If you’ve got any experience of the old Astra, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you climb inside. The dashboard that was sprinkled indiscriminately with buttons and switches is gone, replaced by one with far fewer controls that are logically placed and clearly marked. The standard Intellilink touch-screen infotainment system, which supports Apple and Android connectivity systems, takes a little more getting used to, but it does lend the cabin a fairly high-tech feel. So do the OnStar services (free for the first year with the top two trims, optional on the rest of the range), which give you your own wifi hotspot and 24-hour emergency and breakdown assistance, along with access to your vehicle data through a smartphone app.
The other thing that strikes you about the interior is the quality, which is a marked improvement over the old car’s. There are some soft-touch materials and attractive finishes on show, and the design looks fresh and sophisticated. Granted, some of the panels – like the central partition between the driver and front passenger – feel a little scratchy and low rent, so it’s no match for a Golf on outright quality. However, Focus buyers may well be looking through your window feeling a pang of jealously.
What’s more, despite the fact that the Astra is a smaller car than its predecessor – shorter, lower and with a shorter wheelbase – it has more interior space. The rear seats have easily enough head- and legroom to keep gangly passengers happy, and the boot is also a decent size at 370 litres. That said, there’s a hefty load lip, and although you get split-folding rear seats, you’re left with a big step in the load floor when you fold them down. The hefty rear pillars don’t do much for your over-the-shoulder visibility, either.
The biggest big news for the new Astra, however, is how much lighter it is than the old car – up to 200kg in some forms – and this pays a variety of dividends.Firstly, the new car feels much lighter on its feet in the corners, turning more easily than before, giving the car an agile feel. This is helped further by strong grip, tight body control and nicely weighted steering with consistent responses. SRi models also have a Sport button that dumps more weight into the steering and sharpens up the throttle response, and it’s pretty effective in giving the car a slightly sportier character. Thankfully, the Astra also provides a reasonably supple ride. Yes, there’s a slightly firm edge over rough surfaces, but it rarely gets unsettled and strikes a really nice balance between comfort and control.
Enhanced performance is another benefit of the Astra’s crash diet, because the engines have less mass to lug around. There are eight to choose from, five petrol and three diesel, and the one we tried, the mid-range 134bhp 1.6-litre ‘Whisper’ diesel, delivers strong, consistent pull from around 1,500rpm to keep you rolling along easily in most situations. True to its moniker, it’s also pretty quiet, but you do feel quite a few vibrations through the controls. There’s some road noise to be heard at cruising speeds as well, but wind noise is very well contained.
Finally, and also partly thanks to the Astra’s lower weight, efficiency is also pretty impressive. The version we tested returns official figures of 72.4mpg and 103g/km CO2 emissions, while the cleanest Astra, the lower-powered diesel fitted with stop/start and small wheels, is capable of 91.2mpg and 82g/km.