The Vauxhall Astra has been one of the most popular cars in the UK throughout its history. The extent of that history is open to question. The official launch date was 8 March 1980, but we believe there’s a strong case for saying that 2019, not 2020, is the Astra’s 40th anniversary year. That, at least, is our story and, as they say, we’re sticking to it.
Before the Astra: the Viva
The Astra directly replaced the third-generation Viva. Manufactured from 1970 to 1979, this was the last car completely designed by Vauxhall to remain on sale, though the 1972 Victor was the last to be introduced.
Before the Astra: the Chevette
It’s also reasonable to say that the Astra was a replacement for the Chevette, though the situation here is more complicated because production of the two models overlapped by four years. The Chevette was Vauxhall’s version of the Opel Kadett C, so named because it was the third Kadett produced after the Second World War, though three more had been manufactured in the 1930s.
Introducing the Astra
The original intention was that the Astra would be an Opel Kadett D with different styling. Vauxhall worked for some time on a ‘droop snoot’ front for the car until Opel decided that it should simply be a right-hand drive Kadett with different badging. The new model was the first European General Motors model with front-wheel drive (using a gearbox designed by Isuzu, a Japanese company also in the GM empire), the first to use a new engine called Family One and, in the case of the Astra, the first Vauxhall of the modern era sold only in the UK and not exported anywhere else.
The Astra’s UK-only status was a one-way situation. Strange as it now seems, Opel decided to market the essentially identical Kadett D here too, and British customers were able to buy it from September 1979. The Astra might have appeared at the same time, but its launch was delayed for several months, partly by industrial action and partly because initial demand for the Kadett was very high. It did, however, make its first public appearance in November 1979 at the Scottish Motor Show in Glasgow. These are the reasons why we reckon 2019 is the car’s anniversary year, though your mileage may vary.
Early Astras were built alongside the Kadett D at a factory in Bochum, Germany, which continued to produce cars until December 2014. British unions reacted badly to the idea of Astras being imported from another country, but that situation did not last long. On 16 November 1981, three months before moving to a similar position at Opel, Vauxhall’s then Managing Director Ferdinand Beickler drove the first British Astra off the production line at the Ellesmere Port factory in Cheshire.
Car of the Year
The first Astra/Kadett came close to being named European Car of the Year in 1980 but in fact took second place, 68 points behind the Lancia Delta and 102 ahead of the Peugeot 505. Its replacement did the job five years later, beating the Renault 25 into second by 65 points. This car was mechanically very similar to the earlier model but had a much rounder and more aerodynamic body. It was available in several body styles including a three-box saloon known as the Belmont (pictured).
The most powerful of the early Astras were the GTE versions, which used the larger Family Two engine in first 1.8- and later two-litre forms. The Mk2 GTEs had an early example of a digital instrument display. Many cars have similar (though much more advanced) systems nowadays, but at the time it was very unusual, and to some extent controversial.
The third Astra
GM Europe revised its naming strategy in the early 1990s. Its superminis, previously known as the Vauxhall Nova and Opel Corsa, became known as Corsas wherever they were sold. One size up, the change went the other way. The third-generation car was now known as the Astra in all markets, using a name which had first appeared as recently as 1979 rather than as far back as 1936.
Despite a fresh look, the new Astra was still closely related to the first, but there were many detail changes, mostly relating to passenger safety and convenience. Seatbelt tensioners, side protection beams, ABS, central locking with deadlocks, an immobiliser, a catalytic convertor and a pollen filter were all available either as standard or as optional extras.
Hot hatch versions were now known as GSi rather than GTE. The first GSi was heavily criticised by the UK media to begin with, though it became noticeably better after a makeover. A Vauxhall press officer claimed, not very convincingly, that it had been modified to take into account the rapid deterioration in British road surfaces in the past three years. A high-ranking Opel engineer told a different story. The marketing department, he said, had insisted the car should be launched before it was ready, and on the wrong tyres.
Into the new century
The fourth Astra was introduced in 1998 and was still available in some markets until 2006, though strictly speaking it had been replaced two years earlier. It was available as a hatchback, a van, a convertible and a rather attractive coupe.
The next-generation Astra entered the market in 2004 and was updated in 2007 with a new 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine. This was more powerful than the existing two-litre but also performed better on the official fuel economy and emissions tests. The car was initially available as a three- or five-door hatchback (the former known as Sport Hatch) and an estate, and was also the last Astra offered as a van.
The Sport Hatch had the option of a panoramic windscreen, which was the same width as the normal one but extended back into the roof over the heads of the driver and front passenger.
Vauxhall was one of several manufacturers to take part in the brief craze for coupe-convertibles, and launched the Astra TwinTop shortly before Ford and Vauxhall introduced their similar products in 2006. The TwinTop’s three-piece roof folded or unfolded on command, in a process full of visual drama, in just under half a minute, and according to Vauxhall it could be expected to do so reliably every day for 27 years.
The first VXR
VXR was a contraction of ‘Vauxhall Racing’ and the British equivalent of Opel’s OPC. It was first used for an Astra in 2005. That car had a 237bhp two-litre turbo engine and was developed in conjunction with Lotus, but its remarkably low price (£18,995 without optional extras) suggested that not much time had been spent on it. Sure enough, despite press enthusiasm for its straightline performance, it struggled to cope with the power the engine produced.
The Astra launched in 2009 was one of the best-looking yet, thanks to the work of a team led by British designer Mark Adams. Another positive feature was a complex but very effective rear suspension system which helped the handling of all Astras, regardless of body style.
Reasonably priced car
The BBC used an Astra 1.6 Tech Line for the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment of its Top Gear programme from 2013 to 2015. In fact there were three cars, all fitted with safety equipment by Welsh preparation experts Harry Hockly Motorsport. Two had manual gearboxes, while the other, intended for American and/or inexperienced drivers, was an automatic. One of the manuals was auctioned for charity in December 2015. The other cars are still owned by Vauxhall. The best Astra time on the Top Gear test track was 1 minute 44.6 seconds, set by Olly Murs.
In 2013 Vauxhall made an attempt on the world 24-hour speed record for standard diesel cars up to 2000cc. (Two cars, both prepared in the same way as the Top Gear ones, were in fact used in case one failed to complete the run.) The first target was to beat the existing record of 100.2mph. The second was to average at least 110mph, since 2013 was Vauxhall’s 110th anniversary. On the two-mile banked circuit at the Millbrook test facility, which Vauxhall owned at the time, the actual figure achieved was slightly over 125mph. The Astras therefore beat the world record, along with 17 other UK and world records for various times and distances.
The most attractive Astra of this period was surely the three-door GTC, which in previous years would have been known simply as the Astra Coupe. It came with a choice of two petrol and two diesel engines, all turbocharged, the most powerful being the 178bhp 1.6-litre petrol.
The second VXR
The second-generation VXR was based on the coupe body but was never officially referred to as a GTC. Its 276bhp power output was much higher than that of the previous VXR, but thanks partly to a very well designed front suspension system and an excellent Drexler limited slip differential its handling was excellent, and it had astonishing traction for a powerful front-wheel drive car. In 2013 Vauxhall entered a VXR in the British Hillclimb Championship and won the Road-Going Series Production Cars over 2000cc class.
The current Astra made its public debut at the Frankfurt Show in 2015. It is based on a new platform developed by Opel and used by several GM brands, and is up to 200kg lighter than equivalent models of the previous generation. In 2016 this Astra became the first since 1985 to be awarded the European Car of the Year title, beating the new Volvo XC90 and Mazda MX-5.