This review concludes a slow tour through the middle-market. It’s the Astra’s turn.
DTW has tested the Ford Focus, Megane, the Golf and the Auris. That means I can put some of those reviews in perspective as well as offer some insights on the corresponding offering from Opel, the Astra. It’s quite handy that all the cars tested came from the same source, which eliminates variables like colour and engine specification. So, it’s quite a level playing field the Astra and its peers are playing on.
Like all the test cars, it’s a mid-range model, with an adequately powerful and economical diesel engine. Our test car had the 1.6 DIESEL! Ecoflex with 100 kW of power and a six speed gearbox.
This version of the Astra appeared in 2009. Opel offered 12 petrol and diesel engines and manual and automatic transmission. For this version of the Astra, Opel decided to pair the car with the second generation Zafira. The need for that MPV to be larger and heavier than the previous model Zafira had consequences good (refinement) and less good (inertia) for the Astra platform.
Opel prioritized refinement and smoothness for the Zafira which also meant extra weight for the Astra. It weighs 1393 kg, a lot more than the Ford Focus (1292 kg) and a bit less than the VW Golf (1395 kg). The downside, according to the press reviews, took the form of comparatively less athletic handling but a close look at the reviews should alert readers to the very small and comparative nature of this difference.
You’d be hard pressed to notice the difference in ordinary use. For drivers interested in a more handling orientated car, the GTC could be had. And the lack of uptake of this car shows where people’s priorities lay. For this class of car, daily usability and comfort matter more.
As with all generations of the Astra, Opel have gone for a well-executed contemporary look. Uwe Müller is credited with the exterior design. The Astra occupies a middle ground between Ford’s rather busy, “kinetic design” and VW’s slowly-evolving classicism. Unlike the previous model, this one owes little to its predecessors, being more influenced by the forms of the range-topping Insignia with the blade feature on the bodyside and swept back lamps. The interior is fitted out with good quality materials: warm-to-the-touch fabrics, well-matched plastics and generally good attention to detail throughout.
The driver surveys a logically laid-out dashboard with a pleasingly theatrical IP with a warm red-orange lighting scheme. The overall theme of a central shield is expressive enough to be appealing yet not over-wrought. The placement of the controls is not forced and function has not compromised form. Overall, there seems to be a good balance struck between the aesthetics and the functionality.
The one detail I didn’t much care for (which I won’t name, you’ll never find it) was more than offset by the effort expended on the cabin and boot area. The boot was neat, thoughtfully finished and all the plastic trim nobody cares about showed signs of care and attention. For a supposedly middle market car, it struck me as surprisingly plush, solid and orderly. Details like the lamps, cubbies, chrome tie-down rings, slider-strip and good quality carpet make the load bay a very pleasant aedicule.
Controls and ergonomics
The Astra’s main controls are all well-placed and easy to use. Things are a little less satisfactory for the HVAC but miles better than the infuriating controls discovered in the Megane (which is the class non-leader). Put this way, the Astra’s HVAC controls are poor for the same reasons all modern HVAC control are poor: too many buttons, somewhat awkwardly placed. However, they aren’t hard to use but could be rather better. The Astra’s problems are not unique to the car. In general, designers need to fight back and resist the demands for buttons instead of rotary controllers for the HVAC. The USB ports were easy to find and the light switches placed where you’d expect.
As with all of the medium-sized family cars, the Astra is a front-wheel drive, front-engined car with a series of 4-cylinder engines. The front suspension is by McPherson; at the rear torsion beam with a Watt’s linkage. For a vehicle in this class, there is not much room for unusual solutions. The skill lies in arranging it all so it makes a seamless whole. Of particular interest is the diesel engine. Claimed to be very quiet it actually is very quiet (a payoff for the higher weight). I noticed how quiet it was because the ugly “DIESEL” sticker was not matched by an ugly diesel noise.
Comfort and convenience
This is where the Astra scores very well indeed. The character of the car can be summed up in Opel’s decision to make the Astra comfortable for the driver and rear passengers both in terms of seating and in terms of NVH and utility. The boot holds 500 litres of luggage with the seats up and 1550 with the rear seats folded away. That is a lot of room. For the driver and passenger there were two cupholders and a centre armrest. The interior lighting proved effective and well-placed. Oddment storage front and back could cope with the various bits of flimflam that tend to accompany typical trips.
