Vauxhall downsizes engine in hunt for economy

As Vauxhall and Opel ride the turbulence following the US bankruptcy of parent company General Motors, the latest Vauxhall Astra will be crucial to how the company fares in coming years. This is the car that will have to face up to big competitors like the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf.

First impressions are good. The new Astra has strong showroom appeal, with clean modern lines. Inside, it exudes an up-market aura and appeal that ensures it stands comparison with the cabin of the Focus and even the Golf.

Vauxhall Astra

Some of the detail of the minor controls are, however, not the most intuitive. Even by the end of my time with the car I had still not figured out where the trip computer hid the mpg display.

The new Astra is longer than most vehicles in this class and the long wheelbase has been a benefit for the packaging, allowing the designers to squeeze in legroom and luggage space. However, boot space, at 351 litres is slightly less than the Ford Focus and only a smidge bigger than the Golf. It is good, usable space, although there is a noticeable sill over which loads have to be lifted.

Visibility is reasonably good, despite the double pillars at the front with the small quarterlight ahead of the door. At the back the rear pillar is quite substantial, but actually better for visibility than previous Astras.

My road test car was the Astra 1.4 Turbo Exclusiv. Vauxhall is following Volkswagen’s lead in replacing larger capacity normally-aspirated engines with smaller turbo engines. This is all part of the race to achieve the best-possible fuel economy and low carbon dioxide emissions.

Vauxhall Astra interior

There are actually two 1.4-litre turbo power units in the new Astra range. The most powerful is badged the SRi and, with the turbocharger, produces similar performance to the old 1.8-litre SRi.

The test car was the less powerful 1.4-litre version which is simply badged “turbo”. This version puts out 140PS at a remarkably low 4,900 rpm – a power peak that equates more to diesel engines. But, being a petrol unit, there are plenty more revs in reserve, although there is little point in taking the engine up closer to the red line.

Acceleration 0-60mph takes 9.0 seconds. It is pretty responsive at all but the lowest revs and power delivery is progressive enough that you have no sensation of power surges from the turbocharger.

Proof that the Astra Turbo achieves the aim of utilising a small engine with turbo. Performance is more than adequate and the figures indicated both good economy and low emissions. The combined fuel consumption is 47.9 mpg and carbon dioxide emissions are 138 g/km, putting the Astra Turbo into band E for UK car tax.

Vauxhall Astra Turbo

I did feel that these headline figures may have been helped by slightly over-the-top gearing (something that is increasingly evident in the current chase for ever-more-impressive fuel economy and lower emissions). That does mean that you will have to change down a gear to get the best responses.

The gearchange itself is the one weak point in terms of the controls. In a car where the steering, clutch, brake and accelerator all feel particularly smooth and progressive, the gearchange feels rather mechanical and notchy. This lets down the otherwise high levels of refinement.

Perhaps aided by the longer wheelbase, the ride quality is refined, which makes for relaxed cruising on motorways and dual carriageways. But, with the progressive controls complemented by precise steering and good body control, the Astra Turbo is a pleasant companion when the roads become narrower and twistier.

The Vauxhall Astra Turbo costs £17,775 on the road (at 2010 VAT rate). The final clincher for some drivers will be Vauxhall’s new lifetime warranty, which will cover the first owner of the vehicle for problems with the powertrain, steering system, brake system and electrical equipment up to 100,000 miles.
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