Motoring journalists across the continent were very taken by the latest Vauxhall Astra hatchback when it was launched last year. Before Christmas it had already been named Scottish Car of the Year, and since then it has picked up the overall European title and a category win among UK COTY judges. It won’t win the World award, having failed to make it into the final ten, but this is still an impressive trophy haul which would cause any manufacturer to giggle with delight.
There seems no reason to doubt that the estate version, known as the Sports Tourer, will be any less well favoured. Available to order now for between £16,585 and £24,105 depending on engine and trim level, and due to appear in UK showrooms very shortly, it’s about the same size as the outgoing model, but lighter by 130kg on average and 190kg in the most extreme case. It’s also quite a bit roomier, with significantly more legroom in the rear and extra headroom all round. Being unnecessarily tall myself, and having shared one example with an equally lanky colleague, I’m happy to report that neither of us came close to touching the roof with the top of our skulls, though Vauxhall seems to have missed a trick by providing very little room for the feet of larger fellows sitting in the back.
Luggage space is up too, standing now at 540 litres with the rear seats in place and, when they’re folded down (a very simple task, as is unfolding them back up again) a highly competitive 1630 litres, or ten more than you get in a Golf Estate.
At the press launch of the previous model, Vauxhall brought along an example of the one before that, and the immediate impression was that this was the first time the company had put more than the smallest amount of thought and effort into interior design. Customer feedback suggested, however, that there were too many buttons, so this time around Vauxhall has removed most of them by transferring many of the minor controls to a touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard. The graphics are nothing like as jazzy as those you can find elsewhere, but they’re simple and clear, which to my mind is a plus point.
Equipment levels are impressive. Every Sports Tourer has air-conditioning, DAB digital radio, Bluetooth connectivity, Hill Start Assist and roof rails. The Tech Line and the Nav version of the SRi (predicted to be the choice of four out of every ten buyers all on its own) and Elite also have satellite navigation, adding £700 to the cost of the last two mentioned.
There’s good news in terms of insurance too. Nearly every model is in a lower group than the one it replaces.
The fastest version has a 197bhp 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine which can push the car up to 146mph. 0-62mph takes not much more than seven seconds if you put your mind to it. Very nice too, but more interest is likely to be shown in the 109bhp diesel of similar size. Sports Tourers fitted with it have official fuel economy of 83.1mpg and a CO2 rating of 89g/km if fitted with start/stop (a £500 extra), so running costs will be as low as could be expected of any car not wholly or partly powered by an electric motor.
This is good news for anyone who buys it, but particularly so for fleet customers, who are expected to account for 80% of the total. As far as this majority is concerned, nearly everything that could be said about the Sports Tourer has been said already. What it’s like to drive is of secondary importance at best.
But this is Roof Side Up. Of course we’re going to talk about what it’s like to drive. That’s the way we roll.
Okay, then. A loud raspberry straight away for the thick windscreen pillars and the almost cruel lack of rear window area. This is an attractive car, but its attractiveness has been created at the expense of visibility, and if you’re already a regular visitor to this site you know we’re not going to be happy about that.
It gets better, at least on the evidence of the three models we’ve driven so far. We avoided the most powerful and most economical versions mentioned above and concentrated on the 134bhp 1.6 CDTi diesel and the 148bhp 1.4 and 104bhp one-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol units instead. All are quiet, so much so in the case of the petrol variants that you can hear the power steering whooshing away when you’re manoeuvring at low speed. Even when pushed hard, noise levels are remarkably low.
The weight reduction seems to have had an odd effect. The diesel and the 1.4 give the impression that they think they’re lighter than they actually are. Both patter over uneven road surfaces and an unconcerning but still noticeable manner, as if they’re skipping across the top of the tarmac rather than pushing into it. Curiously, though, the 1.0, which is the lightest of them all, feels quite different.
Before I drove it, I thought the 1.4 was going to be my favourite. The diesel handled very well, but the 1.4 handled better, and 148bhp felt like exactly the right amount of power for the car. I almost shouted in delight while giving it large over a twisty back road and couldn’t believe that the 1.0 would surpass it.
In a way, it doesn’t. 104bhp feels a little tame after you’ve just experienced 44bhp more, though the little engine is so willing at low revs that the overall straightline performance is perfectly adequate. This is also by far the best-sounding motor in the range, with a distinctive though still muffled roar building up as you head towards 6000rpm.
The crucial point is that one-litre Sports Tourers weigh 40kg less than 1.4 turbos, and all of that reduction is at the front end. Turn-in is noticeably better as a result, and the splendid rear suspension set-up common to all Astras means that the tail follows it nicely through corners, with no suggestion that grip is about to be lost at either end at speeds I’m prepared to countenance on public roads. (There’s also a 99bhp non-turbo 1.4 engine, and although I haven’t tried that yet I’d certainly like to, since it’s 20kg lighter still.)
Although it’s a very close thing, I think the 1.0 is the one I’d choose. The almost perfect power/handling balance of the 1.4 turbo means that it’s the one I’d like to take away on a dirty weekend, but I’d rather marry the 1.0. Not that it matters in the real world, because the 109bhp diesel makes far more sense than either in terms of running costs.
The 134bhp diesel and the 148bhp 1.4 are the only engines available with automatic transmission, so far untested. If you’re happy with, and are able to use, a manual gearbox, all is well. Until quite recently, Vauxhall’s transmissions could reasonably be viewed with suspicion, but the new-generation ones offered in all current Astras have light, slick shifts, and are a pleasure to use.