It’s not entirely fair. “The nearly car,” opined my driving companion of the Vauxhall Astra in which he was hurtling along quiet Lincolnshire lanes, although I disagree.
In 40 years and some three million UK sales (10 million across Europe), the Astra might not have hit the sales heights of the Ford Focus and these days is outsold by the Mini and the Mercedes-Benz A-class, but in many cases Vauxhall’s family hatchback has been more than a match for these so-called premium models and the Focus.
It’s also worth remembering that Vauxhall is a profitable company these days, which is a concept that non-premium car makers struggle with in Europe.
In case you’ve been out walking the dog for the past two years, Vauxhall used to be a Griffin-badged version of a German Opel, both companies owned by the American giant General Motors from 1929 to 2017.
Opel struggled to make money, however, having lost the faith of European buyers (particularly in its native Germany) and finding itself under fire from premium brands from above and the South Koreans from below.
It’s estimated that GM lost $20 billion in its European operations since 1999, so it decided to sell. After various stop/start rescue plans including a still-born buy-out by parts supplier Magna in 2009, Opel was finally sold to the PSA Peugeot Citroen group in 2017 (with GM continuing to pick up the sizeable tab for the pensions legacy).
So, gradually, all Opel/Vauxhall models are being moved over to PSA’s chassis platforms such as has happened with the Crossland X (PSA PF1 platform) and the Grandland X (PSA’s EMP2 platform). Not so with the current Astra J, however; the current seventh-generation model was only a couple of years old when PSA took over in 2017 and has now received a significant update, all of which was pretty much signed off when PSA signed on the dotted line.
The much simplified model line-up has some chassis and suspension tweaks, the body has been titivated for better aerodynamic performance and the engines and gearboxes are all new. The all-three-cylinder engine line-up consists of a 1.2-litre petrol turbo with 110, 130 or 145PS and a 1.4-litre 145PS three-cylinder with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) gearbox. Remarkably, all the 1.2-litre units produce just 99g/km of CO2 and the 1.4 produces 109g/km.
There’s also a European emissions-compliant, all-aluminium, 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbodiesel delivering 105PS or 122PS and available with a six-speed manual or nine-speed torque converter automatic gearbox.
With fleet buyers taking 80 per cent of all new Astras, this diesel is important. The lower-powered version is six benefit in kind (BIK) tax bands lower than its predecessor, lighter and, with RDE2 compliance, it avoids the four per cent diesel surcharge, which is going to make it a lot cheaper to run.
The Astra is Vauxhall’s second bestselling car in the UK after its Corsa supermini and buyers expect class-leading cabin equipment and connectivity, which is what they get with this new model; they’re compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, with a larger central touchscreen for the top-spec Navi Pro models. Forward-facing cameras now have pedestrian recognition software for the automatic braking system, while heated windscreens and wireless phone charging are now options.
The interior feels well put together, smart and easy to use. The new front seats are comfortable and supportive and there’s plenty of room around the passengers, with a decent amount of room in the back seats and a 370-litre boot.
Weird stuff happens when car makers buy each other out. GM’s On-Star emergency call and concierge system became standard on the Astra in 2015. Those subscriptions are now running out and won’t be renewed, which will leave a redundant button on the facia. All new models get Vauxhall’s own system known as e-call, which does approximately the same thing.
On the move, the first impression is of a fine, well-controlled ride quality. The outgoing model wasn't bad at all, but revised spring and damper rates and steering calibration have given a new fluency over bumps with a muted response to potholes and road repairs. Rival car makers struggle to achieve this kind of agility, especially with a supposedly inferior twist-beam rear axle. The Vauxhall's ride is pretty quiet, too, which this rear suspension set-up don't always bestow.
The steering is accurate and well weighted, but it doesn't provide a lot of feedback, which is a shame as the rest of the car's handling is really good. Weighing just 1,205kg, the petrol-engined car's nose tucks eagerly into bends and easing the throttle has the attitude becoming more neutral, eventually sliding gently wide – mass-market Astras shouldn't be this good to drive.
