This is despite the car carrying additional kit - the base ‘S’ model now provides six airbags, ESP, active head restraints and air conditioning - and a slightly disappointing weight increase, although the car is notably bigger.
What’s it like?
This is a better car in almost every way, but what strikes you first, apart from the appeal of its strongly contemporary styling, is the draw of the cabin - compared to the previous model, this is like being upgraded from cattle to business class.
The dashboard is appealingly sculpted and houses an impressive centre console (not all of it an ergonomic success), attractive instruments and some well-thought through stowage, including a false floor in a lidded cubby that will hide an iPod. Plentiful faux satin aluminium trim provides a high precision visual uplift to the cockpit, as does the red glow of ambient light emanating from various nooks and crannies.
Better still is that the aura of sophistication is not shattered when you let out the clutch. Despite riding on 40-section rubber, this Astra navigates short, sharp shocks with a cushioned pliancy never before felt aboard a front-drive Vauxhall, and with impressive quiet, too.
The ride remains well controlled at higher speeds too, although in sport mode it can get your head bobbing slightly on dips and crests. For most circumstances, the normal mode is all you need, though ‘Tour’ further softens the dampers and lightens the steering.
In any mode there’s composure here that’s easy to exploit, especially as the SRi turns in with reasonable vigour once its slightly reluctant turn-in has been overcome. It maintains a line well, and a vicious mid-corner lift-off will have it scribing a tighter radius once the engine’s revs, which tend to hang, finally decay.
All this is with the ESP button on. Turn it off, and some mild flaws are revealed. An undulating road turns up mild torque-steer, and tipping the car too keenly into a sharp corner provokes scrubbing understeer that a Golf and Focus might resist more willingly. And if you’re brutal with wheel and throttle out of a tight turn, the inside front wheel will lift and spin.
So the relatively unobtrusive interventions of the ESP are just as well. Leave it on, and you’ll enjoy a fluent and engaging drive, even if the steering falls slightly short of delivering the realism of feel that the VW and Ford in particular manage. Then again, there’s more kickback aboard the Ford.
For most Astra buyers, the minutiae of its dynamic performance will be far less important than practical issues. The cabin scores with decent room front and rear, but the back-bench cushion is markedly less supportive than the Focus’s, and while the double-decker boot floor will be useful for some, others may find it a space-reducing nuisance.
Although the 1.6 turbo motor sometimes pauses slightly during delivery, and makes the odd sucking resonance that some may find intriguing, it’s generally a civilised and strong performer, combining well with the classy movements of the six-speeder’s gearlever and decently progressive brakes. All of which makes the SRi fairly easy to drive smoothly, and a relaxing high-speed cruiser.
Should I buy one?
This car should go straight onto the short list of anyone shopping in this class. It’s not a breakthrough drive like the Focus was in 1998, but this new Astra advances sufficiently on several fronts to have the potential to topple the Focus and Golf.
It’s arguably better looking, has the most attractive (if slightly contrived) cabin, an excellent ride, matching refinement and chassis dynamics to please the keen. It will take some headlight to headlight slugging to establish which of these three is king, but this new Astra makes a usefully better case for itself than the previous model did at launch.
Read our review of the latest Vauxhall Astra hatch here.