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Vauxhall Astra Coupe



##vauastc.jpg --Right##TRUE to form, Vauxhall will be pricing and equipping its new Astra Coupe with fleet buyers in mind - entry will start about £16,000 and the choice of engines and trim combinations covers a wide corporate cash catchment area. There's nothing comparable from Ford, nothing from Volkswagen yet - in fact only Citroen's Xsara Coupe can be said to offer body style, size, price and power competition. Below that there's a Honda Civic, above that Peugeot 406 and around the edges Toyota Celica.

Astra Coupe volume will be relatively low, about 6,000 in a full year and with 50% going into fleets, but that will give the Luton manufacturer a 7% share of the coupe market. All engines are petrol powered - no diesel, no Dual-Fuel. The first of these ECOTECs, the 115bhp 1.8 already in service in other Astras and Vectra, will get Coupe off the block in July, with a price premium of about £1,500 over an Astra SRi 1.8 3-door, listed at £14,355 on-the-road. This will be joined by a brand new, lightweight 147bhp 2.2-litre in the autumn and towards the end of the year a turbocharged 190bhp 2.0-litre Turbo will arrive to top the range with 0-60mph performance of less than seven seconds.

While all models will wear the Bertone badge, the 1.8s will be known as Edition, the 2.2s are to be dubbed Bertone Edition and the top dog based on the 2.2 will be just Turbo. There'll be plenty of scope for customising all versions - if drivers don't want white dials they can opt for conservative black, and there are 10 body colours, six interior combinations and two dash styles.

The biggest seller is expected to be the 2.2, perhaps 45% compared with 35% for the 1.8 and 20% for the Turbo, and the new 2.2 was what we put to the test (in pre-production, manual gearbox format) at the international press launch in Sardinia. Disappointingly, there were no 1.8s available for the British contingent: Vauxhall's reasoning was that we were already familiar with that power unit's characteristics from Astra hatch and Vectra, and that there would be UK driving opportunities prior to its launch.Ride and handling in the latest Astra range have already been transformed. The Coupe, which sits 20mm closer to the ground than the hatchbacks and has a roof line 40mm lower, also has a chassis 25% stiffer than its stablemates. Firmer shock absorbers have been used, stabilisers, mounts and bushings have been modified and spring and damper rates increased.

That doesn't mean spine-jarring solidity - far from it. On the twisty Sardinian roads the 2.2 showed itself to be an agile performer that can be pushed far further than would be wise with an Astra hatch (even the SRi), but it also retains a softer side that makes it a relaxed cruising coupe with little wind noise (frameless door windows help) and a quiet cabin. Only when pushed hard enough to develop some mild cornering understeer does the aluminium ECOTEC sound busy, but even flat out the engine note is never overbearing. Twin counter-rotating balancer shafts in the engine add to the smooth driving experience - armchair-style sport.

The tested 2.2s were fitted with the Vectra's five-speed manual, although a four-speed auto will also be available. Gear ratios are well chosen for motorway cruising, and the engine is sufficiently torquey not to require frequent stirring. The 1.8's box has closer ratios, and did make us wonder whether the 2.2 would be more fun with a similar set-up. Our information, however, is that a six-speed is under development.

Bertone has made an excellent job of the interiors we saw - even some of the leather combinations looked tasteful. The whole is still Astra, but lightened up, more youthful - almost chic. Details include front seats which mechanically slide back for exit and slip back into place after entry, and a new centre console to incorporate satellite navigation and multi-function displays.

Exterior lines, too, are unmistakably Astra with that familiar face, but the side profile, lowered stance and rear quarter really show from where this car comes - it's a junior Calibra with grown-up packaging. And will there be a Vectra Coupe? Not in the present Vectra's lifetime, apparently, which leaves the door open for 2003.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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