December 2010 saw Vauxhall’s Astra return to the top spot as the UK’s best selling car. In its decades-old battle with the Ford Focus and previously the Ford Escort, the Astra has often come out on top.
The battle has been played out across a number scenarios from the Astra GTE versus Escort RS Turbo conflict of the late 1980s to the soft tops of the mid nineties, but in these more austere times the contest is not to be the fastest or most glamorous, but to be the most frugal.
As might be expected where these two vehicles are concerned, the efficiency specialist line-ups are similar, with both Vauxhall and Ford offering stop-start and no-stop-start equipped versions of their economical family hatchbacks.
The non-stop-start versions have a cheaper initial purchase price but lose out, albeit marginally, in terms of fuel economy and emissions. With the Astra, this is less of an issue than with the Focus because, whereas the addition of stop-start drops the 1.6-litre diesel Focus Econetic from 104g/km to 99g/km CO2 emissions and thus from tax band B to free of charge A, the Vauxhall drops from 109g/km to 104g/km, remaining in tax band B.
The Astra loses that battle, then, but not necessarily the war, as it works hard to make up for the initial shortcomings elsewhere. The biggest thorn in Ford’s side comes in the form of the Astra’s interior.
The Focus’ upmarket, high quality interior has been a large part of its ‘class-leading’ appeal, but the current generation of Astra has upped its game in this regard.
There’s a high quality ambience in the cabin, giving the Astra a mini-Insignia feel. Material quality is very good and plastics are soft to the touch but sturdy. In the Exclusiv model, soft lighting beneath the gear lever surround and in the door handle moulds is a premium touch and the chunky, sturdy feel to the steering wheel is replicated around the interior, in the metal rimmed knobs and the solid column stalks.
The Astra holds its own against its closest rival from the outside, too. Like the Focus the Astra boasts a contemporary design that’s attractive but refined and sensible.
The Ecoflex model needn’t suffer visually for its greener emphasis, either. 17-inch alloy wheels are optional, to replace the flush-covered steels as standard. The revised aero package does little to harm the Astra’s attractive exterior lines and the automatic aero-flap behind the grille is discreetly hidden. A particularly keen eye may even spot the marginally lowered suspension, which reduces drag alongside the low-rolling resistance tyres.
However, the major changes, although still hidden from view, are more noticeable. The taller gearing, for example, which comes courtesy of a longer final drive ratio, affecting all five-forward gears. The positive side is that high speed and long distance cruises are more refined thanks to lower rpm. This works well with the Astra’s impressive ride quality, even on the revised suspension.
It does result in less inspiring straight line performance than some eco rivals, however. Using a smaller capacity diesel engine seems like an obvious way to reduce fuel consumption and works very well around town, but when greater acceleration is required the 1.3-litre unit does need to be pushed harder and kept above 2500rpm for any real performance. This means the engine remains audible in the cabin, too, particularly when cold.
A lower idling speed counters this slightly in the standard Ecoflex model, but not as much as the zero-idling philosophy of the stop-start equipped model.
On the move, the Astra can hold its head high. Ride quality is very good – of benefit to driver and passengers – and the chassis is responsive but predictable and secure. ESP is part of a respectable list of standard equipment (although electric rear windows are omitted for weight saving), an important factor for a family car.
Similarly, an accommodating interior boosts the family appeal. Boot space behind the hatch is conveniently proportioned with a bigger opening than initially appears from the outside. The rear bench will accept two adults with little fuss, too, with good access offered by the five-door layout.
The on-paper figures suggest that the Astra hasn’t quite trumped the Focus in the battle to be greenest, but the stylish and noticeably well-built model is impressive enough to keep the contest alive for the foreseeable future.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Vauxhall Astra 1.3 CDTi Ecoflex Exclusiv, £18,005 on the road.
Engine: 1.3-litre turbocharged petrol unit developing 95bhp and 140lb/ft of torque.
Transmission: 5-speed manual transmission, driving the front wheels.
Performance: Maximum speed 109mph, 0-62mph 13.8 seconds.
CO2 emissions: 138g/km.
By Richard M Hammond