Vauxhall has really come up trumps with the SRi, a marque that miraculously rescues a make from mediocrity.
Vauxhall's third-generation Astra was derided by the motoring press. Its end-of-term report might have read: "Early promise unfulfilled, uncouth in sophisticated company, hopeless at games, must improve."

Backs were to the wall at GM Opel in Germany, where Vauxhalls are designed. The Mk 4 replacement, launched last March, had so much ground to gain that sceptics doubted GM's ability to deliver. After all, the Corsa was dynamically indifferent and the mid-range Vectra not much better. The doubters, however, were wrong.

In a quantum leap forward, the Astra, once a symbol of mediocrity, became a car to relish, to be cosseted and entertained by. It is now acknowledged as a match for VW's new Golf, if not Ford's brilliant Focus, the class benchmark. Stepping up to the warm-hatch division, where crisp handling and liveliness are essential ingredients, the Astra SRi sets the pace, at least for the moment.

The three-door SRi is powered by a strong two-litre engine with all the buzzword accoutrements, including twin camshafts, 16 valves and two balancer shafts. They work. There's no top-end harshness or vibration to deter indulgent revving. Not that you need to race the engine, as it pulls with gusto in the lower reaches. The new Astra, 80 per cent stiffer than the one it replaces, is not light - and weight blunts performance. Even so, the SRi comes across as a live car with eager acceleration.

It is the Lotus-fettled suspension, however, that makes the three-door Astra such a good drive. Steering is not especially responsive (the big wheel doesn't help), but it is accurate and easy. There's safety (and fun) in the prodigious grip, it feels immensely secure and unfussed on twisty roads, and emergency swerves are simulated without relinquishing grip, so high are the cornering powers. Pity the generous tyres roar so loudly on coarse surfaces.

Traction control hardly seems necessary, given the car's modest power and great tenacity - but you get it all the same. Also standard are anti- lock brakes, two airbags, alloy wheels, remote central locking and an alarm/immobiliser. Air conditioning costs pounds 650 extra.

Excellent seats (a Vauxhall speciality) and a driving position that suits most shapes do more for comfort than the stiffened suspension. Not that the ride is anything but composed on most roads. Getting into the back is a bit awkward but legroom is fine. There's nothing wrong with the packaging.

The all-round ability of the SRi augers well for coming GSi and Lotus- badged Astras, with even more pep and power.



Price: from pounds 15,620 on the road.

Engine: 1998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 134bhp at 5600rpm.

Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, front- wheel drive.

Performance: a top speed of 128mph, 0-60mph in 8.5 sec, 32.8mpg combined.


Citroen Xsara Coupe: 2.0VTS, pounds 17,545. Quicker, more powerful than Vauxhall - and pricier. Competent, entertaining car, lacking flair and individuality. Citroens are not what they were.

Fiat Bravo 2.0HGT: pounds 15,818. Great style, lots of pizzazz, good value. But fails to fulfil promise as great driving experience.

Ford Focus 1.8: 5-door, pounds 13,350. Brilliant. Great looks, handling and comfort. And all in a "cheap" mid-range model.

Peugeot 306 XSi: pounds 15,670. The driver's car to beat in the warm-hatch class. Goes well, handles superbly. But beginning to feel its age.

VW Golf GTi: from pounds 16,570. Not the hot-hatch it was, more lukewarm. Well made, competent - but unworthy, dynamically, of its GTi badge.