This 1.2 145PS car in Elite trim is a nice place to sit, but it's also a £26,210 family hatchback. More representative would be the SRi Nav trim, which starts at £22,595 for the 1.2-litre with 110PS, but it's hard to see why you wouldn't want to spend an extra £550 for the 145PS version of the same engine. It's a good unit, revving freely with considerable pulling power from low revs and delivering reasonable economy (remarkable economy if you creep along).
The diesel with the nine-speed automatic gearbox has the same fuel consumption as the petrol engine, although with 115kg more to haul it takes another second to get to 60mph and is 10mph slower. It feels it, too. The unit is quite vocal at idle, with lots of clanking combustion noise, although it quietens on the move.
The automatic changes beautifully between the immediate ratios, but it doesn't kick down willingly and then brays like a startled donkey. It also pushes wide in corners, not surprising of course since most of the extra weight is in the nose. You can sail this car along smoothly and with decent refinement, but compared with the sparkling 1.2 petrol it's a plodder.
Given its typical buyers, the tax advantages of the new Astra are likely to be of equal importance as its more refined ride quality – and certainly more than the fun factor introduced with these comprehensively revised models. Indeed, Vauxhall is claiming that over 80,000 miles and four years, the manual diesel model will save £1,000 over its predecessor and £1,800 cheaper over the equivalent Focus model.
The Astra range has always had one sparkling model and in this case it's the 145PS 1.2. So much so in fact that race driver training expert Rob Wilson, who coaches all manner of top flight drivers including from Formula One, reckons the new 1.2 is significantly faster than the outgoing 1.4-litre unit around the airfield circuit he uses.
It seems scarcely believable, but after spending time with Wilson, Lance Stroll, the Formula One driver with Racing Point, is thinking of buying a 1.2-litre Vauxhall Astra to join a collection of his former racing cars. I’m not sure what kind of recommendation that is, but you probably needed to know...
Vauxhall Astra Elite Nav 1.2 Turbo
TESTED 1,199cc, three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE from £23,995 (as tested £26,210)/now (cars arrive in showrooms in November)
POWER/TORQUE 143bhp @ 5,500rpm, 166lb ft @ 2,000rpm
TOP SPEED 137mph
ACCELERATION 0-60mph in 8.8sec
FUEL ECONOMY WLTP high 54.3mpg, low 51.4mpg. On test 43mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 99g/km
VED £130 first year, then £145
VERDICT This family hatchback market was once the cutting edge of car making where development cash was splurged and reputations made. These days SUVs and alternative-fuel cars are where it’s at, but non-premium hatches are still important, still sell in large numbers. With these new economical and powerful drivelines, chassis tweaks and connectivity improvements, Vauxhall’s Astra is a fitting rival to the Focus and Golf even if it doesn’t show a clear lead.
TELEGRAPH RATING Four out of five stars
Ford Focus, from £18,305
Last year's C2-platform all-new Focus is a formidable competitor, with an equally excellent three-cylinder engine (now that cooling issues have been sorted out), a new cabin, decent infotainment and connectivity and a great driving experience. Blue oval and Griffin are pretty evenly matched. You'll need to test drive both.
Volkswagen Golf, from £17,785
Europe's deservedly favourite car although the UK's bewildering driveline and trim options make it almost impossible to compare prices. By the time you get to the middle of the brochure prices have risen quickly, but in the right specification the Golf can be super-refined and a great drive. Just make sure you've got the right suspension system and options.
Peugeot 308, from £20,005
Based on PSA's lightweight yet strong EMP2 platform, the 308 exudes cabin richness and charm, although not everyone will get on with the small steering wheel which can obscure the instrument cluster. Dynamically the chassis is biased towards ride rather than ragged-edge handling, but it's a classy combination and with PSA's economical drivelines, the 308 is a top non-premium contender.
Kia Ceed, from £18,600
Revamped dynamics for this third-generation, European-built, five-door hatchback make it much more of a driver's car and the ride quality on all-independent rear suspension is good, but lags behind the best in class. What really holds the new Ceed back, however, is the old-fashioned and rather boring cabin design which Kia promised to address in the production life of this car.