What’s on my drive…?

I have to be honest, the answer to the above question is not ‘a brand new luxury SUV’ but instead remains the vehicle which has seen me through the last 4 and a bit years. I’ve not actually spoken too much about my current car on this blog, not because it’s a big secret or anything but rather I had intended to do a full review/post much earlier than I have. My 2003 Vauxhall Astra is by no means the most exciting of cars so anyone hoping for an in depth analysis of some classic/mildly desirable car will probably be disappointed, but it has been a faithful servant to my family for nearly 10 years and it will always have a place in my heart as a vehicle which has seen me through the best and worst of times.

As a country, Britain has had a long love affair with Vauxhall’s family hatchback stretching back to it’s inception in the 1970’s. Never quite as popular as mega rival Ford’s Escort/Focus, the Astra has consistently been a top seller in each of it’s 6 generations and numerous body styles. The history of the Astra is far too long and complex to compress into one blog post let alone the opening paragraph of one, but essentially after a dull-but-worthy first generation, racy/futuristic second gen car and throughly average third, the fourth generation Astra was introduced way back in 1998 and was a big launch for the company. Handling had been tuned by Lotus and styling was meant to be subtle yet racy…in fact the 4th gen only Astra Coupe had been styled by Bertone and some of it’s designer lines certainly found their way onto the workaday hatchback and estate models. A much more upmarket and spacious interior cemented an overall impressive package which had only one weakness; the revolutionary Ford Focus which launched mere months after the Astra’s debut. The Focus was a game changer for the family hatchback market both in terms of handling and styling, and went on to continue Ford’s dominance of the segment by a healthy margin.

Although I was a mere 13 back in 2004 I already had some strong opinions about cars and the industry in general – as you can imagine I was very keen for the next family car to be an SUV but considering that we had not yet owned a car with more than 3 doors in the course of my lifetime, it was very unlikely (and I knew it). However it did finally seem that my dad, and more importantly my mum, were warming up to the idea of getting not only a car with rear doors but also a (slightly) bigger car! Oh how excited I was and being the keen bean I am, I scoured every car magazine in sight to decide what car wanted my parents to chose, or at least what they might at least consider. Being that most of the cars we bought were several years old yet low mileage, our budget and requirements seemed to vary considerably depending on what day of the week I asked my dad; I tried ferociously to get him to consider the likes of the Renault Scenic and Ford Fusion (yes I have always had a quirky taste in cars for a young person!) but in the end he narrowed it down to two choices. First up was the evergreen Ford Focus yet the clear favourite for all was a VW Golf in drag…the SEAT Leon. Exotic(ish) styling, a quality interior, frugal diesel engine and a rear centre headrest (my brother’s own strange requirement)  meant that all seemed happy apart from maybe my mum, who has never been a fan of VAG cars since my dad tried to force a Mk 1 Golf GTI on her. I was so certain that we would get a Leon that I actually bought my dad a SEAT branded keychain on our holiday to Spain a few months before we changed our car, but come a weekend in early February 2004 he announced that we were off to a Vauxhall dealer in Sussex to go and peruse a set of potential wheels.

God knows how he found it, these were the days before the Autotrader website and the like remember, but off we went to view the car that we subsequently purchased and still own to this day. An early 2003 ’52’ 1.8i Elegance 5dr Bi Fuel is it’s full name, but to the unobservant eye it’s merely an Astra in a rich metallic shade of dark blue on chunky 15″ alloy wheels (which were massive to me back then!) Being an ex demo meant miles were low as was the price, although considering that all of our previous cars had been at least 6 years old when purchased, the £12k that we paid was a huge chunk of cash and the fact it was under a year old also made the car feel nice and special. I’ve already stated about the Bertone connection that the Astra Mk 4 has and admittedly at the time it was quite a sharp looking car; said alloys seemed to fill out the wheelarches quite well and my dad commented that it looked like  BMW from certain angles, maybe a bit ambitious but admittedly the quirky 3 Series Compact does look a bit similar, especially from the rear. It also shares it’s tapered-off-tail look with the SEAT Leon we nearly bought, but whilst the Leon has aged somewhat gracefully I am not sure I can say the same for my Astra. Maybe it’s the fact they were/are so common that it’s shape has become part of the backdrop, but to me the design looks a little dull and tired; the feline front looks OK but the rear 3/4 view gives the car a pretty bulky shape that lacks the grace and elegant lines of most modern vehicles. Those 15″ alloys which so impressed me 10 years ago now seem dwarfed by the slab sided design, and even my mum’s Honda Jazz has 16″ wheels! It is also quite small in terms of dimensions, as the 4.1m length is now the size of larger superminis whilst family hatches have bloated by a good 10cm at least, but at least this means it is relatively easy to park…

Inside the cabin things are a similarly mixed bag; compared to a similarly aged Focus the more restrained design of the Astra’s interior has actually aged reasonably well and it remains easy to use for even the tech-deficiant. The centre stack itself features a small display at the top with temperature/date/time/radio information (very handy to be honest), and below the vents lies a straightforward radio with 6 presets and a CD player, although I don’t have the optional CD changer. Below this are three dials and a few buttons to control the ventilation system; this was the first car we owned to have air conditioning and I find it supremely easy to use, much more so than systems on luxury cars (including many of the ones I am looking at!) As my car is in top ‘Elegance’ spec it gets a fair few niceties which I don’t believe lesser trim levels received, among these are a leather wrapped 3 spoke steering wheel (with invaluable stereo controls), cruise control, chrome round the easy to read speedometer/rev counter and finally the questionable wooden trim that adorns the centre stack and gear lever. I am not a fan of this fake wood but it is better than ugly black plastic (I think), the same goes for the light grey velour seat trim which picks up fluff and dirt like nobody’s business, though again it is better than the cheaper trim models I believe. What I do like though is the use of soft touch material on the upper dashboard – probably not much compared to the leather padded trim on alot of modern cars but I have sat in significantly more expensive cars which have scratchy plastic abounding the cabin, not just lower down like in my Astra. Practicality wise the car is a big step up from what went before in our family, not least because it had a pair of rear doors! God knows how my parents managed with 2 small children and all the paraphernalia that comes with them in the back of our old Beetle, but the Astra finally meant that we had some breathing space and the ability to exit the car by ourselves! Rear space is actually surprisingly roomy and although it lacks rear vents or cupholders it does get rear electric windows and quite sizeable door bins, plus an arm rest with ski hatch! The glovebox is an average size but the boot is pretty big for the size of the car (around 370L I believe), the only problem with the Bi Fuel model is that the spare tyre space is filled with the LPG tank, so the full size spare has to be carried in the boot (taking up most of the space), unless like me you choose to take it out and leave it in the garage! My only negatives with the interior, apart from dated design and lack of some modernities, are the relatively low cabin (although applicable to any regular hatch I’d imagine) and the poor wearing of the leather on the gear level…I have not done many miles for it’s age but already the alot of the leather has come away leaving horrible grey cloth underneath.

Being the car I have amassed most miles behind the wheel of, I finally feel qualified to make some sort of analysis about the driving experience of the Astra. For starters I need to talk about the engine, which is a Bi Fuel factory fit system giving LPG power at the switch of a button. I can only assume that this is the reasoning behind my dad’s purchase of the car as the LPG system gives it a bit of a quirk in addition to potentially significantly lower fuel costs. I’ll discuss the LPG system later but in regards to driving it purportedly gives it slower performance than the standard engined cars. I can’t really verify this because I only use the car in petrol mode but I guess with full tanks of LPG and petrol as well as the heavy spare tyre on board, performance would probably be abit down. As it stands my 1.8 car goes like stink…in a good way I mean; 0-60 time should be between 8 and 8.5 seconds which is pretty much warm hatch territory today, and even though I rarely put this power to good use it is still very quick to pull off at traffic lights or at traffic lights. Aircon usage and/or extra passengers obviously reduce this by a bit but the speed of my Astra has been sufficient enough for me to discount the Volvo XC90 from my list over fears it would be too slow for me, in fact only one or 2 cars give a quicker 0-60 time despite in some cases their engines being double the size in terms of litres and much over in terms of bhp/torque! A combination of 120bhp and relatively lightweight are probably the reason behind this but it can start to run out of steam at higher speeds; at 75 mph the rev counter shows about 3500 rpm which is a little loud and uneconomical for my liking, a 6th gear would help greatly but in reality the car is pretty refined at speed and can overtake with ease.

