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The Vauxhall Astra is one of the best-looking hatchbacks, but average dynamics and performance hamper its overall appeal

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There is no more perpetual bridesmaid in the entire automotive canon than the Vauxhall Astra.

Look back as far as you like and you’ll note there’s never been a clunker since its launch in 1979. Fans will note with approval that adds up to six generations of consistent high standards across the board.

With the standard hatchback, sleek three-door GTC and practical Sport Tourer models, Vauxhall covers most bases

But in that time too there has always been something, be it a Volkswagen Golf of Ford Focus, to provide customers with an even better reason to shop elsewhere. When the class best are brilliant, being merely rather good is often not good enough.

Seemingly in tacit acknowledgement that hitherto at least the Astra has lacked the quality to compete with the very best, Vauxhall has made sure that, if nothing else, no one is going to complain about the quantity of models on sales.

Except we will: the range is utterly bewildering even for us who are meant to know a thing or two about cars, let alone typical customers who may have neither knowledge nor interest beyond a need for family transport.

There are, for instance, 10 different engine choices to make between a 1.4-litre petrol engine with 87bhp, and a twin turbo 2-litre diesel with 195bhp – and that’s not including the 280bhp VXR model.

If you think that’s daunting, consider there are a further 10 trim levels to consider, some aimed at business travellers, others at private buyers. Expression, Exclusive, Design Techline, SRi and Elite are just half of them.

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Does the And of course the Vauxhall Astra is available either as a five door hatch, a Sport Tourer estate or as a GTC which Vauxhall would like you to think of as a coupe so it can charge more for it, but to you and me is a three door hatch, albeit an uncommonly pretty one.

To detail the merits of every engine and trim option would likely swamp this website though we’d say as a broad rule of thumb that diesel is preferable to petrol for high mileage users and that models at the poles of the range – the entry level Expression and top of the line Elite are best avoided too.

The former trim is pared to the bone to give Vauxhall an attractive opening price proposition, the latter so groaning in goodies that’ll be worth very little come resale that residuals are bound to be adversely affected.

Vauxhall Astra really have the mettle to rival well-regarded alternatives like the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus? Our comprehensive road test will reveal all.

DESIGN & STYLING

Vauxhall Astra rear lights

The Astra sits on the generic GM Delta II platform, which is also used for the likes of the Chevrolet Cruze and Orlando, not to mention the Vauxhall Zafira and, in highly adapted form, the range-extender Ampera hybrid.

The platform comes with McPherson strut type front suspension and a simple torsion beam rear axle, while most of the Astra’s most able rivals from the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus to the Hyundai i30 and Kia C’eed all use fully independent multi-link rear ends.

A range of decent engines are offered, including a powerful twin-turbocharged diesel unit

However unlike many that use this platform the Astra comes with a Watts linkage through which cornering forces are transmitted, allowing engineers more scope to tune the beam for ride comfort.

It should also be noted here that three-door GTC models get a so called HiPerStrut front suspension which is still a strut but with an extra knuckle to bring the steering axis closer to the centre of the driven wheels and mitigate torque steer. GTCs also get their own, firmer suspension tune.

Physically the car is big, in volume terms the largest car among its immediate set of rivals. But whatever this gains the car in terms of perceived stature and interior space, it loses in ease of parking and manoeuvrability: there’s no real right or wrong to it, just a choice to be made depending on your priorities.

A less contentious distinguishing feature of the Astra is its styling which is attractive as a hatchback and estate and nothing less than gorgeous in three door ‘coupe’ guise.

Astras in the past have often struggled to provide a single identifying asset to provide grounds for a customer to choose one over any other car in the class, but the sleek, sculpted shape of the current generation does exactly that.

To our eyes, it makes the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus look dull and is rivalled for sheer pulchritude only by the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

INTERIOR

Vauxhall Astra dashboard

Vauxhall is not a premium brand and nor does it want to be, according to those who run the company. However the evidence that Vauxhall nevertheless wants people to consider the marque as at least a cut above the class norm is everywhere to see in the cabin. And the good news is that, in the main, it works.

The Astra offers a sound driving position, albeit with the steering wheel slightly offset to the centre of the car, with a more than adequate array of seat and steering wheel adjustments to ensure all conventionally proportioned owners will achieve a comfortable driving position without delay.

It's a smart and well-built hatchback that offers plenty of interior room

Once installed he or she will look out across an unusually attractive dash with, as you rise up through the ranges, and increasingly complex and impressive looking array of switchgear with neat chrome surrounds to create at atmosphere of elegance matched only by the latest seventh generation of Volkswagen Golf.

But problems arise when you start trying to use it all. Good looking the buttons and dials may be, easy to identify and operate when on the move they most certainly are not and in time those migrating from a Volkswagen Golf may come to yearn for the simplicity of its definitively user-friendly interface.

However interior space is first class and rivals that of cars from the class above including, awkwardly enough, the Vauxhall Insignia. The reason for all the space, particularly in the back where legroom is exceptionally generous is both the sheer size of a car over 4.4 metres long and its space efficient rear suspension design. There’s excellent oddment space on board too.

It’s a surprise, then to find such a disappointing boot on the hatchback versions: the downward swoop of the roofline means carrying capacity is limited, but there’s no excuse for such an impractically high loading lip.

Interestingly the estate, sorry, Sports Tourer is far more capacious relative to its specific rivals, offering more room seats up or down than a Ford Focus estate, if not the vast Volkswagen Golf estate.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

1.4-litre Vauxhall Astra petrol engine

With so many engines to choose between, it’s easy for your brain to become boggled by the choices available. So allow us to try to simplify things a little. The first decision is whether to go petrol or diesel and that’s often as simple as knowing how many miles you’re going to cover in the car: the more you do, the more diesel makes sense.