There were door bins and map-pockets at the rear. For the estate version, Opel provided clips to hold the seat belts in place when the seat backs were down; the cushions easily folded forward to make a flat floor; the luggage cover could be unclipped with one hand (scoring over Ford’s extremely unhandy equivalent in the Focus estate). A particularly thoughtful touch is that there are grooves in the D-pillar hard
trim to allow the luggage cover to be moved up and out of the way. This keeps the cover’s hand-grip near you but permits the user to reach deep into the boot. Without this feature one must let the luggage cover retract all the way into the car and then one has to reach a metre into the boot to get it when finished packing or retrieving something. This thoughtful touch is not cost-free for Opel: it requires extra parts and a more complex moulding. It wasn’t until I saw the feature that I realized what was wrong with cars without this little detail.
This isn’t a performance test but a real-world test. Under ordinary use, the Astra majors on a smooth ride (really very good) and easy controls. The steering had no slop and the car responded to inputs in a measured way. The gearchange and clutch action worked unobtrusively. The diesel engine noise didn’t intrude into the cabin when accelerating and acceleration proved sufficient for the tasks asked of it. Regarding handling, at normal speeds, the Astra does a good job in relation to the smoothness of the ride: bodyroll didn’t obtrude and there was no pitching or diving during changes of speed.
Many reviewers tend to place the Astra second to the Focus on the driving front. I will make it quite clear that it’s not a driver’s car but nor is it a wallowing boat. The Astra’s personality is, I think, one of a friendly servant, a car to smooth your way from point to point and to satisfy with its comfort and utility. Having experienced the Focus I can safely say the Ford´s dynamic advantages are imperceptible in daily life but the Astra’s smoothness and refinement are perceptible from kilometre 1.
The Astra consumed fuel at the rate of 54 mpg and on the standard DTW Calais to St Jean Cap d’Antibes trip it will need refuelling at 800 kilometres, somewhere near Roussillon. There would be a third of tank left at the end. The Astra’s tank holds just under 49 litres.
The Ford Focus, VW Golf and Toyota Auris are all competent and well-thought-through vehicles. So is the Astra. What is worth stating here is that there is not one single aspect of the Astra that warrants the persistent labelling of the car as boring or unsatisfying to drive. On a positive note, the Astra is a remarkably pleasant car, one where there are signs of painstaking work on details that other vehicles neglect. The Golf is
remarkably fault-free but entirely cold. I am not sure why people have warmed to this formula of glacial reserve. The Ford Focus estate is not usefully better at driving and in terms of fit and finish, it falls behind the Astra. I didn’t find anything serious to quibble about in terms of craftsmanship and while the Focus is comfortable it is not as comfortable as the Astra.
I returned the car at the end of the test thinking that such a car, with trim more to my preference (I don’t want grey) would be a pleasure to own and to drive. There are hundreds of thousands of Astra owners who drive around in a car underestimated by other drivers and that is rather a pity. I decided that Opel needs to put some work into making it possible to personalise the car rather more than is usual for this class. It isn’t
really possible to do much with performance and ride: the Astra and all the cars in the class offer a good compromise on that score. But by having a wider range of fabrics, paint and trim colours, Opel would offer customers a chance to have a more personal car than one finds in this class. The mechanical aspects probably have to be very close to the average but the “soft” aspects don’t.
If given the choice between a mid-grey car from the competitor and an Astra with one of twenty fabrics, five plastic shades and twenty paints then perhaps not only could Opel make a sale but the customer would form an even stronger bond with what is a lot of very nice car for the money.
Honest John said this: “Other cars may be better in certain areas, but the Vauxhall Astra is extremely competent across the board with impressive refinement and a comfortable cabin.” AE has a comparison of the Focus and the Astra. They conclude that “it comes down to whether you can compromise on space in favour of the better driving and tech of the Ford, or prefer the more practical interior and focus on comfort provided by the Astra”. I have to disagree with them about the appearance. The Focus is a fussy design; the Astra estate, with its chromed DLO is elegant.
9 thoughts on “Credit Where It’s Due”
I generally agree with you about Opel’s underestimated qualities, even if I have no desire to own one. But I’ll make some observations.
First, on the Insignia I drove the diesel was perfectly adequate, even if it took 6 gears to accelerate an engine type that was once noted for its low down torque. It was also surprisingly quiet, until you opened the door and realised how excellent the soundproofing is.
Second, is it chance or irony that under your comment about quality of craftsmanship, you show a load cover with fraying threads?
