Price: £20,345 (range spans £18,495-£22,430). On sale now
Engine: 1,364cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbo, 140bhp
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 125mph, 0-62 in 9.0sec, 47.1mpg official average, CO2 140g/km
GTC. A few weeks ago, this meant Grand Touring Convertible, as in a new Bentley Continental. This time it means Grand Touring Coupé, and the tag is applied to a Vauxhall Astra. Cynics might assume this is but a way of hyping a three-door version of the existing five-door Astra hatch, but there's more to it than that.
The only external parts shared between the three- and five-door Astras are the door handles. Everything else is unique. The windscreen and rear window have a "faster" slope, the wheels are set more broadly apart and seem to stretch the body out with them. What was once a front grille has shrunk to little more than a winged badge, while the lower air intake has grown. It looks the proper racy coupé, yet it has virtually the same generous interior space as the five-door.
It also looks smaller than it is, a trick of proportion played by the big wheels. Straight away these wheels bring on in me a sinking feeling, that the ride over broken British roads will be awful and that the muscular look has taken precedence. But that is to pre-judge; the UK is the biggest market for Astras and will be so for this more sporting variant, so much of the development has been done here. The cars are made here, too. UK-market cars even get UK-specific steering settings, designed to cope with our twisty, cambered roads and to please the drivers who hope to enjoy them.
All GTCs come with so-called HiPer Strut front suspension. This enables the axis about which the wheel steers to be moved outwards, so it passes through the middle of the tyre's contact patch. This means that when the engine's power is fed through the tyres, it doesn't tug the car to one side or the other when accelerating on a surface of uneven grip. In a powerful, front-wheel drive such as this, it's a useful refinement.
Six engines are offered, three petrol and three diesel, beginning with a 1.4-litre turbo petrol of 120bhp and culminating, excitement-wise, in a turbocharged petrol 1.6 with an impressive 180bhp. I tried this last engine, plus another turbo 1.4 with 140bhp and a 2.0-litre turbodiesel with 165bhp on tap, all in GTCs equipped to the higher SRi trim level – a Vauxhall designation of sporting intent.
Current-generation Astras I've tried have felt capable enough, but slightly heavy and clumsy for what is meant to be a compact car. So my hopes for a rousingly entertaining drive in the GTC were not high. I was wrong.
All three cars I sampled steered with precision, consistency and credible weighting, making them agile and easy to place. They responded keenly to the accelerator, particularly in corners, where engine power could be used in sporting fashion to fine-tune the cornering line. And yes, they coped very well with British bumps, proving supple despite the precise responses. Thank a very clever rear-suspension design for that, a piece of genius in its simplicity.
I stormed up two motor-sport hillclimbs in the 1.6, which remained faithful right up to my ragged edge. The 2.0 turbodiesel felt muscular and relaxed, but more fun on the road is had in the excellent 1.4 turbo, which is probably the best all-round bet. All were as good as I hoped they would be, better than I thought they would be and – crucially and the biggest surprise of all – more enjoyable than a new Ford Focus.
It's a quality job inside too, with pleasing trim materials and even a DAB radio. Recommended? Absolutely.