Vauxhall Astra GSe review: the plug-in hybrid that only makes sense if you’re a company car driver

Vauxhall Astra GSe - Andy Morgan
Vauxhall Astra GSe - Andy Morgan

I’ve been through my reference books to see what they say about adding weight to improve a car’s performance and handling: Carroll Smith’s Tune To Win, Colin Campbell’s Automobile Suspension and Turner and Browning’s BMC Competitions Department Secrets, not one advocates putting 400kg or so of lithium-ion battery, motor and wiring in a car to galvanise its performance and agility.

Yet Vauxhall wouldn’t be the only car maker with its arm twisted by legislation and tax regulation to add a plug-in hybrid battery electric (PHEV) drivetrain to its fleet. A PHEV might be a car with effectively two separate drivetrains which adds weight, complication and cost, yet if they have a large enough battery to provide a decent all-electric range they can garner highly prized benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax allowances for users, along with additional write-down allowances for the fleets that run them.

Volkswagen’s Golf GTE PHEV was launched in August 2014 and has been near to the top of the European PHEV charts since. Now Vauxhall (along with its German sister Opel) wants a bit of the action.

While you might be tempted by the idea of a family car in which you can trundle around town on electric power alone yet retain the independence and range of a petrol engine for long journeys, you might want to consider the price of this thing.

Vauxhall Astra GSe - Andy Morgan
Vauxhall Astra GSe - Andy Morgan

Vauxhall will tell you that this new Astra 225HP GSe PHEV is more accomplished, better equipped and more powerful than the 180HP version it replaces yet costs only £150 more. But… at £40,550 it’s no bargain and means you’ll be paying £355 a year in luxury car tax (applied to all cars with a list price above £40,000). On an Astra, for Pete’s sake.

The Sports Tourer estate version will be another £1,250 and doesn’t get quite such a generous BIK allowance. What’s more, Vauxhall has the cheek to charge an extra £500 for a 7.4kW charger so you can plug it into a household wallbox and reduce recharge times from 5.5 hours to just under two. By contrast, VW’s Golf GTE, which admittedly comes with the Germans’ accursed Cariad touchscreen software, is almost £39,000 in its lowliest spec.

Strictly business

No, however much you might think a PHEV might be a useful precursor to all battery-electric motoring and akin to doing your bit for the environment, the fact is that these cars are designed, engineered and built for business fleets where our illustrious legislators have rewarded their purchase whether they are regularly charged or not.

And HMRC is complicit in promoting the dubious PHEV environmental benefits, allowing buyers to use the inflated Equivalent All Electric Range (EAER) consumption figures with which to claim the tax benefits, figures which you will never, ever achieve in real life. This is a swizz perpetrated against ordinary taxpayers and motorists and no one seems to care.

You can’t blame Vauxhall for that state of affairs, so what is its Astra PHEV like?

Regular readers will know that we’re rather partial to a C-segment (family size) estate on the Telegraph’s motoring desk. Large without being sunblotting and suitable for dog owners whose hounds aren’t capable of the equivalent of leaping a five-bar gate just to get into the boot of an SUV. Good looking even, certainly more aerodynamic and agile than an equivalent SUV and altogether a tasteful addition to your drive.

Vauxhall Astra GSe
Vauxhall Astra GSe

As Ford bows out of the market with its Focus, the Astra faces stiff competition from not just the South Koreans, Kia’s Ceed and Hyundai’s i30, but also its rivals within the same massive Stellantis car-making group, Peugeot, Citroën and Fiat.

Fortunately, Mark Adams, Opel Vauxhall design chief, has a firm grasp on what he wants a Vauxhall to look like and that Sixties American-inspired look with sculpted bonnet creases, headlights that bend out like boomarangs and strong wheelarches cuts a dash on the road, particularly in the white of the test vehicles.

Don’t just take my word for it. During the launch I stopped for a coffee in an Andalusian town and was approached by several folk casting admiring glances and wanting to know what it was.

