A pleasant surprise. I have this car as a temporary company car until my Peugeot 307 HDi turns up in a few weeks, and I groaned inwardly when I was handed the keys. But it ain't half bad.
Despite the piddling 1.4 litre engine, the Astra rattles along surprisingly nicely. It feels painfully gutless off the line, but once you get the motor spinning, it shows typical Vauxhall engine enthusiasm to rev, and has a midrange which is a match for many 1.6 litre units. Sounds good too with a throaty growl as the revs build. Unfortunately however, Vauxhall has given it a low 5th gear to provide reasonable acceleration in top, which means the engine is screaming when you push on towards 90 mph. This massacres fuel economy on a run. My old 1.8 litre 306 would give a rock solid 35 mpg at 90 mph. The Astra struggles to get within 5 mpg of this figure despite its 400cc and 30 bhp power deficit. Considering the performance on tap, it's not good, and proves that the small engine option isn't always the cheapest to run. The 1.6 version is probably cheaper to run.
The car itself is a revelation. The last Astra I drove was a mk2 which was a hateful bucket of bolts. The mk4 couldn't be more different. It handles sharply, rides smoothly and has a beautifully built (if dull) interior. There are some nice touches too like the brilliantly designed steering wheel controls for the radio / CD player, the crystal clear, centrally mounted display which shows outside temperature, radio settings and time, and the fact that the electric windows stay powered after the ignition is switched off, which means no more fumbling around for the key when you realise you've left a window open.
The single worst thing about this car is its steering. It's horrible. You get the same weighting and (zero) feel whether doing a three point turn, or barrelling along at 90 mph. It makes the car difficult to place accurately, and requires undue concentration to maintain a steady course, particularly in sidewinds. The 306 showed how steering should be done, and moving from one car to the other shows just how hopeless Vauxhall power steering is.
Overall though, a good, practical, pleasant driving family hatch. Much better than I was expecting, and I can recommend it. Apart from the steering and the fuel economy, it doesn't do much wrong at all. Well done Vauxhall.