First drive: 2021 Vauxhall Astra prototype review

Vauxhall is keenly aware it needs to get this one right. The Astra has long been one of the company’s best-selling models, and arguably its most recognisable over the years, too.

Despite the rising importance of SUV models across its line-up and the increasing inroads being made by pure-electric rivals on the back of generous government incentives in some markets, the traditional combustion-engined hatchback still makes up a 14% share of the company’s overall sales – a figure it expects to remain constant up to and beyond 2030.

To see what Vauxhall has in store for the new Astra, we were invited to drive a series of prototypes of the sixth-generation model in the final stages of a two-year development programme currently being carried out in Germany. They are early hand-built examples fitted with various data loggers, as is usual at this late stage of testing, but they are nevertheless representative of what we’ll see here when sales begin in September.

In a move similar to that already undertaken with the latest Corsa, the new Astra has been comprehensively re-engineered under the guidance of Vauxhall’s parent company, Stellantis. At the centre of its long list of changes is the adoption of a brand-new platform: the third-gen iteration of the EMP2 architecture originally introduced by Peugeot-Citroën in 2013.

The adoption of the new platform is a significant shift for Vauxhall, netting greater economies of scale through increased material procurement and component sharing with other Stellantis-run brands, including with the new Peugeot 308, alongside which the new Astra has been developed. As is now the case, all models will be offered exclusively with front-wheel drive.

The new platform also brings a claimed 14% increase in torsional rigidity compared with the General Motors-developed Delta platform of the outgoing Astra. “We have done a lot of simulation work to give it the sort of front-end stiffness we consider crucial to our particular chassis tuning, and the way we like to set up our cars with greater roll stiffness [than Peugeot and Citroën],” said Andreas Holl, head of vehicle dynamics. “We started off with the EMP structure, but the extent of the changes means it could be considered a whole new platform.”

We’re still some weeks away from seeing the new Astra unwrapped, but it is already clear this new model departs quite a lot from its six-year-old predecessor in terms of styling. There are hints of Vauxhall’s latest Vizor design underneath the plastic wrap, most notably at the front where it appears to receive a similar headlight and grille treatment as the second-generation Mokka.

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Although the steering system is largely shared with that used by the new Peugeot 308, the Astra receives unique tuning, including its own specific steering damper.

Running on 225/40 R18 Michelin Primacy tyres, the prototypes we drove were in differing stages of development. The three-cylinder petrol model felt well sorted with a light but direct steering action, well-controlled body movements and noticeably improved roll and pitch behaviour. Although lacking for outright feedback and any real feel, the lightest of all new Astra models offers outstanding ease of driving, with agile qualities that make it enjoyable to drive, both around town and out on the open road.

The heavier plug-in hybrid wasn’t quite as convincing. Its steering delivered the linear qualities and immediate response Holl told us were high on the engineering priority list, but it was also overly light and devoid of any feel at all. “It’s not signed off yet. We’re still working on it,” said the long-time Vauxhall engineer. The petrol-electric model offers predictable handling, but at this stage of development it lacks the precision of its petrol sibling.

It was a similar story with the ride; the petrol model proved more compliant than the plug-in hybrid over a variety of different surfaces.

We’ll need more time behind the wheel of production versions to know for sure, but from what we’ve experienced so far, the new Astra is a far more convincing proposition than today’s six-year-old model. Its similarities with the new Peugeot 308 cannot be denied, but it is clearly a more mature and contemporary car with the sort of digital interior features, performance and driving characteristics that wouldn’t be out of place on more premium-priced offerings.

The best news, however, is that despite the clear focus on efficiency with the standard models, Vauxhall is also developing a successor to the Astra VXR. The new four-wheel-drive model is planned to receive a powered-up plug-in hybrid drivetrain developing in the region of 300bhp, though don’t expect to see it until this time next year at the earliest.