It is tough to stand out in the family hatchback segment as there is a lot of choice. This sector in Ireland has been dominated for a long time by the Ford Focus and the Volkswagen Golf, but Opel's Astra has always had a strong following. The Astra comes in a variety of body styles though this new-shape model was launched in five-door guise only to begin with. Prices start from €20,605.
In the Metal
The five-door Astra generally has more conservative styling than the more sporty three-door but the new Astra does look better than the old model, with many of the styling cues of the larger Insignia adopted to good effect. It's hardly surprising that Opel's stylists have worked hard to give the Astra a more upmarket look. Certainly it looks more solid, the rather showy looks of its predecessor making way for a less edgy, more substantial appearance. It's largely successful too, the Astra neatly proportioned, the rear looking particularly smart with its arrow-like taillights and wrap-around rear window. If it's weak in one area it's the front, the driving lights trying hard to lift the nose, but it otherwise looking rather generic.
Inside, it's a mix of Insignia - meaning the bulky steering wheel - and unique Astra touches. There's clever lighting to give the impression of a floating fascia, but for all the visual tricks Opel should have perhaps concentrated more on the basics - like reducing the button count on the fussy centre console and running the same soft touch plastic from the top of the front doors to the rear ones. As it is the harder material topping the rear doors rather smacks of cost-cutting and the centre console isn't the easiest to use. It's spacious though, the seats are firm and comfortable and the boot is decently sized.
What you get for your Money
The specification levels on the Astra for Ireland are S, SC, SRi, SE and Elite. The S spec model comes with a pretty generous amount of standard equipment that includes Electronic Stability Programme, air conditioning, CD player with auxillary-in socket and remote central locking.
With suspension and steering tuned specifically to suit our roads the Astra's chassis engineers are promising great things from the five-door hatchback. The ride is particularly impressive, isolating the horrible surfaces that pass for roads in Ireland - all while retaining good body control. Pay extra for the 'Flexride' damping and you can choose between a more sporting set up or a comfort orientated one, but the standard car is good enough not to warrant spending more on the push-button chassis alterations.
The smooth ride is complemented by high levels of grip and excellent refinement in terms of both road and wind noise. Four petrol engines are offered in 1.4- and 1.6-litre sizes: two turbocharged and two naturally aspirated. They're complemented by three turbodiesels of 1.3-, 1.7- and 2.0-litre capacities, the 1.7-litre engine being offered in two power outputs. The 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol unit should offer good performance given its 138bhp and quoted 0-100km/h time of 9.0 seconds, but the car we drove felt gutless, requiring big revs to shift it with anything approaching the sort of pace we'd expect. The 123bhp 1.7-litre turbodiesel is a different proposition altogether, pulling the Astra along with ease, it a far more desirable all-rounder - particularly with its 4.7 l/100km combined fuel economy figure.
The steering in neither offers the sort of clarity of information offered by Ford's Focus, which, given the decent body control and impressive ride quality, is disappointing. It's quick enough and decently weighted, but the Focus still delivers a crisper, more intense driving experience at the wheel. The Astra has never been closer, though.
As with any replacement model these days the environment has played a big part in the development of Opel's Astra. The result is an emissions improvement of 13 percent. Green fiends will have to wait a while for the cleanest Astra - the ecoFLEX model with its 109g/km engine not arriving until a few months after the standard Astra's December 2009 showroom introduction.
Opel is making rather a big deal about the storage space inside, particularly its ability to house '20 common items' within the cabin. Really, it's no cleverer than its rivals, and the boot's FlexFloor luggage compartment is nothing more than a divider that gives a top and bottom floor to the luggage space. Useful perhaps, but not particularly innovative. Annoyingly, in the rainy conditions of our test, the driver's windscreen wiper habitually pulled water back across the screen, lessening visibility in already tricky conditions.
Opel's new Astra is better looking and classier, comes with more standard kit, is more environmentally sound, smooth riding and refined. There's a lot to like about it. It's certainly up there with the obvious rivals, but it fails to shine enough in any particular area to have people flocking from VW and Ford showrooms. Existing customers will be delighted, as the new Astra is unquestionably a very impressive car, if not an exceptional one.