Friday, 9 November 2007

Test Drive - Vauxhall Astra SRI

Life is full of little disappointments. Godfather III, Coke Zero, the last three Manic Street Preachers albums – all tame imitations of strong and impressive origins. The worst kind of disappointment, however, is the really niggly little one that spoils an otherwise joyful and satisfying experience. The kind of situation where, for example, you meet the girl of your dreams in a bar; supermodel flawless, brewery heiress, private racetrack in the grounds of her mansion, can recite verbatim every Monty Python sketch… and then you discover that she has rampant halitosis, or she laughs like a freshly wounded hyena trapped in a bagpipe, or she used to be called Kenneth. The one little irritation spoils the entire experience and you’re left thoroughly unsatisfied.

If you’ve driven the new Astra (or, indeed, the new Vectra) then you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to. It’s the indicator stalk. It’s what’s known in the world of motoring journalism as ‘a right little bastard’. But we’ll come back to it later, it’s not really fair to introduce the SRI on such a negative note.

You see, against all the odds, the new Astra is a genuinely good car. Astras of yore have seldom been anything to write home about; granted, I’d truly love to own a mkI GTE (for its retro eighties angles alone), and the late-model mkII GTE had a superbly naughty 16v XE engine that thrived on revs and was virtually unbreakable. Unfortunately, there’s no escaping the fact that the vast majority of Vauxhalls of the eighties and nineties were fundamentally, well, shit. Inexpertly nailed together, formed from funfair-grade steel with integrated rust accelerators, wired by vagrants with severely impaired vision and upholstered using the offcuts from a ropey wild west saddlery, there’s a reason why most Vauxhalls you see on the road are sitting on un-hubcapped steels with comically faded paintwork and arches you can waggle your fingers through. But something has changed. Vauxhalls in the 21st century are good. Seriously.

It’s not just that they’re actually stuck together properly now, but the design work is little short of revolutionary. Honda Civic aside, you can’t name a current hatchback that’s as mould-breaking, striking, and with as much sheer road presence as the Astra. Even as a five-door (because obviously three-doors are much cooler), this one cuts quite a dash. But it’s far from a simply cosmetic marvel – it’s actually really rather pleasant to drive too.

On paper, the power figures aren’t that mindblowing. 138bhp from an 1800cc 16-valver? My old Renault 19 16v offered that, and she was built in 1993. Still, there’s clearly something special going on under the bonnet, some form of magical trickery or euro-stardust under there that gives an impressive combination of immediate acceleration and a broad spread of torque from 2000rpm upwards. In fact, this 1.8 feels much peppier than Renault’s current 2.0 16v engine; alright, it lacks the throaty roar as you approach the redline but you can’t argue with the thrust.

The handling is, again, not Astra as we know it. A pronounced history of cribbing notes on chassis development from Lotus is evident here in the way that the ride is compliant and everyday-smooth, yet creates very little body roll through the corners and displays almost none of the understeer you’d expect from a spicy front-driver. Contrary to expectations, those ultrasexy 18” alloys don’t destroy the ride with the 17-year-old-seafront-cruiser-with-Nova-on-nineteens overkill that seems so inevitable; they just directly follow the laws of physics – the increased rubber contact with the road exponentially increases grip, and that’s all there is to it. You simply point and squirt in the corners, it goes wherever you want it to.

OK, the dashboard is horribly plasticky and seems to have coagulated together from the greyish runoff of a Haribo production line, but to its credit it doesn’t rattle or squeak and feels solid enough. The driving seat is (as long as you fix your gaze outside of the car) an enjoyable place to be. The seats are excellent, gripping you in all the right places without being restrictive. The steering wheel is small and thick, giving a real sporting feel. The gearbox is a peach – slick, precise, superbly judged ratios. The stereo’s even clever enough to display track names on a Fratellis CD. It just all comes down to that indicator stalk. I can’t even bring myself to describe how annoying it is. Try one for yourself and you’ll see how one simple thing can totally ruin a perfectly good car.
It’s an excellent machine, truly it is. Attractive and alluring, marvellous fun to drive, well engineered, reasonably exciting without being overstated… just don’t buy one. Trust me, that little stalk will drive you mental.

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