Last, on a vaguely related question of attire, should one or should one not put wheelcovers onto Winter wheels? Personally, I like the hubcapless black wheel look, though on overstyled modern cars it does jar. Shouldn’t rental companies have an obligation that their varying clients aren’t let down in the style department when they attend certain functions?
The fraying threads was unfortunate. Set against the other good attributes, it’s trivial though. Well spotted and indicative of Opel’s problem. The good parts count very little and small things are used to hang them out. I found worse on the Ford Focus and remember I could barely get out 300 words on the Golf – it wasn’t perfect either.
Yes, but what’s it like driving at 7/9ths on a country road? Can you hang the tail out?
I agree with you on the positive comfort bias of recent Opel/Vauxhalls. They’ve managed to find impressive isolation and NVH suppression whilst keeping the suspension from floating away. I have to disagree with you on the styling though; coupé version apart, to my eyes that generation of Astra looks tubby.
Very interesting for me to see what the original Chevy Cruze looks like inside. Much nicer instrument panel and HVAC control at first glance, but the same layout just rendered in less cheap plastic. The Cruze I rented 3,000 miles from home was a thoroughly placid beast that could be hustled a bit if you tried on really twisty and bumpy corners, and very quiet on road with a decent ride. Gave off a trusty steed aura, ideal for someone who couldn’t care less about cars.
My complaint when I first hopped in was the steering, which felt as if giant springs were deployed to hold the wheel at straight ahead. Turn the wheel and it was like nothing else I’ve driven. Highly artificial compared to my non-EPS Subie, but two days later I was used to it, guide by sight, no feedback. The Astra I see has that ridiculous little triangular window ahead of the front door, just like the Buick Verano, another Astra knockoff. Wouldn’t buy a car with it – terrible non-view where you need nothing in the way at all and also gives off a bunker atmosphere. The Cruze avoided it. I see that the rear door card is a fine one-piece example of the polypropylene moulder’s art, but the plenteous legroom I cannot find. Is it in the picture?
The new model has apparently lost 100 kg and is not as solid on the road, according to Baruth at TTAC, the person I most trust on reviews. It and the new Impreza have very similar generic styling in the saloon format. By comparison, however, the Impreza is vast and open inside, and completely avoids the blind spots behind the A-pillar. Completely as the door mirror is relocated, and shoulder room is better as well due to less curved side glass. Pity they charge so much for Subies over your way, but the company is running flat out to supply North America, where sales have risen 250% since 2009, far in excess now of Mazda and VW in absolute terms.
Would be interested in your take on the new Astra. The Focus is very tight inside by comparison, and Ford’s operation over here is unable to assemble anything very well in the fit and finish department. However it drives well, and doesn’t give off the cheap tin box aura of the new Civic, or total cheapo stodginess of Toyota. Nissan, I regret to say, I dismiss out of hand on all fronts. The Mazda3 has wonderful steering but noisy suspension and is a bit tight inside. French cars I cannot comment on.
The latest reliability ratings from the biggest consumer testing outlet in the US, based on owner responses shows why I cannot get behind Fiat. As usual, dead last, followed by Jeep. However, Audi is number one and BMW number two so there’s that, then you wonder why Mercedes and VW languish.
Thanks for reading this article. It has been a bit of a dud in the interest stakes.
I normally notice poor outward visibility and this car did fine in that regard. I didn’t feel claustrophobic inside it either. You’ll have to accept my word that the rear space satisfied my exacting requirements: apart from that absent centre armrest it was as good as it should be. The seats are very pleasant and one could sit comfortably. I regard this is a really delightful car. I’d be pleased to own one, in fact. The saloon would be ideal (but there’s no centre armrest in that either). Opel overall did a good job on this.
I’d like to try the new one as soon as possible – I feel moved to do a dealer car test if I can.
Bill: I encountered that same steering response on my wife’s fourth generation Vauxhall (Opel) Astra. The strange springy glassiness had been excised by the time I came to buy a fifth generation Astra, as had the bob and float from the suspension, the wallow of the wife’s car going some way to emulate the rover used on the Moon landings.
Also, I wouldn’t dismiss the front quarterlight window out of hand. Their effectiveness very much depends on whether the manufacturer has made the effort to minimise and sculpt the interior trim to give a clear line of sight through the aperture. Ford made a good effort with my current Fiesta in this regard. By contrast, a mark 1 Focus I used to own had no front quarterlight window and consequentially boasted a horrific blind spot where the mirror met the door. Being moderately tall I could just about see over it, but my shorter aunt rejected the American market model out of hand for that very reason.
