While the Mazda3 is all about 'zoom-zoom' and the new Golf was '30 years in the making', how on earth could Vauxhall compete in raising interest and awareness in its all-new replacement for the worthy-but-dull Astra?
Well, the answer seems to be in the product itself. The new Astra is brimming with technology previously unheard of in the lower-medium sector and it seems that Vauxhall has ticked all the boxes on the latest engine technology, transmission options, safety and entertainment.
The two smaller petrol engines in the range use twinport technology for improved performance and fuel economy, which means the entry power output for petrol is 90bhp, where most rivals start at 75bhp.
Two versions of a Euro IV-compliant 1.7-litre common rail diesel will be available from its May launch, while a high-performance 150bhp 1.9-litre will follow in September.
Vauxhall's Easytronic automated manual transmission will be offered on the 1.6-litre car, while the 1.8 will get a four-speed automatic option. The 2.0-litre turbo and 1.9 CDTi have six-speed manuals.
DAB digital radio is offered while all models from Club upwards feature a standard MP3 player. Adaptive forward lighting (AFL), as seen on the Vectra estate, is also available. From the autumn, a keyless entry and start system will be available.
Standard features across the range include remote central locking, four airbags, ABS, electric front windows, a CD player, reach and rake steering adjustment and all but the entry-level Life model have air conditioning.
Club models add alloy wheels, curtain airbags, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and electrically adjustable door mirrors, while Design variants have bigger alloys, part leather seats, trip computer, four electric windows, an MP3 player and rain-sensing windscreen wipers.
Range-topping Elite models have electronic climate control, full leather trim, cruise control and 40/20/40 split rear seat.
The entry level sporty variant, the SXi, has 16-inch alloys, lowered suspension, sports front seats, an MP3 player and front fog lights, while upgrading to the SRi means 17-inch alloys, ESP Plus, trip computer and a SportSwitch.
The SportSwitch is something we have seen in a few performance-orientated premium cars to date, so it's a real coup for Vauxhall.
At the push of a button computers firm up the dampers, sharpen the throttle response and quicken the steering. The ESP Plus system also has a longer delay before it intervenes. This all seems saucy stuff when you consider the image of the current Astra – Coupe and turbo version excepted.
So, even in a sector crowded with new products, the new Astra makes an entrance. Vauxhall's fleet sales director Maurice Howkins said the fleet/retail split with Astra has traditionally been 60/40, but the new five-door model has more to attract the user chooser.
The SRi is available with a 1.8-litre engine as before, but there is also the new 170bhp 2.0T and the forthcoming 150bhp 1.9 CDTi is also expected to attract drivers looking for a sporty compact diesel.
Running costs are expected to be reduced through more efficient engines, stronger RV performance and cheaper repair bills.
Minor front or rear impacts are likely to be less costly than before. The front and rear panels are in three sections that can be replaced or straightened at moderate cost, while the rear light clusters are outside the impact zone.
Service intervals are up to 20,000 miles for petrol models and up to 30,000 miles for diesels.
The residual value for a typical Astra 1.6 Club is forecast by CAP Monitor to be £4,250 or 31.5% over three years/60,000 miles.
Jeff Knight, editor of CAP Monitor, said: 'Astra has long set the benchmark for wholelife costs in the medium car segment of the fleet market, and now looks set to improve further on what has been an outstanding wholelife cost performance to date.'
Behind the wheel
WITH sharp, bold lines, the new Astra stands out far more than its predecessor ever did. Its short overhangs, chunky wheel arches and neat rear give it a purposeful stance and the impression that it is keen to take the battle to the latest batch of rivals, like the VW Golf and Mazda3.
As you might expect, the new Astra is roomier than the outgoing model and offers more boot space. The press launch offered a chance to drive Easytronic versions of the 1.6-litre, as well as 100bhp and 150bhp diesels, and the 2.0T. SRi versions of the 1.8-litre (with optional 18-inch wheels) were available on a handling track marked out on an airfield.
I had sampled Easytronic before in low-power Corsas, where it worked well enough as a cost-effective alternative to a proper automatic transmission.
With 105bhp on offer, the transmission has something to get its teeth into, and the SXi version with lowered suspension felt quite frisky. This is the first time Easytronic has been offered with buttons on the steering wheel to change gear, and both the buttons on the front of the wheel (one within reach of the thumbs on each side) change up with changing down buttons behind the steering wheel spokes.
Most other manufacturers offer changing up on the right and changing down on the left, so this took a bit of getting used to along with some accidental downshifts. When it all gets too confusing the gearstick can be used to change up and down – as on the Corsa. Combined with the SportSwitch (optional on the SXi) the 1.6-litre Astra responds with a surprising degree of urgency, and even with Easytronic in automatic mode it hangs on to each gear for as long as possible.
The 1.7 CDTi was a little noisier than I expected, but put its 177lb-ft of torque to good use, pulling keenly from low revs. The higher than average level of diesel clatter is more than offset by the fuel consumption claims for this engine, almost approaching supermini levels. Ride quality is well damped for comfort, and the range of adjustment for the front seats is excellent, ensuring long-haul comfort.
The 1.9-litre (a Fiat-sourced unit rather than the Isuzu engine in the 1.7 CDTi) is similarly loud at idle, but offers strong performance and has a slicker six-speed manual transmission compared with the five-speed unit offered in the smaller engine. The 2.0T offers swift performance, accelerating with the minimum of fuss from low down the rev range.
I tested ESP Plus and handling differences with and without SportSwitch activated. When it was activated a 56mph sudden lane change resulted in fierce lift-off oversteer, where the back of the car steps out of line. But a dose of opposite lock from the steering wheel and a positive decision to steer out of the skid, helped by the ESP system, quickly brought things back into line.
The car's direction is at the mercy of the driver and it can be manoeuvred safely even when its considerable limits have been breached. SportSwitch also increases the grip available, with the Astra taking longer before the front end starts pushing wide on fast bends.
VAUXHALL has produced a first-class lower medium hatchback with considerable fleet appeal as well as features to tempt the user-chooser. Quality and safety have been given high priorities and it brings new technology to the sector.
|Model||1.4||1.6||1.8||2.0T||1.7CDTi 80||1.7CDTi 100||1.9CDTi 150|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||90/5,600||105/6,000||125/5,600||170/5,200||80/4,400||100/4,400||150/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||92/4,000||110/3,900||125/3,800||184/1,950||125/1,800||177/2,300||232/2,000|
|Max speed (mph):||110||115||123 (auto: 116)||135||104||112||130|
|0-60mph (secs):||12.7||11.3 (Easytronic:12.3)||9.8 (10.9)||8.4||14.0||11.3||8.6|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||44.8||42.8 (43.5)||36.2 (33.6)||31.0||57.6||56.5||50.4|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||151||158||187 (202)||218||132||135||151||Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||52/11.4|
|Service intervals (miles):||Petrol: up to 20,000||diesel: up to 30,000|
|On sale:||May||1.9CDTi September|