In the olden days, phones were used to ring people. Now they can take photos, access the internet – and, thanks to Vauxhall’s latest technology, they’re a remote control for your car.
Vauxhall’s newest Astra comes with a vast array of gadgets, gizmos and connected car technology. This promises – amongst other things – a personal assistant on the end of the phone, wi-fi hotspot for everyone on board, and vehicle diagnostics to reassure on every mechanical niggle.
The last time I drove an Astra (circa the mid nineties) it was my teenage brother’s classic boy racer. It’s not a look I’m going for now I’m a mum of two, but thankfully Vauxhall’s newest Astra is a far cry from those days.
What’s the difference between the old Astra and the new Vauxhall Astra?
The new Astra is smaller and 200kg lighter than the previous model but promises more interior space for driver and passengers, and I was impressed at how roomy it seemed.
The rear seats comfortably fitted three adults because the seat looked less scooped up at the edges, meaning even the middle passenger was given equal billing.
How many car seats can fit in the back of the Vauxhall Astra?
Fitting two bulky group 2/3 car seats was a quick job and didn’t require the skills of a trained contortionist.
Saying that, we could not have fitted three car seats side by side in the back, so if you’ve got three children under the age of 12 or 135cm tall, you’ll probably need a car with a bigger back seat.
Technically a skinny adult could have squeezed into the back between two car seats and buckled the seatbelt, but in reality this is a two-in-the-front, two-children-in-the-back family car.
Can an infant car seat go in the front passenger seat?
Yes, it can. The front passenger airbag does switch on and off easily, so you can travel with a child beside the driver.
But we recommend parents follow the advice of ROSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) and travel with little ones in the rear seats rather than the front, as it’s the safer position.
Also, it’s worth noting that it’s illegal to put a rear-facing infant chair in the front seat if the passenger airbag is switched on.
Does the car have ISOFIX points as standard?
Yes, it does, there are ISOFIX brackets and top tether fixings on the two rear seats nearest the doors (ie not the middle seat) and these come as standard.
That means the Astra is i-Size compatible – although without seeing those seats in action I would not like to speculate on legroom for older children.
What’s the boot space like?
The boot space was surprisingly good – statistically 370 litres of luggage capacity with the rear seat up.
We packed for a weekend away and fitted our largest suitcase (75cm tall) laid flat front to back. Often when we hire similar-sized cars this case won’t squeeze in down one side of the boot.
Holidaying with the Astra meant room for our cases, food supplies, wet weather gear AND two-year-old Hannah’s balance bike.
I did a £150 supermarket shop and it barely covered the floor space of the boot. However, I couldn’t quite fit a 5ft Christmas tree into the boot with the parcel shelf in place so it rode up front with me in the passenger footwell, to my children’s great amusement.
Is it a good size for a family car?
It’s probably what you’d expect from a car that’s categorised as a small family car in the European safety ratings.
It was more than adequate for the four of us day-to-day and for a long weekend away, but we’d struggle to fit everything we needed for a week’s holiday with two adults, a four-year-old and a two-year-old.
Tell us about the OnStar ‘Personal Onboard Assistant.’
The Astra comes into its own with its OnStar technology – great for techie lovers and full of lifesaving features for parents, especially lone drivers trapped with their children and no other adult company!
There’s a button by the rearview mirror that directly contacts one of the company’s personal assistants, and they’re on call to answer any number of essential questions.
They’ll download route information and navigation assistance straight to the car’s sat nav, and if you change destination mid-journey you can get updated instructions to get to your destination without having to pull over and reload the address into the system yourself.
I tested out the location of a fiendishly difficult holiday cottage company – and a helpful chap on the phone successfully sent precise instructions despite my vague information of “some shepherds’ huts near Bodiam Castle in Sussex, or Kent, I’m not sure which.”
Is it a free service?
It is, but only for the first 12 months. You can buy it as an optional extra for £395 including the free year.
After then, an annual subscription fee of £79 gets you the Onstar safety and security systems, but the 4G connectivity will be an additional cost on top of that.
How will it keep the kids entertained on the dreaded long journeys?
When it comes to entertaining the kids, the Astra delivers big-time with its 4G mobile data hotspot and infotainment system.
You can tether up to seven devices, and we had no issues dropping connection driving through rural Sussex and Kent.
I can see the wi-fi being a real life-saver on longer journeys and travelling with older children when they hit the mean and moody stages.
But part of me mourns for a time when spotting yellow cars and playing I-Spy kept the whole family entertained and interacting socially with each other, rather than a screen.
Still, parents have to be practical, and rear-facing children can be kept entertained for longer with their own wi-fi enabled device.
Is there a downside to having this tech in your car?
Of course with all this access to information come issues of privacy. Vauxhall assures customers that pressing the privacy button will prevent Vauxhall from accessing your location, although Vauxhall OnStar can override this request in an emergency, for example if the Automatic Crash Response is activated when an airbag inflates.
Drivers are likely to see more of this technology as car manufacturers – as with phones – become ever smarter.
OnStar has been available in America for nearly two decades, so in some ways we’re only playing catch up.
The Astra comes with vehicle diagnostics seemingly on a par with an aeroplane’s black box, which in the longer term can only be a good thing as manufacturers are able to continually tweak engines for ever greater improvements.
For me as a driver it meant additional reassurance. When a dreaded warning light comes on in the dashboard there’s no need to panic – just ring an OnStar advisor so they can access your car remotely and tell you if you need a mechanic.
Can you really unlock the car with your phone?
Yes, you can, but I felt a bit self-conscious using my smartphone to lock and unlock the car.
And as my husband pointed out, it took longer than using the actual key. But it was a useful tool when I’d parked up the street and didn’t want to go back out in pouring rain to check it was locked.
The app also lets you locate the car when you can’t remember where you last parked, a brilliant idea for any parent trying to go home after a day at, say, a theme park. (We lost our car for half an hour when we left Legoland.)
And you can enter your destination address into your smartphone and get the directions sent to the car’s sat nav. Great for getting a headstart on the journey if you know you’ll be travelling with fractious children in the back.
What’s the car security like?
OnStar’s neat trick is its stolen vehicle assistance – once you report the theft to police, Vauxhall can use the car’s GPS technology to confirm the location, and if the thief turns off the engine Vauxhall can deactivate the ignition.
Hooray, the police can recover your vehicle. Hopefully not something I ever need to use, but certainly a function that might assist in reducing insurance premiums.
How does it drive?
I test drove a diesel but Vauxhall has brought out both petrol and diesel versions. It promises 0-60mph in 9 seconds and I felt there was more than enough power under the bonnet for overtaking on country roads and cruising comfortably and quietly along motorways.
Is it value for money?
It sits at £21,480 on the road but these are lean times for new car dealers and smart drivers can shop around for decent deals at the moment.
Plenty of oomph in the engine (1.6CDTi 136PS) for motorway cruising or nipping through Christmas shopping mayhem. The OnStar adviser means lone parents needn’t worry they’ll be lost without another grown up to navigate.
It has the wi-fi capacity to keep the ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ whinges at bay – but your children may never want to play I-spy in the car again.