Is the Vauxhall Astra a better car than the Volkswagen Golf?
To get to the situation where this question gets raised at all illustrates just what a quantum leap Vauxhall has taken with the new Astra. The outgoing model is a worthy but dull car, doing a great workmanlike job with fleets but generally - bonkers turbo versions aside – unremittingly bland.
Not so the new model. With the new car, Vauxhall is looking to attract more user choosers and retail customers and to do that, it needed to offer a car that made emotional sparks fly with prospective drivers.
As a result, the driving experience has been honed, while specifications are high and have features not often associated with lower-medium cars, such as the Interactive Driving System, Continuous Damper Control and adaptive headlights.
The 1.6 SXi I drove is part of the sporty arm of the model range, one under SRi, while on the more style-led side is Design and Elite. Entry-level models are Expression and Life, followed by Club.
From the outside, the Astra is chunkier and more aggressive than it has ever been. At the front, the wedgy lights and sharp creases running down the bonnet give it a mean look, while the deep front bumper helps to pull the car visually down onto the road.
The confident sharp creases and chunky body panels continue right back through the car, and on the optional 17inch wheels the test car came with, this is not an Astra that will fade into the background easily. If there is a criticism of the way it looks, it is that there is so much going on it looks fussy from some angles, like an Audi on steroids.
But there is a new-found confidence in this car, which continues on the inside. The interior is well built with decent materials, save for some of the little screws holding the central dash panel on which looked a little rough. But the car had been rushed off the line especially, so the odd inconsistency was likely.
The SXi comes with a matt chrome effect centre console and door and dash inserts, a very sporty, sculpted steering wheel and alloy effect pedals which means that the view from the driver's seat is of a lean and mean-looking machine.
The driving position is just right and sports seats are very supportive. All the switches and dials are good quality and work with a thick click and the doors thump solidly shut. It is in contrast to the Golf, where there is some evidence of cheaper plastics with rough edges, and some wobbly switch housings.
Get the Astra moving and it becomes immediately obvious that this has stiffened suspension although ride quality is OK considering how stiffly sprung it is.
The 1.6-litre engine has 105bhp, which means that although it makes all the right noises, it really has to be pushed hard at the high-end to extract any notable performance. For drivers wanting more performance the 170bhp 2.0-litre turbo unit will be the one to choose at launch, while later in the year, there will be 200bhp plus motors on sale, which is something to look forward to.
On the stopping side, the brakes are excellent, and haul the car to a very sudden and controlled halt from any speed.
The one flaw is the five-speed gearbox, which seems to have inherited the long, clonky throw from the Vectra. It's adequate to live with in a car built for relaxed touring, but in a sporty model like this looking to woo user choosers, it is too slow and obstructive.
Apart from that, there is nothing much the Astra doesn't do very well. There's space in the back and the boot, it drives very well, it is well built and has more style than all the previous Astras put together.
But now the real battle begins. Even from this early look, this car really does appear to be up there among the best in class, even when sitting next to the new Golf
The challenge for Vauxhall, as executives at the firm freely admit, is to address driver's attitudes that cars built by Volkswagen are of higher quality than cars built by Vauxhall. With the new Astra, it would seem the Luton firm has the product to start fighting those perceptions.
Model: Astra 1.6 16v SXi
Engine (cc): 1,598
Max power (bhp/rpm): 105/6,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 110/3,900
Max speed (mph): 115
0-62mph (sec): 11.3
CO2 emissions (g/km): 163
Transmission: 5-sp man
On sale: May 1