Good: generous level of equipment, excellent to drive
Not so good: sleeker style reduces some aspects of practicality
If you're in the market to buy a new five-door hatchback you will find yourself in the enviable position of having a great deal of choice, most of which represents reasonably good value for money. But in this segment of the market there is often little to separate rivals from one another beyond simply euro and cent. Most offer 1.6-litre diesel engines, most offer at least three equipment levels to choose from and, thankfully, most come with a five-star EuroNCAP safety rating.
There is now one new model that stands out from the crowd, although it's a familiar old name, the Opel Astra. It's a model most of us are familiar with and over the years we've probably all known someone that owned one of the many generations that have existed. This all-new Opel Astra though is a significant step forward for the German brand.
Some might call it an evolution of the previous model from an exterior styling perspective, but I think it looks much sharper than that statement might suggest. Even in this 'SC' specification (one step up from the entry level model) it looks sharp. The only visual upgrade here are optional larger alloy wheels, money worth spending, although if ride comfort ranks high on your priorities list then the standard 16-inch rims will leave a generous enough sidewall to add to the comfort.
With a starting price of €25,195 for this more powerful 136hp 1.6-litre CDTi diesel engine you get a reasonably good level of equipment. Cruise control, a multi-function trip computer and all-round electric windows are added to the 'SC' trim over the already standard air conditioning, automatic lights and electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors. Compared to similar specification grades in the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf the Astra comes out on top as the most generously equipped, though the 'SC' grade doesn't include the Opel OnStar service assistance system. If performance isn't everything for you there is also a less powerful 110hp version of the same engine, which comes in €1,000 cheaper and even though it doesn't feature the start-stop function it falls into the same motor tax band.
Just as important though is how the Astra compares to its rivals on the road. The short answer is, very well. In fact, I think it is now the best car in its class. You're unlikely to test it to extremes in day-to-day driving but underneath that svelte shape is a chassis that feels really well sorted. It is capable of being hustled along as quickly as its 110hp engine will permit without feeling out of its depth in any situation.
Contributing to this is a suspension setup that is compliant and performs well at absorbing the bigger stuff while still retaining the kind of composure you would normally expect from a car that was much more stiffly sprung. Even the assisted power steering feels as good as its best rivals', proof that such systems can be tuned to be rewarding for the driver.
Topping off all of this is that 1.6-litre CDTi engine, which is a marked improvement over past diesel offerings from Opel. The spread of its 320Nm of torque is good and feels more distributed than the narrow peak that the technical specification would suggest. Over the course of a week it seemed every bit as frugal as the rest, but it was its refinement that really shone through. It also features start-stop to further reduce fuel consumption around town.
Opel's designers have done a sterling job on the interior. Not only does it feel better put together than before, the quality of the materials, even on this relatively basic specification, is good. Clever touches, such as a slim holder in the centre console to put your smartphone into, are welcome. After all, how many of us usually drop them into one of the vacant cupholders?
Some clever rejigging of the physical layout of the car gives a greater sense of spaciousness inside, especially for those in the rear, but overall the car is lower, a fact that some may dislike when getting in and out.
Minor criticisms aside this new Opel Astra is a thoroughly good car and even going for this more basic 'SC' specification won't leave you feeling disappointed. It performs every bit as well as it looks and in my opinion is now a better choice than either the Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf.