Vauxhall Astra SRi Turbo
With the fanfare surrounding the launch of the Ford Focus, Citroen C4 and Volkswagen Golf showing no sign of fading, Vauxhall is having to work doubly hard to get its Astra the attention it deserves.
And knowing that buyers are certain to be tempted by performance offerings from its rivals, the Luton firm has come up with a top-value hot hatch to sit below next year's VXR flagship.
The new 197bhp version of the SRi goes on sale this week, and it offers as much power as the new Golf GTI. It's not as wild as the 240bhp expected from the VXR - which won't hit showrooms until the summer - but is it special enough to put the Astra on hot hatch wishlists across the UK? We were first behind the wheel to find out.
Designers have been keen to give the new SRi a muscular makeover. The Astra's sleek shape is beefed up with the addition of a deep front airdam, side skirts and 18-inch alloys. This kit will be optional on the rest of the SRi line-up, while the red turbo badge on the bootlid will set this model apart from the range.
Head for the open road, and the additional 29bhp starts to pay dividends. Other models in the Astra range feel as if they could handle far more power, and the new SRi is proof that the chassis is up to the challenge of distributing class-leading performance through its front wheels. Despite the large
diameter alloys, the ride quality betters that of hardcore rivals such as Honda's Civic Type R, while the driver can improve the steering feel by selecting Sport mode at the push of a button on the dashboard. This adds welcome weight to the wheel, but it makes throttle response over-sharp, too - acceleration is far smoother in normal mode.
This SRi's 0-60mph time is down to a respectable 7.7 seconds, with the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder motor providing gutsy performance across the rev range. It's not quite as startling as the likes of the new Golf GTI, but it certainly feels quick. The good news is that the power upgrade hasn't harmed the fuel economy too much, with the 197bhp unit returning 30.4mpg in the combined cycle - that's only 1mpg less than the 168bhp variant.
So the differences between the two SRi versions might not seem that great, and thankfully the prices are quite similar, too. At £18,445, the new model is only £300 more expensive than the lower-power SRi fitted with the optional £650 styling kit. More crucially, it's £1,550 cheaper than the Golf GTI.
Admittedly the VW is both quicker and more agile, but the 197bhp SRi will be fast enough for most buyers. If you're looking for a performance compact hatch and so far haven't considered the Astra, maybe it's time to think again.