comes on 225/45 R17 tyres and it is clearly tuned for comfort, despite that SRi badge, with the result that the car rides well. Combine that with low noise levels and this is a refined cruiser on the motorway. The brakes were effective and the Astra is still fitted with a traditional pull-up handbrake between the seats. Visibility to the front and the sides is good, but that to the rear is somewhat restricted thanks to the thick C pillars, but generally the car was easy enough to position on the road and to park.

The interior of the Astra was much as I remembered the last one to have been. Quality and design has steadily improved on every generation of the Astra and what you get now is something far nicer than you would have experienced even a couple of generations back. There is a leather-wrapped steering wheel which is pleasant to hold and this trim version sports the currently popular gloss black inlays ad chrome detailing rings to relieve the large areas os soft-ish touch plastics. Everything fits together nicely and the overall design is quite cohesive. Instruments comprise two large dials for speedometer and rev counter with two smaller ones in the upper centre of the cluster for fuel level and water temperature leaving space for a digital display area for trip computer and other data points in the area below. All are easy to read at a glance. The rest of the design is equally conventional, Twin column stalks operate the indicators and wipers, with an auto function and there is a rotary dial on the dash to the right of the wheel for the lights also with an auto function. Cruise control and audio repeater buttons are on the steering wheel boss. The centre of the dash contains the 7″ integrated colour touch screen for the IntelliLink infotainment screen, which incorporates not just the audio system but also navigation. I find it a bit cumbersome but thankfully there are still some physical buttons rather than having to do everything through the touch interface. Below this unit are two rotary dials for the cir conditioning system.

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SRi trim means cloth upholstery and manual seat adjustment. There is plenty of that available, including an adjustable front seat cushion, so combine that with a telescoping steering wheel that goes in and out as well as up and down and I was easily able to find the driving position I wanted. The seat itself proved comfortable for a long haul up and down the M4. Space in the back is very much in line with that of the Astra’s rivals. The centre console does extend well back so a middle seat occupant might feel a bit cramped but those on either side will generally be OK, even if the front seats are set well back, with cut outs in the back of the front seats helping to make the most of the available space. Headroom was sufficient to clear my head by a couple of inches. There is no central armrest, but occupants here do get map pockets on the back of the front etas and pockets on the doors for their odds and ends. The boot is also bang on class average in size, slightly larger than that of a focus and slightly smaller than the Golf. It is square shaped but there is quite a deep sill to clear when you are loading things in and out. More space is created by dropping down the asymmetrically split rear backrests which gives a much longer load area though the resulting floor is not flat with quite a step for those folded backrests. Inside the passenger compartment there is a large glovebox, a small lidded cubby over the driver’s right knee, decently sized bins on the doors and a central armrest cubby though this is set well back and not that easy to access.

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The eighth generation Astra offers a complex range with lots of choice, so can be quite difficult to explain in simple terms. Easiest to understand are the body styles: just five door hatch ad five door estate. After that, things get complicated, or in marketing speak, there is lots of choice. The Astra’s engine line-up starts with a 99bhp 1.4-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine, followed by a 103bhp three-cylinder, 1.0T 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.

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The test car was painted in Asteroid Grey and if I was feeling cruel, I would say that this rather sums it up – competent enough but just a bit anonymous. There are no real weak points with this generation Astra, and certainly the substitution of the previous 1.4 litre with the smaller capacity and more economical 1.0 unit does not seem to have been anything to regret, but equally there is no sparkle and no real “want one” factor about this car. To an extent that is true about its rivals as well. Whereas once cars in this class were the most significant of any that a volume manufacturer produced, now the crossovers get increased focus (no pun intended!) actually the cars that remain in the class are universally competent, the Astra included, so picking between them will largely come down to personal taste and the deal you can strike. If that is at the rental car counter and they give you an Astra, even with this small engine, that is not anything to regret.

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