Opel Astra: The light inside

Climb aboard and youre greeted with a vastly improved environment. No intrusive style line to compromise interior space, no near vertical hang-down console. Instead the centrepiece angles towards the windscreen, allowing more light to fall on its multitude of knobs and dials. The button count has risen substantially, but a cleaner layout means better ergonomics. Vertically arranged airvents range down the entire panel, making a rather Korean styling statement, as does the new mood lighting. A red glow emanates from the base of the gear lever, while the digital display that sits atop the centre stack is borrowed from the more affordable Cruze sibling, and backlit in a friendly orange. To top the show, the old cool blue instrument binnacle mutates to a bloody red when the car is shifted to Sport mode. Literally, the red mist descends

The leather-wrapped steering wheel was first seen on the Opel Ampera hybrid concept and feels great to hold. Similar tactile pleasure greets a grab of the gear lever. The plastic/hide interfaces on the dashboard and doors are equally complementary, though some of the designs are busier than they need to be. More overkill subsists in that the driver has access to four cupholders, excluding cup-friendly nooks in the doors. Rear occupancy is on par with segment rivals with that sloping roof line not adversely affecting head room, though more leg room would have been appreciated. Having said that, all five cloth seats are a pleasure to park off in.

Dip the clutch and twist the key (no start button silliness here) and a very subdued turbocharged 1.4-litre four-pot zings into life. Past Opels have always enjoyed a meatier resonance, which is missing in this more refined hatch. Yet it revs with verve, and while no performance car by any stretch of the imagination, it is eager. Cog swapping is a precise affair and the gearbox feels solidly constructed, up to the tasks demanded by what feels like a properly capable chassis. Engage Sports mode and the electronics dial in firmer suspension, heavier steering and sharper throttle response. The car employs the usual MacPherson struta upfront, with a torsion beam rear axle, assisted in this case by a Watts link cross member, essentially helping contain lateral loads between axle and body. The Cruze has amply shown the way here. Youll not notice it when trundling along in city traffic, but give the nimble Astra a winding stretch of tar and youre rewarded with an enthusiastic platform from which to mount a fairly entertaining attack as you whip from apex to apex. Understeer is present, but with only 103kW on tap youll not find enough to ruin the experience. If anything, the humble four-pot could do with more bottom end torque with which to slingshot through turns. Performance is comparable to previous generation 1.8-litre normally aspirated Astras, but this mill is greener and will reward with longer intervals between tank fills. In truth, its a gem.

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