Rather like successive iterations of the Starship Enterprise, the Vauxhall Astra has changed beyond all recognition over the years. The last version was a rather frumpy hatch that was beaten into submission by the superiority of the last Ford Focus; dull to look at, dull to drive and destined forever to be the sort of car you’d be dismayed to find is your latest fleet or rental car. Before that a kind of shatchback with some vague stab at the classic ‘three boxes’ saloon shape and before that a genuinely crap car.
I feel like I’ve driven more Astras than any other car over the last few years. I would guess that I’ve driven just about every version of this current Astra, many iterations of the previous model and about half a dozen oddities from Vauxhall’s heritage collection at a selection of launches and a recent trip to the heritage fleet in Luton. Twintops, Triple 8s, VXRs, GTCs, three-doors, five-doors. It’s only a surprise there’s no genuine saloon; the Jetta to GM’s Golf. In an idle moment I once waded through the CAP data to see how many derivatives there were (body styles, specs and engines) – the sum was awe-inspiring.
The first time I drove the Mark 6 Astra was a quick trip out in a 113bhp 1.6-itre petrol – a longserving General Motors lump that always feels too weak and insipid. The next time I took one out is was with one of the General’s impressive 2.0-litre turbodiesels and the difference was staggering – I revised my opinion of the car significantly, possibly accompanied by appropriately raised eyebrows and a chin being stroked. One of the first reviews of the Audi R8 I read concluded with a report on all the assembled journos quietly nodding their appreciation. Perhaps I did something similar, in a car-park in Huddersfield.
Having since driven the GTC up two of Britain’s more exacting hillclimbs (fourth last) and the VXR around Rockingham (third last) in my undistinguished motorsports career I can vouch for the superiority of their respective engines, even if the latter is compromised by a little too much power. My most recent experience with an Astra came in the form of the uprated 177bhp 1.6 petrol and, oddly, it’s a bit of a cracker.
My point is this. It’s easy to judge a car on its engine – I do it all the time as, presumably, do most of us who enjoy giving our cars a thrash. But to judge a car on its engine alone is as daft as assessing a potential life partner on the quality of their digestive system. When people ask me whether a Kia cee’d or Mazda3 they’re sizing up is any good they very rarely ask me how to explain the power delivery on said model, nor do they question the suspension set-up or amount of torque and its delivery. In fact I suspect that, when I ever mention torque to the ‘not-we’ they think I’m referring to speech, as if I believe myself to be in some sort of verbal communion with the car I’m waffling on about.
Car buyers don’t give two hoots about these things. In my extensive research into the subject (remembering what people ask me) I suggest the following priorities of roughly 97 per cent of the car-buying population comes down to list price, running costs, safety, kit and styling. Acceleration is somewhat down the list, slightly ahead of ‘free floor mats’ and ‘colour of dipstick’.
Vauxhall has clearly thought about this – the SRi looks really good with a lovely red paintjob and massive alloy wheels that totally ruin the ride, although the suspension means that it can handle some abuse. The interior looks good too – it’s another car that makes me question the supposed superiority of Volkswagen in this sector. So, Vauxhall has that one ticked off.
The engine too, in theory. While responsive it’s the suggested combined fuel economy of almost 40mpg that should put it on the radars of people who look at running costs. But it doesn’t quite stack up – as few official mileages do – in the real world. I’d guess somewhere around 33mpg is more likely and who buys a car with 180bhp to pootle around at 67mph? This touches on some doubts I have surrounding the Ecoboosts of this world – there’s a cognitive dissonance for me with these petrols that can be sporty and economical; will any driver be able to balance the two? I’m willing to believe that they’re either / or. But both? It doesn’t seem likely.
I suspect that, regardless, many people will take to the Astra in its 1.6 180PS SRi guise – it’s a car that looks nice, apparently offers decent running costs (though the fact that CO2 doesn’t sneak under 160g/km is a puzzler), is safe and drives well. It has its problems – the boot is fairly small for the sector, the large alloys look great but ruin the ride and the fuel economy flatters to deceive.
But will it matter? I don’t think it will. Donald Rumsfeld made a rod for his own back when he talked of unknown unknowns – the things ‘we don’t know that we don’t know’. In the case of car buying ignorance is frequently bliss. Will it matter to you that you’re not getting 41.5mpg or have a car that’s quite the match of sector leaders in terms of ride/handling balance? Of course not, you’ll have a shiny new car that won’t kill you, fits in five and makes a nice noise when you go fast.
If not, well there are plenty of other Astras out there to suit your wallet, your self-image and your day-to-day needs. In that sense buying a car becomes not just a matter of which manufacturer and model, but which derivative within a particular range. There’s probably an Astra to suit virtually ever car-buyer out there. Among the specs and engines and body styles an Astra, if you will, with your name on it.
Astra SRi Hatchback 1.6 Turbo 16v (180PS)
Engine: 178bhp 1.6-litre 4cyl petrol
CO2 Emissions: 160 g/km
Combined Fuel Economy: 41.5mpg
0-60: 7.9 seconds
Annual Road Tax: £170