I thought I’d seek out this review as we had the opportunity of having a 1.4l Turbo petrol estate as a hire car whilst in France a week or so ago. I quite like hiring cars, there is a wonderful frisson of ‘I wonder what they’ll give me’ as they unpack the paper-work and take out the key at the counter. I knew it was going to be a mid-sized estate or MPV and even placed a small bet with my son the night before that we would get and Astra Estate (sorry, SW). I had hoped it would be the new model, but, given I actually prefer the looks of this model, I was not unhappy.
I agree with a lot of what Richard found. Of course, I was bound to find myself comparing with my Mazda 3 saloon, which is a bit unfair, but I am only human.
My first line of thought, which lasted about 4 hours into the drive from Lyon to St. Gaultier on the edge of the Parc Naturel Regional de la Brenne (a little-known patch of paradise in the middle of France), was whether it was a 1.6L diesel or the 1.4L petrol version- it was quite torquey and noisy, with a grumbly undertone, and so my senses said ‘diesel’, only to later discover for certain that it was a petrol engine. So, safe to conclude I was not that impressed with the engine. The gearbox was pretty good – easy and positive, if a bit long-winded.
Second, I found the steering a bit uneven – with an odd tipping-point either side of the straight ahead position that was really notable on motorways; maybe the tracking was a bit off? That aside, it was light, smooth and with a decent lock.
Third, I know almost every HVAC control layout is poor on new cars these days, but I found that on the Astra really unintuitive, especially that for altering the fan-speeds.
And that’s it really for negatives.
The interior sense of and actual amount of space on offer is noticeably better than the Mazda – the lower window line and sixth rear light really helps, but there is also more leg room. The boot is large (only an Octavia Estate significantly belittles it, mainly by being deeper), and well presented. Road noise is much quieter than that of the Mazda, and the ride smoother but less well controlled.
I prefer the looks of this car to the Focus and the Golf VI, it’s handsome and very correct, if a little lacking in sparkle. As a ‘family’ car, it’s a better package – the wife and kids were quite happy in it, thanks – and I suspect that hatch version would render a similar verdict.
Do all three lack sparkle? What would add that – it’s an open question. Visual sparkle or dynamic pzazz?
Richard, that’s such a good question because I so find it hard to answer it. It’s so easy to say, ‘it lacks that something, that je ne sais quoi?’, which is so unspecific as to be lazy and useless.
To reiterate, I agree that the Focus and Golf VI lack sparkle and I think this is a much more satisfactory piece of work. I prefer it to the new Astra, which, to my eyes makes more of an effort to sparkle (that C-pillar treatment, the LED DRLs) and yet it just looks like tinsel to my eyes and the stance and proportions are less well resolved. On reflection, I feel the same about the new Insignia vs. its predecessor – the older car was much more cohesive and well resolved whereas the new car disappoints when you see one on the road.
So, back to the question, and I was really thinking visual design sparkle, but it did lack dynamic sparkle too (in that respect, overall, I’d put it behind the Mazda 3 with which I am so familiar). To my eyes, it’s the difference between admiring a car for its looks, and have great respect for what’s been achieved, and really loving what one sees. I think I should say at this point that I don’t think it’s the difference between rational and emotional design – I can think of a number of examples of either that I love and would describe as having visual sparkle. This version of the Astra just falls short and I think it’s because it lacks that final sense of confidence in its design. I recall when it was launched feeling that, nice as it was, I had seen it before in a bolder and more confident format in the (now succeeded) Seat Leon. Now, in some respects, the Astra is a neater and better resolved job (I could never get on with the grille on that version on the Leon), but the Leon was and remained fresher for the fact that its designers took a few more risks, in particular with the side-panel feature-lines. This Astra is a little safe and indistinct – like the design team were afraid to upset anyone with any particular distinguishing feature or detail.
That all said, I have been looking at a number of Astras since you posed your question, and I do think that, as ever, it works better in certain trims and colours. So, yesterday I saw a lovely high spec example in a flat white with turbine effect 17″ (I think, maybe 18″) wheels, and wondered whether I had been a little unfair. I think the car suits lighter, brighter colours – silver is a bit too neutral – and a good dose of brightwork. Moreover, the 4-door saloon – never sold in the UK – is a little more bold and is one of the nicest small-to-mid sized saloon designs of recent times.
Overall, I think it’s a design we’ll grow to admire more as time progresses.