While the VW Golf is widely accepted as being the best car in its class, and the Ford Focus has the benefit of the reflected glory of Ford’s motorsport heritage, the Astra exists in a Zen-like state and just is. That’s a bit of a problem.
It’s also a shame because the new Astra is (spoiler alert) the best car in its class – and by a decent margin.
I’m not alone in thinking this; the new Astra has just won the prestigious European Car of the Year for 2016.
So let’s see what makes it so special, shall we?
A neat and clever design
The exterior is a neat enough design and it’s a clever one too.
You might not be able to see where the 77kgs that Vauxhall’s engineers have managed to shave from the bodyshell have come from, but you’ll feel every kg of the 200kgs in total that have been saved over the model it replaces when you drive it because it now feels lithe and taut, with an attractive hewn-from-solid feel.
The interior is equally good, being almost up to the standards of the very best in its class. The quality of the materials is excellent, and the ergonomics are pretty much flawless with plenty of headroom, legroom and boot space.
The seats, front and rear, are supportive and comfortable and the front ones can be adjusted for rake with a wheel that enables the sort of minute adjustments that just aren’t possible with a lever.
In short, the interior is easily as good as it needs to be and few will find anything to complain about.
Money saving measures
Of course, you can see where the money has been saved, but do you really mind having to put a key in the ignition or using an old-fashioned handbrake?
And some of the money saving is really rather clever: The handbrake and gear knob have been covered in a slightly sticky black rubber, which is far more tactile than it sounds and is a really nice touch, especially on a cold day.
I did miss reversing sensors or, even better, a reversing camera and while I’m sure you can buy both, for almost £23,000 I’d have expected something.
A real lightbulb moment
There is no arguing with the £995 Intellilux LED Matrix headlights though, which are simply sensational.
A front-facing camera detects oncoming vehicles and streetlights and the LED headlights then adjust to make sure that they illuminate as much of the road as possible without dazzling anyone coming the other way. It sounds simple, but it isn’t; it’s a stroke of genius.
At speeds of up to 30mph and in the presence of street lighting, they function as standard headlights, giving a cool, clean beam that illuminates well.
However, as soon as your speed increases and the streetlights fall away, high-beam comes on and the light seems to swarm out of the headlights in an eerily organic manner.
It pulses and fills black spots in milliseconds, instantly shutting off or moving to one side when oncoming traffic approaches.
I tested it at night in the face of an approaching cyclist who only had a dim headlamp. The headlights picked him up immediately, and seemed to wrap themselves around his dark shape to illuminate the road around him, cleverly avoiding him and his bike entirely.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do the Astra’s headlights. It was one of the most impressive demonstrations of automotive technology I’ve ever seen and makes a huge difference to nighttime visibility.
Lots to like
The rest of the car is up to scratch too. The Astra shared the week with a classic Nissan Skyline GT-R, one of the very best B-road cars in the world, and that I still enjoyed driving the Astra is testament to the quality of its chassis.
It rides, handles and steers brilliantly and there is real fun to be had, even in the 134bhp turbo-diesel.
The ride is firm, but that firmness comes from the damping rather than hard springs, so the ride becomes more supple as you push it harder and never becomes unpleasant.
The Ford Focus is still the B-road benchmark but the Astra is now closer than it’s even been.
The Astra is quiet too, even at motorway speeds and when accelerating hard; the diesel engine is marvellously flexible in its mid-range, helping you exploit limited overtaking opportunities.
I managed just under 50mpg over the course of a week too, which is on par with what real owners are reporting over much longer distances.
Of course, petrol engines are on offer, but when the diesel is this good choosing anything else should only be considered if you cover a very low annual mileage.
Technophiles will love the Astra’s ability to create its own 4G mobile Wi-Fi hotspot and the ability to link to your iPhone or Android Smartphone via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto respectively.
Vauxhall claims that one-in-four of us has owned an Astra at some point in their life. I haven’t but I would now. You should try and test-drive one, but make sure that you negotiate a night drive so you can see the Intellilux LED Matrix headlights in action for yourself!
Power – 134bhp
Torque – 236lb ft
0-62mph – 9.0 seconds
Top speed – 127mph
Kerb weight – 1,285kgs
Official average fuel consumption – 72.4mpg
Honest John real world fuel consumption – 54.0mpg
CO2 emissions – 103g/km
VED class – Band B
Towing capacity (braked) – 1,500kgs
Towing capacity (unbraked) – 650kgs
Warranty – 3 yrs/60,000 miles
Price – £21,480
Price as tested - £22,870
The Vauxhall Astra sets the new benchmark for medium-sized hatchbacks. Utterly brilliant at almost everything it does, and the new LED Matric headlights are simply sensational.
The best of the rest
The VW Golf is well-built, solid and drives well. Feels dowdy next to the Astra, though.
The SEAT Leon has the Golf’s chassis and an interior that is very nearly as good. It costs less too.