How Vauxhall transformed the Astra overnight

A FEW subtle changes can add up to make a big difference. Just ask McDonalds.

It’s not often I venture through the golden arches of temptation but a quick stop at one at one the other day verged on blowing my mind. What I’ve grown up expecting is a slew of bored teenagers queuing up in a haze of salty smells to get a quick fix before shuffling past the paintings of Ronald and his crew to sit down on cheap plastic chairs before diving face first into a fistful of fries. Yet out of nowhere the clown’s been given his P45 and replaced with the sort of service you’d expect in a first class departure lounge.

Ordering was a case of pressing a few buttons on a giant touchscreen. A few minutes later, someone would bring your fifteen minutes of calorific shame straight to your table, where you’re able to plug your phone into one of the chargers provided or check the news on an iPad-esque tablet attached to the table. It’s the sort of overnight image overhaul Madonna would be proud of.

Vauxhall hasn’t managed quite the same shock factor with its latest Astra, largely because people – quite rightly – liked the look of the old one and at a casual glance the current one looks barely any different. Peer a bit more closely and there’s a big silver strip running across the radiator grille and an angular new treatment of the glass behind the rear doors, but basically it’s business as usual. No bad thing; the old one was one of the snazziest looking contenders for your family car cash.

In fact, the reason why it’s just won the European Car of the Year gong is because of all the little tweaks to iron out all the old one’s vaguely rubbish qualities. Knocking the Astra in this corner of the country is a tricky task because it’s built here in the North West – but I’m sure even the people whose jobs depend on it will happily admit its dashboard was far too fussy and the windscreen pillars were so huge it made it feel like you were driving a four-wheeled bird hide. Most frustratingly, it handled competently but never threw any fun into the equation – it’d do everything well but never in a way that’d make you actively enjoy it.

Vauxhall’s listened. The new car has slimmer A-pillars that make the interior airier, and now there are fewer buttons and a touchscreen to make the dashboard feel less hectic. It’s also – and I’ve just spent a few days driving various versions of the new Sport Tourer estate version around the French Alps – noticeably nicer to drive than the outgoing car. The Astra’s gone from being something I dread in games of Hire Car Lottery to a car I look forward to.

In fact, it’s pulled off something I wasn’t expecting. For the first time in nearly a decade the Astra’s a better buy than the Focus. Well done Vauxhall – have some fries on me!

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