I am going to admit to some bias here. I’m fond of the Vauxhall brand by dint of circumstance. As a wee lad – I’m talking 17 and just passed my test – I bought myself an Opel Kadett. Yes, I know I said Vauxhall, but let’s not split hairs. It was essentially a Mk1 Astra, and while it was as tatty as a Scottish scone, it had character oozing out of every pore – including the rusty ones in the front wings. That car, along with some of the Vauxhalls that were around at the time, like the fabulous Carlton GSi 3000 24v, seared a connection to the Griffin that still endures today.
The force is waning, though. Yes, there’s been the odd flash in the pan since and some brilliant, big-engine stuff from down under, but other than that, truly great Vauxhalls? They’ve been few and far between in recent decades. Could that about to change? The GS branding is back, and while it’s GSe rather than GSi, even that’s got great connotations. At the launch of the Vauxhall Astra GSe there was a German-spec Opel Monza GSE on display, and that thing was fantastic.
The key difference here is that GSe stands for Gran Sport electric, and not Einspritzung for injection, as it did in the Monza days. But with the Astra GSe hatchback and Sports Tourer, and all future GSe models, comes a promise: the most powerful powertrains in the range, differentiated styling and a focus on driving dynamics. Sounds good to me.
Here the powertrain is a 1.6-litre plug-in hybrid, which is producing 225hp and 266lb ft of torque. The bad news is that’s the same powertrain as featured in a heap of other products in the Stellantis line-up, including mundane stuff like the Citroen C5 Aircross I drove last year. It delivers a 0-62mph time of 7.5 seconds, which doesn’t sound like it’s going to make this the hottest of hot hatches.
This is 2023, though, and hot hatches aren’t necessarily held to the ultimate speed standards that they once were. These days they have a broader remit, such as plug-in potential and cheap company car tax. The Astra GSe hatchback offers both, and with a WLTP range of 40 miles and a BIK rate of eight per cent, it beats the Volkswagen Golf GTE. The GTE does 38 miles, which means it’s in the 12 per cent bracket. The Astra’s battery is 12.4kWh, which takes four hours to charge from a home wall box or two hours if you spend £500 on the 7.4kW on-board charger.
On the styling front, it looks different but discrete. That’s a positive, not a negative. Vice President Design, Mark Adams, said they weren’t aiming for that traditional boy racer look. The objective was something clean and pure, and, by and large, the Astra GSe’s design is. It comes with a black visor front grille, black intakes in lower bumper, and part-black 18-inch aero wheels that fill the arches nicely.
It’s not OTT inside, either. Sports seats, a GSe steering wheel and some ‘fancy’ dash and door trims – spoiler alert, those aren’t that fancy and look a bit cheap – and that’s pretty much your lot. There are some other iffy materials dotted around the interior, but a lot of plush ones as well, so it not a cheap-feeling car. But then it’s not a cheap car either like Vauxhalls once were. The hatch is £40,550, which is over £1,000 more than the Golf GTE, and the Sports Tourer is £1,200 on top of that.
For that, you do get some mechanical upgrades, some of which are nifty. Koni Frequency Selective dampers, which are basically two-stage passive dampers that, when they reach a predetermined frequency, open up a second valve in the piston to reduce the damping rate. The aim is improved ride comfort, while still offering control the rest of the time. The GSe rides lower, the springs are 11 per cent stiffer, the steering response nine per cent quicker, and the ESC has been programmed to stand down for longer. Other than the hatch’s 1,703kg kerbweight (including driver), it all sounds quite enticing. I was a little bit excited.
Then I walked up to the car and, being focused on the details, I checked the tyres: Michelin Primacy 4s. Hmm, those don’t sound like the sort of tyres you’d stick on a car designed to deliver fizz. And as I drove around in the Sports Tourer, which weighs 1,746kg by the way, I thought, ‘here we go again’. Another Vauxhall that promises much but underdelivers.
I found the steering dull and lifeless, while failing to provide the improved on-centre feel we’d been told it would. The brake pedal is too soft to begin with and full of regen corruption after that. And because you can’t tell intuitively what’s happening through the braking phase, the likelihood is you’ll end up having to modulate the pedal pressure as you draw to a halt. That seems to confuse the system and cause yet more interference.
That doesn’t help with smooth progress, and nor does the drivetrain. There’s the odd clonk from what I presumed was the transmission. It’s an eight-speed Aisin ‘box, which typically isn’t a great unit. It’s slow to respond and jerky. In normal driving the electric motor’s torque provides a good bit of infill to carry you off on a wave of shove, but if you ask for a full kickdown there’s often a considerable delay. It’s like each part of the drivetrain is saying ‘no, you first; no you…’ Meanwhile, you’re left hanging for a few seconds going nowhere.