Size and load space

The GSe (which stands for Grand Sport Electric, but harks back to Vauxhall/Opel performance models of the early Eighties) is based on the latest Mk8 Astra body. The five-door hatchback is 4,374mm long and has a 2,675mm wheelbase (the estate is 4,642mm with a 2,732mm wheelbase). Both are 1,860mm wide with the mirrors folded and 2,062mm with them extended, and 1,442mm high. The hatch weighs 1,703kg with a 75kg driver and the equivalent weight for the estate is 1,746kg.

The boot space is 352 litres with the rear seats up and 1,268 litres with them folded – equivalent figures for the estate are 516/1,553 litres. The rear seat backs split and fold 60/40 per cent onto their bases to give an almost flat load bed, although sadly there’s nowhere to store the load cover/tonneau, which remains destined to be a spider hotel in the garage.

Vauxhall Astra GSe
Vauxhall Astra GSe

The petrol engine is the BMW-Peugeot 178bhp 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder unit, with a 108bhp electric motor and an Aisin eight-speed automatic gearbox driving the front wheels. Suspension is MacPherson strut at the front with a twist-beam, non-independent rear.

While it’s hardly slammed into the ground this top-model Astra rides 10mm lower than its more pedestrian sisters, and the dampers are racing-type Frequency Selective Damping (FSD) units which allow a soft initial approach to bumps, without the drawback of soft and spongey handling – or at least that’s the idea.

The battery is a lithium-ion 12.4kWh unit mounted under the boot floor which gives a total output of 222bhp and 266lb ft, a top speed of 146mph and 0-62mph in 7.5sec (7.6sec for the estate).

Fuel consumption is calculated in the dreadfully misleading EAER measurement protocol so is quoted at 256.8mpg for both cars, with CO2 emissions of 25g/km (26 for the estate). Once I’d used most of the battery capacity (just over 32 miles), I saw 37mpg while charging up the mountains into Andalusia or using the e-SAVE function to retain the battery charge for use in town, and about 60mpg when cruising more sedately.

Inside story

It feels nicely proportioned and mostly classy, with comfortable seats and lovely textured plastic and fabric surfaces, but it’s all matt black which is sombre and a tad too military in feel. It could do with some contrasting colour, if only in keylines and highlights to lighten the mood.

The dashboard sweeps around the driver with the digital instrument binnacle butted against the central touchscreen, which is nice but again in black. Mark Adams says we haven’t yet seen an all Opel/Vauxhall individuality as cars such as the current Corsa and Astra have been too late to benefit from full input from his department, but the Stellantis centre gearchange and driving mode controls don’t sit well with the aim of giving the Astra a unique feel.

Vauxhall Astra GSe - Andy Morgan
Vauxhall Astra GSe - Andy Morgan

Fortunately Vauxhall has doubled up on a lot of the touchscreen functions with logical piano-key switches underneath, which makes changing the heating less of a distraction. Shame it hasn’t thought to fit a single button to cancel the self-centring steering, which instead demands about five separate keystrokes to accomplish and return to where you were.

The seats are quite comfortable and supportive, but the under-dash area is cramped and you find yourself bracing your body against some of the facia’s sharp edges. In the back the rear bench is just about big enough for a couple of six-foot adults, three at a push, while you can barely fit a cigarette paper between knees and seat backs and heads and roof.

Vauxhall Astra GSe - Andy Morgan
Vauxhall Astra GSe - Andy Morgan

On the road

There’s a stable, almost planted feel about the Astra that we’ve come to expect of Opel-engineered vehicles, where autobahn high-speed stability is crucial. Cruising on Spanish motorways, there’s solid refinement and low interior noise, which speaks of painstaking development, although there isn’t a huge amount of steering feel despite its decent weight and accurate movement away from the straight-ahead; it’s pretty inert.

On the two-speed FSD dampers, the ride quality is good, with a comfortable if slightly wooden response to road seams and bumps. The Michelin tyres will make a ‘sproing’ report as they traverse potholes and sharp-edged bumps, but on the whole it feels modern, heavy and composed – just as long as you don’t push too hard. Driving up onto the Andalusian plains the GSe felt strong and safe, but not exciting.

