Vauxhall Astra GTC SRI CDTI review

4 out of 5
£22,430 (starting price) £24,410 (as tested)

For

Decent power/economy blend from diesel engine, cheap running costs, looks good

Against

Interior isn't as great at the exterior, doesn’t excite like a VXR, rear visibility compromised

We’ve already had a day of seat time in the almost comically overpowered VXR version of the Astra GTC. But what if your tastes - and frankly - your wallet, would prefer something a little more restrained and economical?

Enter the (deep breath) Astra GTC SRi CDTi. A diesel-powered version of Vauxhall’s Astra-based Coupe, in semi-sporting SRi trim. At a smidgeon over 20 grand, it’s certainly a good deal more attainable than the VXR. Road tax is free in the first year and it promises over 50mpg. So, it’s likely to be finance-friendly, question is, can it tug at our heart-strings in the same way as its big brother VXR did?

Looking good

You could hardly accuse the regular Astra hatch of having been hit with the ugly stick, but the GTC takes things to another level. Let’s not mess about – this is a really good-looking car. It’s got a great stance (the way its body sits over its wheels). It looks purposeful without resorting to overt aggression and that front face – which has been changed more than you’d probably first credit compared to the regular Astra – looks great in a hawk-ish way.

It will depend on your personal taste, but we reckon it’s better looking than the VXR – because there’s none of the aggressive visuals that come with the body kit. Instead, the SRI follows the "speak quietly, carry a big stick" mantra. Purposeful, confident style without shouting. We like that.

Step inside and the exterior design does serve up one or two issues - namely how hard it is to see out of the back. We noted this in our review of the VXR, but if you tick just one option box on whichever GTC model you buy, make sure it’s rear parking sensors. Luckily, boot space is good, and without the VXR’s recaro seats, you’ll even squeeze a couple of friends in the back.

In the cabin, you’re gripped by a great set of part-leather-covered seats. They go really low and hug you tight. The quality of materials feels is almost VW-good, the instrument cluster appealing with its chrome-surround dials and flying binnacle hood, but the centre console is festooned with buttons. These aren’t the most intuitive to use - we kept grabbing the wrong one to adjust the radio volume, which is actually the smaller of the two main knobs.

Tech bangs for your buck

Like most, the navigation system in this Vauxhall’s optional, but much, much cheaper than the BMW 3-Series’s at £855. For that, you get the nav complete with an RDS-based traffic system, an SD-card slot and full colour display, plus a 7-speaker, upgraded stereo system.

The really good news is that, even if you don’t option the navigation system, you get a DAB radio as standard. So three cheers to Vauxhall for actually recognising we’re in the 21st century and that, yes, we do want to listen to Euro 2012 matches on 5 Live crackle and hiss-free and like some late night jazz-crazyness on 6 Music. Take note other manufacturers.

Programming all of this system isn’t the most intuitive process, but once you get over the intimidation of the centre console button-fest, it’s simple enough. You can punch stuff in via a scroll and click knob on the dash, which while far from perfect, we still prefer it over touch screens. It’s just a shame that the screen graphics are a little crude and oddly coloured.

Still a joy to drive?

The main worry following our drive in the VXR was that this 2.0 turbo diesel model would feel like a letdown on the road by comparison. But it was a genuine surprise. This is a fairly old-school diesel, with a good bit of turbo-lag and a relatively narrow power band which means not a lot happens below about 1800 rpm.

But once it’s in its zone, the GTC flies – thanks to a decent amount of pulling power - meaning the Astra makes light work of overtaking slower traffic and rather too easy to run into licence-losing speeds on the motorway. Keeping it in this power zone isn’t a great chore as the gearbox is one of the best we’ve used in a non-sporting/premium brand.

It’s also a bit smoother on the road than the VXR, thanks to the 18-inch wheels (the VXR runs optional 20s). These do fill the wheel arches noticeably less fully, but it’s not as if the GTC looks under-wheeled. No doubt helping the ride out was our car’s optional "Flexride" adaptive chassis system. At £790 it gives you the option to put the car in Sport mode for a firm ride, heftier steering weight and sharper throttle response and means the dampers adapt to the road conditions. In sport mode, you also get the comedy addition of the instrument panel lighting up red. In truth, we left the car in normal mode most of the time, it’s all you really need.

Get the Astra up on to moorland roads and you can have fun and cover ground at an impressive rate without things getting larey. You’re not going to hang the rear-end out like a rear-wheel drive sports car, but we did find we could keep up with the odd petrol-powered hot hatch we came across, which was a nice surprise and clearly annoyed their drivers.

Settle down to a motorway cruise and the GTC is quiet, refined and effortless. Around town, there’s stop-start and hill-hold assist – the latter in our view a bit inconsistent and aggressive in its application. As with the VXR, we’d just prefer a proper handbrake lever, rather than the daft electronic switch - these are popping up on just about every car we test now.

Verdict

So, if you bank manager or your company car scheme’s giving you a "computer says no" response to your hopes of an Astra VXR, should you feel hard done by if you have to settle for an SRi instead?

Not really. Let’s be honest, the diesel’s never going to thrill you in the same way, but don’t dismiss it. When it first arrived, we didn’t think it was anything special. But the more places we went in it, we noticed it turning heads. The more we drove it, the more we realised how quickly it covered ground. Only that interior and its switches continued to rankle. Otherwise it’s a great all-rounder.

It’s not expensive to buy, should be cheap to run (returning over 40mpg in regular driving) and is good-looking enough that you’ll glance back when you park it on your driveway at night. For a brand that’s at times struggled with its image, that’s a very good thing.

So the GTC SRi is a good option for those wanting good coupe looks and a decent drive on a budget. Question is, how does it stack up again the other small coupe competition – notably the VW Scirocco and the new Toyota GT86? In the next few weeks, we’ll let you know.