If however it’s a petrol Astra you’re after – and leaving the VXR model out of the deliberations – the 138bhp 1.4-litre turbo is the best engine in the range, providing convincing performance (0-62mph in 9sec, top speed 126mph) with better fuel consumption than the gutless 113bhp normally aspirated 1.6-litre engine.

Most will be happiest with either the 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol or the 1.7-litre diesel

Vauxhall however appears to know this, so doesn’t make the engine available in any Astra below the quite ritzy SE grade. If you need a cheaper petrol engine, go for the 98bhp version of the standard 1.4-litre, which provides near identical performance to the 1.6, but vastly better fuel consumption.

But most customers will through choice or circumstance end up in a diesel Astra. The temptation here is to recommend that those looking for maximum fuel returns opt for the 1.3-litre motor while those looking for a long distance cruiser find the extra for the 2-litre.

However such an approach does not stand much scrutiny. For a start the 1.3 really is overwhelmed by the weight of the Astra and performance is as limited as its 93bhp output implies. But the killer is fuel consumption that actually worse than the most frugal version of the 128bhp 1.7-litre diesel which also offers performance of an entirely different dimension as their respective 0-62mph times suggest: 13.8sec versus 10.4sec.

As for the big 2-litre, like the 1.4 Turbo it’s not available below SE specification and while its performance offers a useful step up without a disastrous plunge in fuel consumption, it’s quite a noisy engine until you’re at a steady cruise.

For us then we think the 1.7-litre diesel provides the best cocktail of refinement, response and fuel efficiency so critical to success in this class.

RIDE & HANDLING

Vauxhall Astra rear cornering

You have to hand it to Vauxhall: you’d not catch Volkswagen producing a UK-specific steering tune for the Volkswagen Golf, but this is precisely what British Astra drivers enjoy.

Then again and thanks to the limitations in the Astra’s suspension configuration already explained in the design section, there’s a lot of catching up to be done if it is even to come close to the standards now routinely expected of its twin nemeses, the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus.

The Vauxhall Astra is always a composed car to drive and it responds accurately to your inputs

In the end and regardless of which model you drive – including the GTCs with their bespoke suspension tune – it’s the same story we’ve been telling about the Astra’s dynamics relative to its rivals that we’ve been telling for years: it’s close – perhaps closer than you might expect given the raw material – but not close enough to mount a convincing challenge.

Unsurprisingly the car you’ll enjoy driving most – and excepting the VXR as a special case – is the SRi. In fact we like its firm but still compliant set up quite a lot. It makes the car feel quick, controlled and manageable on a good road, backed by unfailingly precise and well weighted steering. GTCs are better still, particularly in higher powered versions where you really do notice the reduction in torque steer.

However what all versions of the Astra fail to do is provide that same almost liquid sense of fluidity and fluency across the many differing the difficult surfaces provided by the British country roads found in a Volkswagen Golf. Also, the electric power steering while impressively accurate, lacks the feel required for a truly interactive driving experience.

And nowhere are the compromises in the car’s design felt more keenly than in its ride quality. Again it’s not bad, indeed on most surfaces the Astra is commendably comfortable. But as conditions deteriorate so too does the Astra’s ride degrade, and at a faster rate than that of the class leaders.

It never becomes unruly but while the best in this category are easily good enough to challenge standards now being set by the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, the Astra still lacks the sophistication to be able to compete at that level.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Vauxhall Astra 2009-2015

If you choose an EcoFlex 1.3 diesel with stop/start fitted, Vauxhall will tell you it’s capable of 72.4mpg, which is actually a pretty average number for such a car.

The EcoFlex 1.7-litre raises this figure to 76.3mpg, and lowers CO2 emissions to under the magic 100g/km mark – which would have been all very impressive a while back -  but is now humbled by the latest BlueMotion Volkswagen Golfs that manage official figures of 88.3mpg and 85g/km.

Good deals are available on the Astra if you dig around; be wary not to spend too much on options

The fact is that, like in so many other areas of endeavour, the Astra is little or no better than average for this class.

Among the petrol powered Vauxhall Astras, the cheaper the model the less impressive relatively speaking the its fuel consumption will be.

The cheapest 1.4 has just 85bhp and manages 51.4mpg. Compare that to its turbocharged sister that provides 138bhp at the cost of just 3.6mpg.

Residual values depend very much on what you pay for the car in the first place. Expect to be able to negotiate a substantial discount on all models save the poverty-spec, headline grabbing Expression, but expect too for it to lose more money over the course of your ownership than a Volkswagen Golf, so avoid expensive goodies that will be worthless come resale time.

VERDICT

3.5 star Vauxhall Astra

The Vauxhall Astra is a car you want to like because every time you see one, you realise what an attractive car it is.

And every time you sit in the car you are reminded that it offers both the space and the perceived quality of a car from the class above.

A fully independent rear suspension system and more involving steering might release some of the Astra's potential

But cars are for driving and those that put their best foot forward while parked in a showroom are missing this point to some considerable extent.

While we applaud its space, styling and quality, an ability to transport its occupants from one place to the next in comfort while entertaining the driver will always count for more to us.

And here the Astra lags as far behind the best as has its many previous generations. It doesn’t matter whether you judge its all round performance, economy, ride or handling, nowhere does it mount a convincing challenge for class leadership.

So a bridesmaid it stays. And until Vauxhall bites the bullet and accepts what Ford and VW had known for many years, namely that such cars simply have to have the substance to back up their style, a bridesmaid it is likely to remain for a while yet.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Vauxhall Astra 2009-2015 First drives