independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Va va room – the spacious saloon with the golden boot

I get a fair bit of slagging from the younger ones for 'bolting' my food. It is, I think, a kick-back to starvation rations at boarding school where one survived by swiftly ingesting as much as possible and paid little heed to taste or decorum.

I also get frowns for slurping my soup (what else does one do?) Even when I ingest perfectly I usually manage to raise a frown – be it loud munching of the Alpen or overly crunching an apple. Talk about giving a diner a bad name.

I've more or less stopped ordering soup in cafés. And in a sustained attempt to protest my near-innocence, I have increased the vehemence with which I name friends, who can dispatch a full Irish breakfast quicker than you'd turn a page of this paper. Indeed, one or two lunchtime legends can manage to eat two potatoes more than a hungry pig.

But I still betimes can feel a bit of a culinary black sheep – and there can be many a slip twixt cup and lip.

That is despite dining with (I hope) perfect decorum in some guise or other with presidents, princes, football/sport stars and posh ladies.

But familial doubts linger.

So I have some sympathy for the good people at Opel who are trying to serve up the new Astra saloon to potential buyers.

Let me say straight off that I have been a severe critic of some previous Astras. A really poor show a couple of generations ago hit its reputation hard. More recent offerings came with a lot more manners but were criticised for the motoring equivalent of crunching their cornflakes. In other words, it was carrying the sins of a predecessor even though it had improved beyond all recognition.

I recently had the new Astra saloon on test and managed to sample a fair old selection of its offerings.

To be honest, it didn't exactly make a grand entrance and I was merely moderately enthused by the prospect.

I still think it needs improvements but this was a far better car than I thought.

For a start, it has a great boot – a major reason for buying a saloon, of course. Now, normally I think hatchbacks look well, but this has the appearance of a more substantial motor with the boot.

The cabin is simply straightforward and clear-cut. The materials looked and felt hard wearing. Thankfully, for once, I did not have a top-of-the-range version. Shock, horror, we even had to wind up the rear windows ourselves. That's good for the soul these days, and helpful in keeping the price reasonable.

With their 1.7-litre (110bhp) diesel under the bonnet, I began to revalue this underrated small-family motor. Certainly the handling and ride were above average and I felt I was particularly protected from the noise and vibrations of road and tyre. The diesel is a favourite of mine. Although by no means a pace-setter, it gave me enough pep and step to keep me happy enough and not complain about lack of response through the gears.

I liked the seating – strong, well-sized (some yokes these days are made for people with zero waists and zero bums) and supportive (thankfully).

The effect was spoiled, however, by an appalling, limited height adjustment. The lever at the side designed to raise the seat was stiff, awkward and of little use to get me a higher driving position.

Yes, it would put me off buying this version. That should not condemn the entire car for you, because so much else was good. Ideally it could do with a little bit more salt to flavour the drive and a sprinkling of pepper to spice up the handling.

It would not beat the Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf for a more accomplished drive. But I liked its sturdy nature and roominess. It deserves a decent test drive for anyone seeking a well thought-out family car. Let's give a dog a good name for a change.

ecunningham@independent.ie

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