Handling was apparently tuned by Lotus and although I don’t have a huge amount to compare it to, the Astra handles very tidily and remains easily controllable for virtually any driver. My general driving includes some stretches of A road, roundabouts, twisty suburban streets and the occasional country lane, so a good mix to give the car a work out; it handles them all with ease and I can easily throw it into a tight bend at 40mph without feeling out of control. Other cars  I have driven in a similar manner (ie a Honda Jazz, Nissan Micra and Mk 3 Fiesta) have not responded as well to spirited drives around roundabouts at 50mph at 5am on my drive to work, and to be honest I doubt any car I buy next will like that kind of treatment either, so the Astra might be the best handling car I own for a long time! The car’s ride is not quite as nice though, even with small 15″ wheels. I have had bad experiences with broken suspension bushes front and rear so I’m always a little wary of something being wrong with the car, but even with these things supposedly fixed it doesn’t seem to ride particularly well over speed bumps or potholes. The only other area where the Astra falls down a little bit is the gear change; my mum says that all Vauxhalls have this renowned quirk but I can’t really comment on that, still the gears are pretty notchy and I often miss second from third, resulting in a crunching noise and much embarrassment. Maybe this is why the leather around the shifter has aged badly but this is the only dent in the driving experience for me.

Anyone who listens to me harping on about getting my SUV tends to make noises about the potentially huge running costs of these beasts, and if I had bought a SEAT Leon from my mum then that might be a valid argument, but as it stands I think that my Astra has some pretty steep running costs considering the size/class of car and engine. Starting with fuel consumption and I would estimate I regularly average 30mpg on a day to day basis, with 40 maybe attainable on a run; this is pretty much in line with the official figures but equally not especially impressive when you hear comments that a Range Rover TDV8 can average around 27mpg, with 36 on a run. Diesel is more expensive I know and maybe my own figures will be lower given that I often experience stop start traffic, but consider the difference in size and weight and the Astra seems inefficient. Insurance has been another major cost for me, with group 8 insurance meaning high premiums from when I got the car aged 18. Being at uni meant that my quotes were a good £1000 lower than what they would have been living in London but my first year still cost £1800! This year it had come down to a much more reasonable £500, but when a Range Rover Sport will cost me a mere £150 more to insure that price still seems a little on the high side. Road tax is £190 for a year which is slightly cheaper because of the car’s alternative fuel status, but I’ve found servicing to be quite expensive. Originally we kept the car serviced at Vauxhall dealers because of it’s LPG system, but in my ownership I have used a local garage who gives it a standard service every year for around £300, which seems pretty damn high if you ask me!

I’ve mentioned a few negatives about the car so far but my biggest complaint probably lies with the reliability issues I’ve had, I guess something which doesn’t bode well for any car I may purchase next! I’ve owned my Astra for 4 years and in that time I’ve taken the mileage from around 27k miles up to around 66k, so not really a heavy life considering it did quite a few journeys up and down to uni as well as local trundling about. Replacement suspension front and rear I’ve already mentioned, whilst there has also been 2 sets of new brakes, 2 sets of tyres, a new cambelt, radiator and a few other things I can’t remember…plus a mysterious gremlin in the electrical system which every so often throws up the engine management light (which now disappears). Last year I spent in excess of £1000 on repairs/servicing and when you consider that it about what the car is worth you can see why this is pretty frustrating. My biggest annoyance though has been the failure of the LPG system which has robbed me of miles of cheap fuel as well as lining the pockets of Vauxhall dealers over Essex; just as my mum was going to sell the car to me the LPG system failed, and because it is a factory fit option it had to be dealt with at a Vauxhall LPG specialist. Admittedly she had failed to have the separate LPG service once but it meant mulitple trips to garages in Brentwood and Thurrock to get the problem first diagnosed, then one thing fixed to be told that it was actually the injectors which needed replacing-a job which would have cost £2000 to fix. Given that the petrol mode worked fine I decided just to leave it and ignore the LPG aspect of the car. It’s this which puts me off getting an LPG converted SUV despite the cheaper purchase/running costs, and I don’t think anyone could blame me really. I’m aware that any luxury vehicle has these potential problems but equally I would not be so taken aback given the other benefits those cars give.

As my time with the Astra draws to a close I get very sad thinking about all the memories associated with the car, a decade’s worth filled with family members and friends past and present as well as the independence of having my own vehicle and my time at university. Part of me wishes that I could keep the car given it’s low monetary/high sentimental value, or at least sell/give the car to my brother as he gears up to buy a car of his own (well at least he will once my mum stops letting him use hers for nothing grr), but realistically a 10 year old petrol hatchback is not the best choice of car for a young driver and undoubtedly a newer/more economical car would prove a wiser buy. Instead I will just have to hope that the old faithful ends up with a good home and that I am as lucky with my next car in terms of charm and owner experience.

PS I will update this post with pictures of my actual car in the next couple of days but in the meantime these will have to do!

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