"The Vauxhall Astra impresses with an interior that very nearly rivals the class-leading Volkswagen Golf for fit and finish. It is comfortable and well built with a range of efficient petrol and diesel engines."
One thing you can definitely say about the Vauxhall Astra is that it is much improved. Once doomed to be the boring company car of choice, the current model was launched in 2009 and made big strides towards competing with the Ford Focus in the style department and with the Volkswagen Golf for interior and general build quality. It doesn’t quite hit the same standards, but it's definitely a lot closer. There are three and five-door hatchbacks, a sporty GTC coupe, a more practical Sport Tourer estate model and a two-door Cascada convertible (which replaces the old Vauxhall Astra TwinTop) to choose from, and the whole range feels comfortable and secure on the road. If you go for an eco-diesel model, meanwhile, the fuel economy is impressive. Be aware that Vauxhall resale values on the used market aren’t great, but you should be able to balance that by haggling for a good deal when you buy new. You definitely shouldn’t pay list price for any Astra – including the performance-focused VXR hot hatchback. So today's Astra is a dependable, relatively stylish and well-rounded family hatchback that comes in a head-spinning 11 specifications - entry-level Expression, Design and ES models, then Exclusive, Tech Line and Tech Line GT, Energy, SRi, SE, Elite and top-of-the-range Bi-Turbo.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
The most economical Astra is the 1.7-litre ecoFLEX, which incorporates stop-start technology to help lower its emissions below the magic 100g/km tax-free threshold to only 99g/km of CO2, while also returning excellent combined fuel economy of 76.3mpg. Alas, the petrol engines aren’t as good and can’t remotely compete with the significantly more frugal EcoBoost engines currently shaking up the Ford range. However, the handy lifetime warranty should keep costs down for a while, removing the worry of big bills up to 100,000 miles for the car's first owner.
Interior & comfort
Astras of old definitely put comfort and practicality ahead of all other concerns – not so this latest model. It looks stylish, with a sleek sloping roof that inevitably eats into the amount of headroom in the back of the car for rear passengers, setting out Vauxhall's new agenda. The small back windows don’t help, making it actually feel a bit claustrophobic inside. If this really bothers you, though, you can look at the more practical Sports Tourer estate instead, which has more glass to allow in more light and make it feel bigger. Up front, the dashboard is a bit too over-populated and fiddly, which can make it frustrating to use. But, there aren’t many cars that flat-out beat the Astra for comfort over long drives, thanks to its effective suspension, which makes easy work of the UK's uneven roads. Plus, if you buy a turbocharged petrol model, it's also really quiet when driving fast as well.
Practicality & boot space
There isn’t much between the Astra, the Focus and the Golf in terms of practicality. The five-door Astra offers a reasonable 351 litres of boot space, which is more than you get in the Focus, but a teeny bit less than in the Golf. Interestingly, though, opt for the three-door model and you actually get a further 29 litres, which then takes it past the Golf. If you fold the rear seats down, then the boot expands to a hefty 1,216 litres. But it is let down by that sloping roof, while the lack of rear doors really does make the back seats significantly less useful. Plus, taller passengers will start to get uncomfortable on longer drives. The dashboard layout is also too cluttered with buttons that are fussy to find and hard to use without feeling clumsy. There are a lot of handy storage cubbies and deep door bins, however. All in all, it's basically an easy car to live with on a daily basis.
Reliability & safety
There's no denying that dropping a spectacular 64 places down the 2013 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey's list of the top 150 cars to place 103rd, is disappointing for the Astra. But it is still better than its predecessor in nearly every way. It's more fun to drive, more comfortable to ride in and has, despite the survey, proven to be more reliable, too. You do get Vauxhall's comprehensive lifetime warranty to help bring any prospective buyers some peace of mind, which covers the car for up to 100,000 miles. And it's safe, being awarded the maximum five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests. All models are fitted with six airbags and electronic stability control (ESP) as standard, while you can also add active head restraints in the SRi, Elite and Bi-Turbo models.
Engines, drive & performance
The Astra's 2009 rebirth saw improvements in every nook and cranny of its construction, including performance and ride comfort. It still can’t compete with the Ford Focus for driving fun, but it has well-weighted steering and lots of grip that make it head-and-shoulders better than the car it replaced. The entry-level engines – the 1.4-litre and 1.6-litre petrols – feel a bit underpowered when asked to accelerate the Astra's family-car dimensions, but the turbocharged cars perform much better on both the motorway and around town. The diesel engines are uniformly fast and powerful, but the top-spec 2.0-litre CDTi gets a bit noisy at higher speeds. The ride is firm enough for reasonable performance but never becomes uncomfortable, with the Astra ironing out most bumps in the UK roads – provided you avoid the SRi's sports suspension, that is! The ride can be further improved by opting to have the Flexride system fitted, but it is expensive, so we’d definitely suggest test-driving the standard suspension setup first.
Price, value for money & options
Before the list price scares you off, Vauxhall dealers expect a bit of haggling because they’re armed with a list of big discounts that they can use to seal the deal. Which is good, because there's no denying that all specifications above the base Expression model are expensive, so you will have to get that price dropped to make sure you don’t lose out on the used market when you come to sell it second-hand, because Vauxhall's resale values are weak. Levels of equipment and accessories are generous, though, with all models being fitted with air-conditioning, iPod connectivity and electric front windows as standard. Mid-spec SE cars add alloy wheels, automatic headlights and windscreen wipers, and a trip computer, while the top-of-the-range Elite car includes dual-zone climate control and heated front seats. Vauxhall offer an excellent comprehensive warranty for the first owner that should last for the lifetime of the car (or until it hits 100,000 miles, whichever comes first), which should keep unexpected bills to a minimum for quite some time.