Why the new Astra sport Hatch is letting the light flood in

The future of hatches is looking up. Sean O'Grady explores
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I've been whizzing round in a Vauxhall Astra with a wind-screen that extends halfway along its roof. The effect, as you can imagine, is a little like sitting in a big glass bubble on wheels, and it was, mostly, great fun. You get to see a lot more of the world and spot things that you never even knew existed, like passengers on the top deck of a bus, and police helicopters scanning the landscape for desperado-es. Well, I did.

The Vauxhall's windscreen-cum-roof is quite an engineering marvel, a curvy tribute to the skills of the modern glass-making industry. I'd hate to have to try to fit a replacement on the hard shoulder, though. In case you were wondering, you don't have to fry or be dazzled by the sun if you drive this particular variation on the Astra theme: there's a sliding roof, complete with sun visors, that you can fairly easily move up and down with your left arm, adjusting things to suit driving conditions. It's a bit of a fiddle, I found, so it's best not to use it on the move, although that, of course, is precisely when you'd want to alter the depth of the screen most urgently. There's also no vanity mirror on the sun visors, presumably for some sort of safety reason. The Panoramic roof is yours for £850, by the way.

For such a clever, innovative idea, which drew admiration wherever it went, it has to be said that someone else has done it better. Citroë* fitted a similar type of windscreen to its new C4 Picasso compact people-carrier. But instead of a whole screen moving up and down, it just has a thinnish rail, upon which is mounted those vital sun visors. That way you get to stay bright and breezy without being blinded by the sun.

The Astra Panoramic that I tried was warm both in terms of internal temperature (actually easily relieved by the Astra's excellent and easy-to-use air-con system), and in terms of its performance – it was an SRi version. These three letters used to mean something close to magic for speed-freaks before they were dropped, eventually, in favour of three new letters – VXR – that denoted frantic, deranged performance. Now the SRi graphics are back, but signify a tamer way of going about things: a warm rather than a hot hatch.

Thus the new Astra SRi has a detuned version of the VXR's furious engine – a 150-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-litre unit (with the option of a 125-horsepower 1.7 diesel). This will take your bubble-on- wheels to 60mph in a very respectable 7.6 seconds, and on to a top speed of 130mph. I didn't make it to that sort of velocity (I promise), but I can assure you that this Vauxhall feels excellently planted on the road at speed. It doesn't pull much in sixth, which isn't a great fault, but in any gear you'll find plenty of urge.

It's fun to drive – most warm hatches are more controllable, and thus satisfying, than their ultra-hot siblings. Most of the materials used in the interior are every bit as good as you'd encounter in a Volkswagen Golf (the usual benchmark). As for the styling, the three-door Astra SRi has a coupé's rakishness about it. Try to imagine a different maker's badge on it – as you ought to with all Vauxhalls and Fords, to treat them fairly – and it is almost Italianate in its sexiness. Imagine how you would see it as a " baby Alfa", say.

The Astra – called "sport Hatch" in three-door form – looks good, though its purposeful stance comes at the expense of a severely restricted range of visibility at the back. Indeed, the three-door model needs a panoramic windscreen just to avoid a slight feeling of claustrophobia.

My main problem with the Vauxhall Astra, however, was that I couldn't pick up BBC Radio Five Live in it. That's pretty serious. Deprived of Peter Allen, Jane Garvey and John Pienaar, motorway journeys became unbearably tedious. There was lots to see out of that great big windscreen, but I really needed to widen my horizons aurally as well.