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Sensible looks but sporty at heart The Vauxhall Astra Sport is a welcome replacement for the clumsy Astra GSi

ROAD TEST Vauxhall always had a problem with its Astra GSi hatchback. It might have looked the part of a race-track fugitive, but those in the know would not to buy one. Despite its potent performance, it was a chore to drive, with stodgy steering and a lumpy ride.

Early versions added a disinclination to accelerate in a straight line to these unappealing traits, but Vauxhall fixed that with some to the tyres and front suspension. However, General Motors, Vauxhall's parent company, refused to accept criticism of the handling and rubbery ride that afflicted all its front-wheel-drive cars, not just the Astra. The company stipulated that all its cars must be capable of tackling a violent lane-change manoeuvre at near-maximum speed, with a full load on board, even when driven by a novice driver. All very laudable; but rather cautious stuff, especially in view of the speed limits in this country. And it imposes huge constraints on the way a car behaves.

Now, however, the Sport heralds a new, more realistic outlook from GM's engineers. The GSi has gone, killed by rocketing insurance premiums and the inappropriateness of its aggressive aura to the caring Nineties. In its place comes the visually more tepid Sport, denied the top GSi's powerful 2.0-litre engine but featuring the 1.8-litre, 16-valve engine of the cheaper version. There are also a 1.6-litre motor and (in a Sport?) a turbodiesel. Five-door and estate-car body styles supplement the expected three-door. You can own a Sport and still seem sensible.

Demure as the Sport looks after the GSi, its underpinnings show promise. Here is where the new philosophy has been developed with British tastes in mind (as it should be, given that the Astra is made in Britain and wears a British badge, even if the design is German). New, gas-filled dampers improve comfort by eradicating the shudder and shake, while different rubber bushings and a repositioned anti-roll bar sharpen-up the front suspension.

All the latest Astras benefit from this fine-tuning - you can recognise them from the chrome V on their noses - but the Sport also gains a new steering system which responds more quickly to the driver's commands.

The Sport 1.8 three-door, closest heir to the GSi, makes the best use of the changes. The effect is considerable, transforming the unpromising Astra into a car that is fun to drive. The steering is still a little slow compared with that of, say, a Peugeot 306 XSi, but it now has a measure of precision and responds in proportion to the effort applied to it. Add to this the Astra's new-found desire to track tenaciously round a bend instead of running wide, and you will find yourself flowing through corners in a way quite alien to drivers of the GSi. The Sport might have lost some of the autobahn sneeze factor, but it is a better car for its sharper wits.

Then there is the engine. Vauxhall claims it to be 10bhp short of the same-size GSi motor's output. Having performance-tested both, I can tell you that the new car goes every bit as well as the old one: an impressive 8.3 seconds to reach 60mph and a respectable 121mph top speed. The power is delivered smoothly and strongly, too, with plenty of muscle when pulling from low speeds in a high gear. This is just as well, given that the gear-change remains loose and unsatisfying.

Of course, there is more to owning a car than driving pleasure alone. Solidity, build quality and interior space, all these the current-shape Astra has always had. But now that it can offer an enjoyable drive as well.

When you consider this Sport is actually a shade cheaper than the GSi 1.8, yet offers standard-fit alloy wheels, a coded anti-theft transponder in the ignition key, and a lower insurance grouping to make up for the loss of visual kudos, it makes a great deal of sense. What looks like less is actually a whole lot more.

SPECIFICATIONS Vauxhall Astra Sport 1.8, £12,875 Engine: 1796cc, four cylinders, 115bhp at 54OOrpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 121mph, 0-60 in 8.3 seconds. Fuel consumption: 30-35mpg COMPARISONS Alfa 145 - 1.7- 16v, £12,995 Its snarling looks guarantee instant recognition. A pity, then, that the engine is sluggish, and that it lacks cornering panache.

BMW 316i Compact, £13,350 With 3-Series credentials and a handy hatchback body, the Compact's success is assured. But both performance and ride comfort are mediocre. Rear seat space is cramped, too.

Peugeot 306 XSi, £13,675

On driving pleasure alone, the 306 heads the class. No rival steers as precisely while riding as comfortably. Lacks solidity.

Volkswagen Golf GTi, £12,995 Its glamour has faded, but it remains the rational repository for your hard-earned cash. It is well-built, fast enough to be fun, secure yet responsive.