Dec 6 2008 Jonathan Smith
Vauxhall Astra SXi 1.9 CDTi Sport Hatch
WITH the watery sun casting its streaky rays across the rolling hills, I hurtled downwards in what felt like a glass bubble - a bit like being in a tiny helicopter.
But it wasn't a chopper, it was something far more mundane. A Vauxhall Astra, in fact.
The latest Sport Hatch SXi version has the most amazing panoramic roof which at the turn of a knob transforms the rather sombre cabin into an array of light and airiness as a sliding 'roof liner' slips back deep into the car revealing a giant glass panel. Great for plane spotters and twitchers, it also turns an average journey into a voyage of discovery.
Clever roof design apart, the Sport Hatch is a no-nonsense four-seater which fits somewhere between a coupe and a conventional hatchback. The plus is that it looks sporty and rakish with its squat, wheel at each corner stance and lowered height. Less positive is that the sloping rear and narrow rear window make reversing into spaces a tricky business. Rear and side visibility is akin to peering through a letterbox.
I opted for the 'smart-money' model, the 1.9 CDTi which presents the perfect compromise between frugality and performance. With 120bhp at your disposal, the diesel engine ensures a 9.7 second sprint to 62mph and tops out at 122mph. In everyday terms, this is plenty fast enough thanks to loads of torque and good low-range acceleration despite an engine note that you'd hardly describe as sporty.
Economy is a strength and I regularly managed close to the magic 50mpg mark despite making full use of the performance. The official average figure is 50.4mpg.
Front seat passengers are well catered for with comfy, shaped seats and a smart if old-fashioned facia. Full-sized curtain airbags are standard as is the trip computer with economy and average mileage read-outs. Those in the back may find clambering in and out something of a challenge but space there is quite reasonable although the narrowing field of vision tends to make it a bit claustrophobic.
Lugagge space is better than most coupes. With seats in position, it will hold 312 litres of luggage and up to 1,073 litres when the rear seats are folded.
Like most German and Belgian built models, there's a reassuring feeling about the Astra's build quality. It feels as tough as nails, with a heavy clunk as the doors close and never a rattle to be heard.
Handling, partly thanks to the lowered and stiffened suspension, is pretty sharp and very safe in true front drive style. The nose will slide wide if seriously provoked but a tad more steering lock will bring it back into line.
The price tag of £17,240 includes 16in alloy wheels, air con, sports seats and leather steering wheel. The incredible panoramic roof is an £831 extra.
Vauxhall Astra SXi 1.9 CDTi Sport Hatch 3dr
Price : £17,240
Mechanical : 120bhp, 1,910cc diesel engine driving front wheels via 6spd manual gearbox
Max speed : 122mph
0-62mph : 9.7 secs
Combined mpg : 50.4
Insurance group : 8
CO2 emissions : 149g/km
BiK rating : 19%
Warranty : 3yrs/ 60,000 miles, 6yrs anti-rust