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 here. 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.