The cheapest petrol is a 1.4-litre, although we haven’t driven it and this non-turbocharged engine is unlikely to be a good choice given its lack of torque. The 1.0-litre turbocharged engine that’s next up in the range is a much better bet. Granted, this and the base 1.4 are the only models to get a five-speed gearbox rather than a six-speed, but the little three-cylinder 1.0 is refined and feels punchy at all but motorway speeds.
We haven’t tried the turbocharged petrol 1.4 (offered in two different power outputs) and 1.6 engine in the ST, although experience in other cars suggests they’ll be entertainingly punchy and refined, with the 1.6 delivering real hot-hatch like performance.
All the diesels are 1.6-litre, starting with a 109bhp version, going up through 134bhp and then up to a 158bhp bi-turbo diesel range-topper. We haven’t tried the lowest powered version, although given its very low emissions and decent torque outputs it could well be a good shout for company car buyers. The mid-powered diesel is our pick, as it’s got really gutsy performance and is well priced, while the top-end car is stonkingly fast but you pay a substantial price for the added excitement.
An automatic gearbox is optional on the 1.0-litre and higher-powered 1.4 turbocharged petrol engines, and the 134bhp 1.6 diesel.
The Astra handles well, feeling quite alert and keen to change direction, and there’s less body lean during hard cornering than you’ll experience in most rivals, although a Ford Focus is still a more fluid, involving drive. This, in part, is down to the Vauxhall’s steering, which is a little too light, and the weight doesn’t build quickly enough when you turn in to fast corners.
The flipside of this is that the Astra’s ride is a little firmer than in some rivals, falling short of the excellent damping that marks out the Ford as having the best ride and handling balance in the class. That’s not to say that the Astra is ever uncomfortable; it softens sharp-edged bumps quite well and it isn’t unsettled by mid-corner intrusions, but you do get a bit of a thump and fidget over scruffy roads. It’s still better than an Octavia for ride comfort, though.
Refinement is very good on the petrols, but the diesel models suffer from quite a bit of vibration when the engine starts up and at low speeds, and there’s very noticeable diesel dirge whenever you accelerate hard.