Vauxhall Astra GSe - Andy Morgan
Vauxhall Astra GSe - Andy Morgan

Drive faster and the drawbacks of the Stellantis-derived drivetrain start to make themselves felt. At over 1.7 tonnes this is a heavy car and that makes it reluctant to change direction so you are always fighting the tendency to go straight on. And you notice the extra weight of the battery in the rear, which feels as though it’s been overcompensated for in the dynamic set-up. Lift off in a corner and the electronic stability is quick to stop any wayward antics. Aa Mark Adams says: “We weren’t looking for a boy racers’ car here.”

But the gearbox is a major limiting factor. It simply will not change down quickly when pressed, even in Sport mode. And even if you try to manually override the software by using the steering wheel paddles, it still takes an achingly long time to react. So you find yourself racing towards a corner with a highly stepped braking effect, not a lot of steering feel to help you around, a gearbox which refuses to provide any engine braking and a nose which doesn’t want to point into a corner. Slow down and this Astra feels refined and composed, but it doesn’t like to do fast.

The Telegraph verdict

Vauxhall’s commitment to providing value-priced motoring to the British public has to be admired. The Astra hatchback for example, is available from £25,290 and the Sports Tourer estate from £26,490. While the GSe is the top model, so you’d expect it to be relatively expensive, it simply costs too much – as are the compromises you have to make for the PHEV drivetrain.

If you don’t get a company car, or are able to run the vehicle through the books, this version is not the one for you. It’s a nice job, but there are not only better and cheaper plug-ins on the market, but better Vauxhall Astras as well.

Telegraph rating: Three stars out of five

The facts

On test: Vauxhall Astra GSe PHEV

Body style: five-door, five-seat small family hatchback or estate

On sale: now, for deliveries in June

How much? hatchback from £40,550, estate from £41,750

How fast? 146mph, 0-62mph in 7.6 sec

How economical? 256.8mpg, on test between 37 and 60mpg

Engine and gearbox: 1,598cc, four-cylinder turbo petrol, eight-speed torque converter automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive

Engine power/torque: 178bhp

Electric powertrain: 108bhp electric motor with 12.4kWh lithium-ion battery

Electric range: 39 miles (EAER), 31 miles on test

Maximum power/torque: 222bhp/266lb ft

CO2 emissions: 26g/km

VED: £0 first year, £510 next five years, then £155

Warranty: 3 years/60,000 miles

The rivals

Volkswagen Golf GTE

from £39,360

Volkswagen Golf GTE - Volkswagen AG
Volkswagen Golf GTE - Volkswagen AG

Fast and refined with the 1.4TSI petrol engine, 107bhp motor and 13kWh lithium-ion battery giving a total of 242bhp and 0-62mph in 6.7sec with a 38-mile EV range. Cheaper and better equipped than the Audi A3 e-tron but you have to cope with the Cariad software that runs the highly frustrating touch screen.

Mini Countryman Cooper S E All4

from £36,600

Mini cooper countryman - Bernhard Filser
Mini cooper countryman - Bernhard Filser

BMW’s three-cylinder 1.5-litre engine, 87bhp motor and the 8.8kWh battery gives a warbling total of 217bhp, 0-62mph in 6.8sec and an EV range of just over 31 miles. Add in the 166.2mpg and 40g/km and this isn’t quite the most tax efficient PHEV and it doesn’t (quite) handle like a Mini.

Kia XCeed PHEV

from £32,995

yellow Kia XCeed PHEV
yellow Kia XCeed PHEV

With a 1.6-litre petrol engine, a 60bhp electric motor and an 8.9kWh lithium-ion battery, the total 139bhp mustered will propel this SUV-flavoured five door estate from 0-62mph in 11 sec. XCeed is very much a mild, no-frills PHEV with an EV range of just 30 miles it doesn’t qualify for the lowest BIK allowances.