The Vauxhall Astra is back in a new incarnation - but with the old image problems that obscure its consistent efficiency, reports David Wilkins

Price: £17,495
Engine: 2.0 litre turbo petrol
Performance: 0-62mph in 7.9 seconds, 34.1mpg
CO2: 216/km
Worth considering: Citroen C4 VTS, Honda Civic Type-R, VW Golf 2.0 FSI GT

There is a particularly daft suggestion that surfaces every now and then, and I confidently predict that it will continue to be made in the pubs and public prints of Britain in the future. It is that Vauxhall, General Motors' British badge, should be dropped in favour of Opel, the German brand used for GM's cars everywhere else in Europe.

The thinking seems to be that if Vauxhalls had a German badge, they would be able to shake off their slightly lacklustre reputation and sell in greater numbers. There is one flaw in this argument: Opel, while German, is no BMW, Mercedes, or even Volkswagen. GM Europe reports that last year it sold more Vauxhalls in the UK (373,540) than it did Opels in the larger German market (351,960).

But while rebadging Vauxhalls as Opels would be a bad idea, it's not hard to see why the suggestion is sometimes made. In fact, this week's test car, the Vauxhall Astra Sport Hatch, is a case in point. A handsome and capable car, it could easily be overlooked by today's image-conscious buyers, who tend to turn their noses up at anything that doesn't have a posh foreign badge.

First the styling; from the front it looks like other Astras - smart if familiar - but much of the rest of the bodywork is new. The sporty rear is particularly attractive, with many styling themes borrowed from GM's GTC concept car.

The 170 horsepower, 2.0 litre turbo-charged version of the Sport Hatch tested here is the fastest available at present, pending the arrival of the much hotter VXR model later in the year. It is fast rather than furious; the turbocharger fattens out the power and torque curves nicely but delivers comparatively little drama.

The interior of the Sport Hatch is well designed and nicely finished; the only real annoyance is Vauxhall's adoption of BMW-style indicator stalks that do not click home in the raised or lowered position. That makes it difficult to cancel turn signals manually.

Finally, a word about the name "Sport Hatch". You may recognise it as an echo of the "Sportshatch" tag carried by the two-door hatchback variant of Vauxhall's Cavalier back in the Seventies.

Opel's version of that car was called the Manta but there was never any chance of that particular name being revived; in Germany, even today, Opel has to battle against a vast body of popular jokes at the expense of the Manta and its owners.

These jokes occupy roughly the same position in the firmament of German humour that digs at Essex and chavs do in the UK. Like I said, better stick with the Vauxhall badge.

Eustace De Sousa, 44, health authority manager
Usual car: Fiat Punto

It is difficult to know what to make of this. There is little that is memorable, and what you do remember isn't always positive - annoying niggles that you wouldn't expect for more than £17,000. For example, indicators that are tricky to switch on and even trickier to switch off without indicating the other way. Although the steering wheel is adjustable, it managed to obscure some of the dials, and the driver's seat could have had better lumbar support. To drive, the Astra is a breeze and the driver's visibility was excellent. The turbo works very well, without a sense of rush. But if you're expecting something memorable, you're in for a disappointment.

Gary Fletcher, 34, banking relations manager
Usual car: Honda Civic Type-R

Makes a great first impression with its stylish looks. Inside the car the dashboard is well laid out with clear instruments and most major controls easily to hand. On the downside, the secondary controls are somewhat confusing and the plastics on the doors seem lower quality than the dash. On the road this is certainly no "hot hatch", and the gearbox is not the last word in precision. Feedback through the steering wheel was good and turn-in was impressive, and the Astra is a quiet and relaxed motorway cruiser. I would have sacrificed some of the refinement for a bit more excitement. Perhaps Vauxhall are saving the fireworks for the VXR version.

Chris Williams, 27, environment consultant
Usual car: Seat Ibiza TDi Sport

A handsome beast with an attractive mix of curves and angles. The interior was clearly laid out but rear visibility was poor due to the small rear window and chunky C-pillars. On the road the car had plenty of grip and was quick off the mark, although I expected its performance to be a little perkier. The gear-change was short and slick and the steering nicely weighted. The ride was comfortable without any noticeable compromise in handling and the cabin remained quiet up to motorway speeds. I liked the car but didn't see the point of this particular model: for the same money I would opt for the 150bhp diesel or go for the 240bhp VXR turbo.


If you would like to take part, e-mail or write to: The Verdict, Features Department, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, giving your address, phone number and details of the car, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26 and have a clean licence.

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