But have the development engineers lifted them too far with the latest crop of drivetrains?
Designed to make the most of dwindling and increasingly expensive fuel reserves, super-tall gearing adds even more emphasis to the cost-effective benefits of diesel transport.
Yet manufacturer handbooks still make scant reference to the need for a different approach to driving needed for vehicles fitted with new transmission systems.
Take the five-speed gearbox mated with the latest four-valve diesel engine in the Vauxhall Astra as an example. This is geared so highly that engaging its top ratio too early during acceleration could trick the driver into thinking the car’s 1.7-litre motor is a bit of a sluggard.
Because the Ecotec unit is spinning so slowly when the car is travelling at 30mph in fifth ratio – little more than the 1,000 revs idle speed – the turbocharger isn’t able to provide any boost. So flooring the accelerator produces a flat response that has you thinking the engine doesn’t have the power to pull the skin off a rice pudding.
It’s a different story if you wait just a little longer for the rev counter needle to reach the 2,000rpm mark before selecting top gear.
Then, with the turbo just starting to come on stream, the 100bhp mid-range Astra motor slips into its optimum performance band and adopts a dramatically changed personality. Driven with this in mind and an eye to the rev counter needle, the new Ecotec engine has a surprising amount of get-up-and-go and offers the balance of lively progress, relaxed long-haul cruising and economic operating costs that should hold strong appeal in the fleet sector.
Though noisy on initial start-up, it soon settles down to running unobtrusively and smoothly at all speeds – and a short-throw, slick-action lever makes flicking through the gears a delight.
Thanks to its variable nozzle turbine, the turbo unit causes this car to be almost three seconds quicker to 60mph from rest than the standard, 80bhp version. It delivers 177lb-ft of torque, with more than 50lb-ft of additional grunt over the 80bhp unit, while it still returns an impressive 56.5mpg on the combined economy cycle, which is the plus side of high gearing.
The fifth-generation Astra wins praise for dynamic styling, with a wide track and short overhangs promoting a distinctly sportier appearance.
Like every Astra, the car has a good safety package, with driver and passenger front and side airbags and anti-lock braking coming as standard.
The SXi trim level adds air conditioning and features that include steering wheel-mounted audio controls, stereo radio with MP3 compatible CD player, front fog lights and electrically heated and adjustable door mirrors.
This spread of features makes the car a sufficiently well specified and practical load-carrier to give Vauxhall drivers some of the niceties of premium motoring.
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £15,542
CO2 emissions (g/km): 138
BIK % of P11D in 2005/6: £2,331/15%
Graduated VED rate: £115
Insurance group: 6E
Combined mpg: 56.5
CAP Monitor residual value: £4,800/31%
Depreciation 16.65 pence per mile x 60,000: £9,639
Maintenance 2.33 pence per mile x 60,000: £1,398
Fuel 7.42 pence per mile x 60,000: £4,452
Wholelife cost 26.40 pence per mile x 60,000: £15,840
Typical contract hire rate: 329
Three rivals to consider
NOTHING reflects the forecourt rivalry between Ford and Vauxhall more effectively than comparing prices – and the Focus 1.6 Zetec, which features the new turbodiesel motor jointly developed by PSA and Ford, costs less to buy as well as having a 10% power advantage over the Astra. The power gap is even wider between the Astra and the Corolla, but the Megane wins with the highest output and lowest price.
THE Astra beats the Focus by a comfortable margin here, with its £1,398 total reflecting a £372 advantage over three years and 60,000 miles – and the Megane finishes close to the new Vauxhall model with a total of £1,446. However, consistent efforts by Toyota to prune replacement parts and servicing costs have paid off handsomely and the result is a marked difference in favour of the Corolla, which leads with a total of just £1,272.
THE Focus turns the tables in the area of operating economy with the efficiency of its 1.6-litre TDCi motor providing total fuel costs for three years/60,000 miles of £4,188 – £264 less than the Astra, which has a 1.7-litre engine but is less powerful. Having the most powerful engine of the group puts the Megane at a £528 disadvantage compared with the thrifty Ford – and the gap widens to £786 with the 2.0-litre Corolla.
PRODUCING one of the most popular family models on the planet proves to be no bad thing as far as residual values are concerned, and even though the Focus has become a firm favourite on the used car lots, the Toyota Corolla takes pole position here, albeit by the relatively slim margin of £114. But even though the rear-end styling of the Megane tends to polarise opinions, the car wins sufficient approval to leave the Astra trailing in fourth place by a tiny margin.
ADVANTAGE Ford – but not by that much. The relatively small amount of money separating first and third places in our group highlights just how fiercely competitive the compact car segment has become nowadays. Wholelife costs of £15,432 allow the Focus to nose ahead of the Corolla by the narrow margin of £174 and though it comes in third, the Astra’s total of £15,840 places it only £408 behind its arch rival. Trailing the Focus by £714 relegates the Megane to fourth placing.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
A MONTHLY tax bill of £43 means the Vauxhall Astra driver who has a 22% liability is better off to the tune of almost £100 in 2005 than he would be behind the wheel of the most expensive in tax Focus, which isn’t Euro IV (the Euro IV version has £300 higher P11D value), even though the Ford has substantially lower CO2 emissions. Despite having a lower P11D price, the Megane would cost its driver £50 per month while the Corolla, with the most expensive P11D in the group, has a BIK penalty of £58.
THE Corolla is practical, the Megane has distinctive styling – and both have high-power engines to guarantee solid performance. But Ford and Vauxhall dominate this contest, achieving strong ratings where it matters most. Ultimately, the Focus and Astra are so good in the crucial areas of wholelife costs and BIK liability that choosing the winner is like splitting hairs. The Focus gets our vote for its more efficient engine and lower wholelife costs – but only by the narrowest of margins. WINNER: Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec TDCi 110 Climate Pack 5dr
At a glance