What is it? Seventh generation of Vauxhall’s familiar family hatch.
Key features: Significant weight loss, upgraded interior, improved dynamics.
Our view: A combination of lower weight, new technology and higher quality in the latest Vauxhall Astra will ensure that the fight for supremacy in the family hatch segment remains close.
Not only is the Astra built in the UK, at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant on Merseyside, but it attracts more British buyers than in any other European market.
Speaking at the UK launch event of the latest, seventh-generation model at Ellesmere Port, Vauxhall’s managing director Tim Tozer (in what turns out to be his last public statement on behalf of the brand) says that the launch of a new Astra, every five years or so, is a seminal moment for the British car industry.
“It is a very important car for us – this nameplate is the heartland of Vauxhall, in the C segment where we have been very well represented for many years,” Tozer adds.
Vauxhall’s problem is that the Astra’s prime rivals in said C or family hatch segment are two of Britain’s biggest-selling cars – the Ford Focus and the Volkswagen Golf. With both having been renewed recently, the Astra has sat firmly in third spot behind them, selling around 25,000 examples a year less than the Focus, 13,000 behind the Golf.
Vauxhall both wants and believes it can become the C segment market leader, which seems a tall order. The result is an all-new five-door Astra, with a Sports Tourer (estate) unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show and joining the hatch in showrooms early next year. The current three-door GTC, launched sometime after the last five-door and the basis of the brand’s performance VXR models, will continue on sale for some time yet.
The designers claim to have taken a clean-sheet approach in producing the new Astra, and the most significant changes are in weight – cut by up to 200kg over the outgoing car, 130 on average.
What Vauxhall’s head of carline Stuart Harris describes as “some clever packaging” has resulted in a car that is almost 50mm shorter and 25mm lower than its predecessor, and very unusually with a wheelbase reduced by 20mm – but with more interior space. Rear legroom, for example, is improved by 35mm.
These reduced dimensions, and the advantages of building on GM’s latest modular vehicle architecture, enables some serious weight savings. The body in white alone loses 77kg, now weighing 280kg, while another 50kg is shaved from the chassis primarily through use of ultra high-strength steels and more compact subframes.
New engines aid the diet – the 1.4-litre EcoTech petrol unit’s aluminium block, for example, saving 10kg over its cast-iron predecessor. With less mass to act on the brakes can be smaller, adding further weight savings, as do the wheels. Reversing an industry trend Astra wheel sizes are reduced on average by an inch – a previous ‘large-wheel’ policy meant less popular tyre sizes and higher whole-life costs for the fleet customers that make up almost three quarters of all Vauxhall Astra sales.
The car certainly doesn’t appear shorter than its predecessor. The team under head of design Mark Adams has produced a purposeful exterior presence, from the way the bonnet creases sweep down to merge with the redesigned grille and headlamps in a strong point, to the flowing roof line and two-tone rear pillar. The car looks low and sleek, and indeed is the most aerodynamic five-door hatch yet produced by Vauxhall, its drag coefficient cut from 0.325 to 0.285, with consequent efficiency improvements.
Vauxhall knew that to seriously take on the Focus, the Astra needed a better interior, and much has been done. The quality of fit and finish is up, but these days no manufacturer can expect to be found wanting in this area.
More pleasingly the controls are much more logically placed – those dealing with vehicle functions sit in close proximity to the gear lever, the climate control in the lower half of the centre console, and the infotainment on the top half, surrounding a new, stylish touchscreen with its glass running right to the edges – no unattractive plastic frames here.
The seven-strong engine line-up, four petrol and three diesel, is described as entirely ‘new generation’ and indicative of Vauxhall’s powertrain offensive that will bring 17 new units to market by 2018.
The Astra choice combines units recently introduced to the range, such as the 1.6-litre ‘whisper diesel’ that in its lowest 109bhp and EcoFlex form offers very fleet-friendly combined cycle fuel economy of 91.2mpg and emissions of 82g/km, and completely new units, notably the 1.4-litre petrol with 148bhp.
On the launch event The Car Expert tried both the 134bhp version of the whisper diesel, and the 1.4-litre petrol, and while the efficiency of the diesel was expected, it was the petrol unit that made the most impression, with its refined yet potent power.
Combine this eager power with a chassis which has distinctly less in terms of poundage to keep upright, and the new Astra becomes a confidence-inducing, fun car to drive, particularly on challenging roads such as on the launch test route in Snowdonia. It’s still not quite as dynamically impressive as the Focus, the standard bearer for chassis excellence, but the Vauxhall runs the Ford more closely than it has ever done.
Vauxhall believes too that the Astra will appeal on its equipment, and particularly technology that has handily come to market just in time to feature first on the Vauxhall. Indicative of this is the Intellilink infotainment system that integrates Apple Carplay and Android Auto smartphones. Simply by plugging into a USB socket the centre console touchscreen becomes a replica of the phone, with various Apps available for use through the car’s systems.
The Vauxhall Astra also debuts GM’s OnStar service in the UK, which by a touch of a button connects the driver to an operator in a control centre who can offer services ranging from destination assistance to emergency help and even diagnosing a fault in the car.
Outside perhaps the most impressive innovation are the glare-free matrix LED headlamps, dubbed Intellilux and camera controlled to activate high-beam and cornering functions whenever other traffic allows. They provide illumination 40 to 50 metres earlier – giving the driver a possibly crucial 1.5 seconds more time to react to situations unfolding ahead of them.
Tim Tozer states that the new Vauxhall Astra raises the bar in the sector, and it is certainly a major advance over its predecessor. Its combination of lower weight, new tech and higher quality will ensure that the fight for supremacy in the family hatch segment remains too close to call.
Vauxhall Astra – key specifications
Models Tested: Vauxhall Astra Elite Nav 1.4i 150PS Turbo, 1.6 CDTi 136PS S/S
On Sale: Showroom launch 24th October 2015.
Range price: £15,295-£22,815.
Insurance groups : TBA.
Engines: Petrol 1.0, 1.4×3, 1.6. Diesel 1.6×3.
Power (bhp): 104, 99/123/148, 197. 109/134/157.
Torque (lb/ft): 125, 95/180/180/206. 221/236/258.
0-62mph (sec): 10.5, 11.6/8.6/7.8, 7.3. 10.3/9.0/8.0.
Top speed (mph): 124, 115/127/134, 146. 121/127/137.
Fuel economy (combined, mpg): 65.7, 53.3/52.3/51.4, 45.6. 78.5/76.3/69.3.
CO2 emissions (g/km): 99, 124/102/128, 146. 95/99/108.
Key rivals: Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf, Peugeot 308.
Test Date: September 2015.
* All figures with 16in wheel where specified, not including Easytronic models.