When the drivetrain does eventually make a decision, the engine suddenly pipes up. Now, normal driving is fine: it’s either running in electric mode, which is quiet, or the engine’s running at low revs and you don’t hear much from it. But once it hits the mid-range or above it sounds scratchy and coarse. So much so, I went in search of the Sport mode, just to see if there was some fake overlay to mask it, but no. It sounded no different to me. Sport mode didn’t seem to make the transmission any more decisive, either.
I was expecting more of the same from the hatch, especially as a few of the other hacks had driven both and said that was the case – but it wasn’t. I preferred the hatch’s steering, which had a bit more connection around the straight ahead and a bit more weight build-up either side. It’s not the best steering I’ve ever tried – and it’s worse in Sport mode, with all the extra artificial weight – but you can feel the scrub of the Primacys as they reach the limit of grip, and overall it gives you the confidence to commit.
When you do commit, the rest of the chassis responds. There’s little body lean and it’s very nicely damped. Every now and then you feel the mass take a moment to settle, which reminds you about the extra heft of its hybrid stash, but that aside it’s surefooted. When it’s loaded up in a bend, with some good holding torque in the steering and a sense of grip rising through the chassis, the Astra GSe allows you to push on through positively and negatively cambered corners, even if there’s a nasty bump halfway along. It’s not playful, it doesn’t have a surfeit of grip thanks to those eco tyres, and there’s a modicum of torque steer at times, but you can cover ground quickly trusting it’s not going to do anything untoward.
Because the suspension set-up is good, it doesn’t crash over really nasty, broken Tarmac and rides speed bumps without a secondary bounce. That maintains a calm and settled ride, which although a little firmer than the standard Astra, is still comfortable. On top of that, the structure feels stiff and there’s very little suspension noise. On motorways, there’s not much drone from the tyres and the wind noise is light. In these respects, you cannot help concluding the Astra GSe’s chassis has proper engineering underpinning it.
Which makes it such a shame that the hatch is again let down by the drivetrain. It still takes far too long to react to what you’ve asked it to do, and still does all the odd things – those shunts and jolts – that you didn’t. It’s the one thing I struggled to accept, because even the brakes became less grating as the time and miles wore on. I liked the GSe in other respects. I liked the seats, which kept me ache-free after several hours at the wheel. If only they had a bit more shoulder support in corners, they’d be standout. The driving position is also good and very easy to tune, the infotainment is better than the Golf’s, and the Astra GSe has some buttons as well. Real ones, which are easy to use. These days that is a standout feature, so Vauxhall, I commend you for that. And the GSe is well equipped. I mean it should be, considering it’s over £40,000, but with standard kit that includes a head-up display, keyless entry, wireless charging and adaptive headlights, you won’t want for much. Some of that is optional on the Golf GTE, which balances out the price difference.
I’ve been a bit hard on the wagon, but there’s every chance the example I drove was slightly under-par – these were early cars, after all. I can’t say for sure because I didn’t have the opportunity to drive another. I hope it wasn’t representative because the estate’s rear is still practical despite the electrical gubbins under the boot floor. So is the hatchback’s, to be fair, with a bigger boot than the Golf GTE, and it comes with roughly the same amount passenger space, too. Just don’t add the panoramic sunroof; that robs headroom if you’re tall.
Is this Vauxhall’s performance-car renaissance, then? Well, the Astra GSe isn’t a truly exciting car in the mould of a Monza GSE or Carlton GSi 3000, so no, but it has some strong elements pertaining to its chassis. It also works as an everyday car, being easy to use and practical, and it’s cheap to run as a company car. All those are important facets for a car in this class that needs to appeal to a wide audience. It just needs a better powertrain and some grippier tyres to make it truly shine as a performance offering, but as it stands, it’s a good step in the right direction for a brand that has struggled of late. I left the launch thinking that I’d be happy to run one, and not just because of the tax breaks. That might not sound like the fullest of recommendations, but if you’re after a well-rounded new car, it is a recommendation nonetheless.
SPECIFICATION | Vauxhall Astra GSe
Engine: 1,598cc, plug-in hybrid
Transmission: eight-speed auto, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 225 (petrol 180; electric 110)
Torque (lb ft): 266
0-62mph: 7.5 secs
Top speed: 146mph
Weight: 1,703kg (inc. driver)
MPG: 256.8 (WLTP)
CO2: 25g/km (WLTP)
Electric range (WLTP): 40 miles