Talk about a bold move. The Astra hatch, once the automotive embodiment of me-too conservatism, has gone all sexy and svelte. Pursuing a policy of creating radically different three- and five-door models - initiated by the Renault Megane and followed by the Citroen C4 - has given Vauxhall the freedom to create a head-turningly handsome three-door Astra. And it's a very desirable bit of kit.
Headlamps and bonnet aside, the Sport Hatch is clothed in bespoke sheetmetal. It sits a good 45mm (1.7in) lower than the hatch, and with its wider tracks, long wheelbase and more swept-back windscreen, it looks impressively squat and aggressive.
The Sport Hatch also gets a quicker steering rack and uprated springs and dampers over the five-door model. But whilst Ford and Volkswagen have made much of their expensive and sophisticated multi-link layout in the Focus and Golf, Vauxhall has stuck with its trusted torsion beam rear axle. With good reason - it's simpler and cheaper to manufacture, and with the cash saved, Vauxhall was able to give the Astra's cabin softer plastics and higher equipment levels. The rear suspension is also a more compact layout than the multi-link system, allowing the Sport Hatch designers to install a low-slung rear bench to compensate for the sloping roofline. The result is decent headroom for rear passengers and a boot with equal capacity to the five-door.
When it goes on Sale
on April 10th, there will be a wide range of petrol and turbodiesel engines and all meet the Euro IV emissions standards. The petrol range comprises two Twinport fuel-injected units - an 89bhp 1.4-litre and a 104bhp 1.6-litre, and a 123bhp 1.8-litre. For now the quickest Sport Hatch from launch gets the turbocharged 167bhp 2.0-litre, but later this year the tuned-to-240bhp 2.0-litre VXR model will arrive, with a sub-£20,000 price tag. The turbodiesel line-up - all commonrail units - starts off with 98bhp 1.7-litre, and two 1.9-litres that develop 118bhp and 147bhp. There will be a choice of six-speed manual, five-speed automatic and Easytronic clutchless automatic transmissions.
Prices start at £13,795 for the 1.4-litre SXi and top out at £18,145 for both 150bhp diesel and 170bhp petrol flagships with Sports Pack. An optional £650 Styling Pack adds 18-inch alloy wheels, body kit and a roof spoiler.
Standard equipment levels are high across the range: six airbags, air-con, sports seats, anti-lock brakes, traction control, remote central locking, leather-wrapped steering wheel, sports suspension, 16-inch alloys and a CD stereo make it into every Sport Hatch. The list of options is long, too, with several gismos to keep drivers engaged and safe: a Sports setting recalibrates the electronic maps of the steering and throttle for a more dynamic driving feel, while Understeer Logic prevents things getting out of control. Other extra kit includes electronic damper controls, adaptive headlamps, tyre deflation warning and a panoramic roof, which is not so much a glass roof as an extension of the windscreen up and over to the rear.
Getting Lotus involved in the development of the car's ride and handling dynamics has paid off - and how. There's real sophistication in the weighting of the controls and the progressive response from all driver inputs. You don't need more than a mile over a challenging road in the car to know that engineers rather than accountants have developed the Sport Hatch.
Performance from the warm 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol is very strong. Its 0-62mph time of 7.9 seconds is quick, but it's in the mid-range that it really excels. It's a free-revving engine, zipping to its red line with real enthusiasm and delivering a crisp exhaust note. The 1.9-litre CDTi may lack the 2.0's aural thrills, but it more than makes up for it with sheer grunt. From just above idle right through to 4000rpm, it pulls with an addictive punch of acceleration that makes the petrol feel a touch lethargic by comparison. In-gear urge is impressive - the Astra charges forward in fourth gear with the same enthusiasm that most hot hatches can deliver only in second.
Even in the rangy, long-legged sixth gear, the commonrail engine has enough muscle to fly past slower traffic and flatten inclines. All this with nigh-on 50mpg economy. It makes the diesel Sport Hatch an impressively quick and comfortable ground-coverer - and probably the pick of the line-up.
The Astra feels fluid and terrifically controlled no matter how quickly or aggressively it's thrown into corners. You can really pour it through a string of corners and bends, carving through them in clean, fast arcs.
The gearlever on the six-speed manual 'boxes is wrist-flick light and precise, with a snappy, short throw. No problem shedding speed, either: the brakes are powerful and progressive. And the clutch has plenty of positive and early bite.
Still, there are niggles. The steering could do with a touch more involvement - it's quick and precise, particularly in Sports mode, but despite weighting up nicely through corners, it feels a little numb when everything else about the car feels alert. Rearward visibility is, unsurprisingly, poor and some may find the throttle response in Sports mode a little too aggressive.
In isolation the Astra is a fine car - head-turning, dynamic, affordable and spacious. It's also a fine thing to look at. Only Citroen's intriguing three-door C4 challenges the Astra's visual credentials, but it's nowhere near as good to drive.
This is a great car. No matter what the journey - whether it's a long motorway haul, a quick and fast back-road blast or a slog through rush-hour traffic, the Sport Hatch impresses because it's as good to drive as it is to look at. Vauxhall reckons it's going to clean up with the Sport Hatch and I wouldn't bet against it.