Vauxhall Astra 1.7 CDTI

Model/Engine size: 1.7-litre
Fuel: Diesel
Fuel economy combined: 60.1 mpg

The all-new Vauxhall Astra is an incredibly important car for the company, and it has to show a huge leap forward – so does it achieve the necessary progress?

As if to prove this point, the launch event for the new Astra starts with a drive to the Ellesmere Port factory in one of the current Astras. This reminds you that the current car’s dynamics are poor, and the dashboard in particular is dreadful. It’s Britain’s best-selling UK-built car and one that is almost always seen in the top three sales listings, but you wonder how.

Once at the factory, before driving away in one of the brand new Astras, there is a presentation from plant boss Tom Schmidt which emphasises how the Cheshire factory had to bid for the new Astra, and its efficiency, safety record and environmental credentials were key factors in why it won.

For 46 years, the Ellesmere Port factory has been the manufacturing home of every compact class of Vauxhall sold in the UK, starting with the Viva HA in 1963. There is even talk of Ellesmere Port building the Ampera – the forthcoming ‘electric car powered by petrol’ – although on the day of the Astra launch event, talks were underway about which of GM’s European plants should close.

Schmidt, an American, has worked in GM’s plants around the world, but he seems genuinely impressed by the workforce at Ellesmere Port. He has to believe that the outcome of the talks with Magna will see the efforts of the plant and its workers rewarded by continuing to build cars into the future.

The new Astra is built on GM’s new global car platform, so it needs to be excellent. From a green perspective, the new Astra has a 13.3 per cent improvement in CO2 levels across the range. A 109g/km ecoFLEX model is due in spring 2010.

In total there will be a range of eight engines and five trim levels, but the model we drove first was the 1.7 CDTI. This model comes with either 110ps or 125ps, but both emit 124g/km CO2, equating to 60.1mpg – so it’s currently the lowest emission model. This comes with a six-speed gearbox as standard.

The first thing that strikes you is that the new Astra is a good-looking car. Although retaining a flavour of the current Astra around the front grille, the rest of the car is a modern, smooth, well-designed product that has a good stance on the road. There are elements that are reminiscent of other European hatchbacks, such as Fiat and SEAT influences in the rear end, however the overall package successfully achieves the step-change in image that started with the Insignia. The Astra has a similar ‘blade’ running down the side of the car, like the Insignia, but the opposite way round.

Critically, and thankfully, this new quality feel continues in the interior. The central stack is now angled out towards the gear lever at the bottom, rather than the opposite way as in the outgoing model; this means that you can actually see the controls at the bottom of the dash. But the whole interior, and its materials, is a major step forward and helps to take the Astra towards Audi interior quality, as per Vauxhall’s stated aim – but without buyers having to pay Audi prices.

During the design phase Vauxhall even conducted a customer survey to compile a list of the 20 most common items stored in cars, which turned out to be pens, coins, a flashlight, a road atlas, a parking disc, sunglasses, a wallet, paper tissues, a mobile phone, CDs, sweets, cups, magazines, newspapers, fruit, a first aid kit, a jacket, a 1.5/1.0/0.5-litre drinks bottle – and gloves. Next, the designers noted where owners wanted to keep the items and came up with practical storage solutions.

But regardless of how well the car is designed, the real test is in the way it drives, and again there is excellent news to report. The steering has been developed specially for British roads, and is lighter than the current car, but has much better feeling. Driving it through some of the best roads in Snowdonia proved that the mating of the steering and suspension results in the car handling very tidily, with an excellent ride. It doesn’t quite have the dynamic sharpness of a Focus, but the entire package feels extremely likeable to drive.

The Astra’s front and rear tracks have been increased by 56mm and 70mm respectively, while its wheelbase has been increased by 71mm, the overall effect being improved handling and ride quality, as well as more space and comfort for occupants.

Vauxhall has developed a completely new rear axle for this car. It’s called a compound crank with a Watt’s link – but never mind the technical-sounding name, the key thing is that it helps support lateral forces during cornering, and seems to do a good job.

Also available is Vauxhall’s FlexRide adaptive damping system, which adjusts the suspension character automatically depending on the driver’s needs, while also offering three programmable damper settings.

Other technical innovations include Advanced Forward Lighting (AFL+), which changes its intensity and reach to suit prevailing driving and road conditions using nine different light functions.
Finally, for the real eco-warriors amongst us, there is the option of Flex-Fix – Vauxhall’s bike carrier which slides out of the rear bumper like a draw, meaning you can drive the car to a certain location, and zero-emission cycling can then take over. There’s also FlexFloor, a moveable boot floor.

Things we don’t like? Well there’s not much, but we really aren’t fans of the Electronic Parking Brake, standard on all SE, Elite and SRi models, which replaces the conventional mechanical handbrake. This unpleasant piece of technology obviously isn’t only exclusive to the Astra.

Should you go for the 1.7 CDTI? If you’re doing mixed driving then this car makes sense. However the 2.0 CDTI model, in manual form, still manages a low 129g/km CO2. But even the petrol versions are not far behind; the 1.4 petrol also emits 129g/km. The new 1.4-litre Turbo produces 140PS and emits just 139g/km CO2, compared with the outgoing 1.8-litre engine, which produces the same power but also an extra 33g/km CO2.

So if you mostly do urban driving, then there are good, low emission petrol models to choose from.

In summary? Vauxhall has not only succeeded in producing a car that is significantly better than the outgoing model, but it should also worry competitors such as the likes of Volkswagen and Audi. We hope that this will be enough to keep the UK’s Ellesmere Port plant making both the Astra and the Ampera, rather than wasting the millions of pounds of investment that has gone into this plant.

The Astra range is comprised of five models – S, Exclusiv, SRi, SE and Elite – and prices for the new Astra start at £15,675 for the1.4-litre, 87PS Exclusiv model and rise to £23,695 for the 2.0CDTi 160PS Elite automatic.

The new Astra is in UK showrooms from December and initially will be available as a five-door hatchback only.

Fuel economy extra urban: 68.9 mpg
Fuel economy urban: 49.6 mpg
CO2 emissions: 124 g/km
Green rating: VED band D – £120
Weight: 1393 Kg
Company car tax liability (2009/10): 13%
Price: £14,195 (From £15,675 to £23,695)
Insurance group: tbc
Power: 125 bhp
Max speed: 122 mph
0-62mph: 10.7 seconds

By: Webtise
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