Acouple of miles down the road I was tempted to get out, walk around the back and double-check that I was driving a Vauxhall Astra. I’ve driven quite a few generations of the Griffin-badged hatch and each one has fallen frustratingly short of the class standard. Frustratingly because Astras have always had stonking engines which, of course, have illuminated the chassis’ shortcomings…
Not here. This Astra SRi feels sweaet, riding with great suppleness, steering with precision and cornering with innate poise. The only thing it doesn’t have is much go, though that’s because this is the base SRi with just 138bhp from a turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol in-line four. The 178bhp 1.6 turbo (more on which in a minute) makes a much better partner for what looks and feels like a big car for its class.
Subscribe to evo magazine
If the SRi badges weren’t fitted, you wouldn’t guess it was a sporty version. The 17in alloys wear plump 215/50 Bridgestone Turanzas and there’s nothing edgy in the car’s stance. The way it moves down the road isn’t sporty in the traditional Vauxhall fast hatch way either, i.e. the ride isn’t rocky. Instead there’s fine body control, decent steering feel and weight, and wonderfully accurate and effortless responses. It’s these attributes that encourage you to press on, and when you do the balance and poise of the SRi, and the depth of its control, are impressive. The new rear axle design has transformed the car’s dynamics.
The turbocharged 1.4-litre feels almost normally aspirated, the exertions of its light-pressure turbo – helping deliver 147lb ft of torque between 1850 and 4900rpm – largely smothered by the mass of the biggest-ever Astra. The gearing beyond first and second is quite long (mental maths puts the theoretical top speed in 6th at 200mph) so it’s not a fast hatch in the traditional sense. The claims are 9sec dead to 60mph and a top end of 128mph, with a combined mpg of 47.9.
We also tried the 178bhp 1.6 model, but fitted with optional ‘FlexRide’ suspension. The engine lifts the performance firmly into warm hatch territory (where it should be with the SRi badge), with decent low- and mid-range urge and a top end worth using. However, FlexRide is to be avoided; on its ‘Sport’ setting it’s not as crisp and engaging as the stock SRi chassis, and on ‘Tour’ it’s comfy, yes, but the standard chassis is plenty supple and quiet enough.
The new Astra’s interior is very like that of the recently launched Insignia, and very smart it is too. At night there are pockets of subtle red lighting and glints of chrome, and it appears just as classy in daylight; of high quality and solidly made (in Britain, incidentally). Refinement is very good, the driving position is spot on and the optional ‘ergonomic sports seats’ (£450) are excellent too.
There are a few niggles. The clutch and brake pedals are a bit light and the high-set centre console is a confusing mishmash of tiny buttons and knobs. Indeed the switchgear in general is a bit fiddly. Also, as we said earlier, the new Astra looks and feels like an XL-size hatch in this sector and it’s not as distinctive as the previous-generation model or particularly original.
No matter, we love the way the new Astra drives, even with the modest 1.4 turbo engine. Dynamically, it’s right up there with the very best in the class. The stock SRi chassis with the 178bhp 1.6 should be a sweet combination, and you wonder just how good a properly quick VXR version will be. Very, would be our guess.
|Engine||In-line 4-cyl, 1364cc, turbo|
|Max power||138bhp @ 4900rpm|
|Max torque||147lb ft @ 1850-4900rpm|
|Top speed||128mph (claimed)|