The Vauxhall Astra is one of those great British staples. It has been around since 1979, through 35 years and 6 generations. Like Vauxhall as a brand, the Astra has come a long way in that time.
Originally launched in 1979 as the Opel Kadett, the MK1 Astra revolutionised the company - it was the first Vauxhall to be offered with front wheel drive, which had now become the staple in Europe thanks to cars such as the Peugeot 205 and Volkswagen Golf. Winning What Car? Car of the year in 1980, the astra replaced the Vauxhall Viva, which had been built in the plant at Ellesmere Port since 1964.
Originally built in Germany, production of the Astra moved to Ellesmere Port in 1981.
The first Diesel Astra came about in 1982, with a just 55bhp on tap. To put this in perspective, a standard modern Astra SRI will have 165bhp from its 2.0-litre CDTi diesel engine.
Four years after the launch, the Astra joined the 1980s hot hatch party with a GTE model that was fitted with a 1796cc 115bhp engine that launched the car from 0-60mph in just 8.5s - more than a match for the likes of the Golf GTI, the Peugeot 205 and the Ford Escort XR3i.
The Mk2 Astra was released in October of 1984. While designed with the same sort of shape as the Mk1, it was totally restyled and had much better aerodynamics.
The 5th edition of this model won European Car of the Year in 1985, scoring well in terms of practicality, aesthetics and economy as well as power. It also achieved record levels of aerodynamics thanks to its sleek design.
The next GTE version came in 1987, with a 130bhp 2.0L engine. However within two years, power was upped even further to 150bhp using a Cosworth-developed red-top engine. It had a top speed of of 135mph and thanks to its low 1000kg kerbweight it could hit 60mph from stand still in 7.0s flat - quick even by today's standards. This particular car still has a strong following today.
A saloon version was also launched to take on the Ford Orions and Volkswagen Jettas of the era, in the form of the Vauxhall Belmont.
While the Astra played 2nd fiddle to the Ford Escort in terms of UK sales figures, it sold well enough to confirm to GM bosses that it was a model worth keeping in the growing Vauxhall lineup.
Essentially a restyled MK2, the Mk3 offered improved safety tech as well as a more modern-looking body. It included twin side impact bars, front seat-belt pre-tensioners and a toughened safety cage. Air bags were also introduced and crash tests proved that the Astra protected its occupants far better than most of its rivals from other manufacturers. It was available in a range of body styles including both 3 and 5-door hatchbacks, a 4 door saloon, an estate version and a 2-door cabriolet. The phase 1 models were produced during 1991-1994 and the phase two models from 1995 until 1998. Allegedly, there are some models built in the gap between the phases that use parts from both. The Mk3 was the first Astra to use the new corporate 'V' on the front grille.
The range-topping 2.0-litre GSI with 150bhp was produced between 1991 and 1994, when General Motors pulled the plug because rising insurance costs were crushing the hot hatch market. The GSI did reappear in 1997 but with a new Ecotec engine that only produced 137bhp.
Special editions were rife in the 1990s, and the Astra was no different. Lots of manufacturers appeared to be competing to see who could come with the worst name for a special edition. Vauxhall's entries included the Astra Swing, the Astra Atlas and the Astra Ethos.
MK4 Astra 1998-2004:
The Mk4 Astra was a giant leap forward in terms of engineering. Ride and handling were massively improved and the car was also awarded a 4-star NCAP safety rating, which was a very good result for the time.
The revisions worked and the Astra was a success, particularly in the UK, despite what many claimed to be fairly bland styling - though in 3dr SXi form (as above) it looked relatively sporty. Rather than second fiddle to the Ford Escort however, the Astra was now third fiddle behind the Volkswagen Golf Mk IV and the revolutionary Ford Focus, though because it was around £1,000 less expensive than a golf, it remained a decent family runabout in 5dr form and the estate version provided even more practicality. It was also popular amongst the police, too, providing officers with safe, comfortable and spritely cars with which to chase criminals.
Even Jeremy Clarkson praised the Mk4 Astra for its electric power steering which he said was a 'revelation' when combined with its 'rather good' suspension. It surprised him beyond belief, even using words such as 'fun' and 'nice' during his road test.
In response to the Focus RS and the Golf GTi, a 2.0 Turbo model was added in 2002, with 187bhp.
Mk5 Astra 2004-2010
Finally a revolution! The Mk5 Astra was completely different in every single way to the Mk4 and it showed. Not only did the Astra now have a 5-star NCAP safety rating, both inside and out it was more than a match for the Ford Focus which itself had been dulled down slightly in 2nd-gen form. Jeremy Clarkson famously said he would 'eat his hat' if the 3dr sport hatch looked anything like the prototypes, and when it did he was made to do so on Top Gear by his colleague Richard Hammond.
One unique feature of the sport hatch was that it was the only production car available with the option of a panoramic windscreen, which looked great as well as making the cabin light and airy.
The used market for these models remains very strong, with the 1.6i and 1.4i petrol models the most popular. The diesels were much improved and the 1.9 CDTi version was available in different states of tune up to 150bhp.
SRI versions in both 3-door sport hatch and 5-door hatchback were available with an exterior pack featuring front and rear spoilers, side skirts and 17" sports alloys that that gave the car a very sporty edge, and proved popular amongst younger buyers.
In 2005 the ultimate Astra was released, the VXR sport hatch. It featured a 2.0L Turbocharged engine with 240bhp and cost £19,000. Because of the huge amounts of power and torque it was a bit of a handful to drive but most journalists agreed that it was incredible fun. In a straight line in obliterated rivals such as the Focus ST, Volkswagen Golf GTI and the RenaultSport Megane.
Mk6 Astra 2010-present:
The Mk6 really was a world away from the Mk4 that was introduced just 12 years ago. It was (and still is albeit in facelifted form) a very handsome and well-built family hatchback. It has been a very strong seller in the UK market due to its looks, practicality, economy and generous levels of equipment. SRI and SE models are the most popular and there are estate versions as well.
In 2012 the Ellesmere Port plant where the 6th generation Astra was being built came under serious threat, after GM decided it was going to close one of its European plants. At the last minute a deal was struck with the worker's union, and the plant was chosen to produce the forthcoming 7th generation Astra, which is in the prototype stages at the moment. This secured the plant's future until at least 2020, and as a result the GM plant in in Germany is to close instead, in 2016.
The Astra is available in both hatchback and estate form, and in 2011 the line-up was joined by the GTC, widely regarded as the best looking Astra ever - particularly in VXR form. That particular model was the most powerful front wheel drive car on sale in the UK when it was launched, with 276bhp from its 2.0L Turbo engine. That engine means the car is good for 0-60mph in just 5.9s, also making it the fastest Astra ever sold.
All we know about the seventh generation Astra is that it will be built in Britain, which is good news both for the car (you can be assured it will be built properly) and for the UK economy. With the rate the Astra has progressed in since its inception in 1979, we predict it to be the best one yet.