Mild breeze

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Upon opening the traditional envelope full of literature which accompanies any Vauxhall test car, I was forced to take a second glance. The enclosed brochure was indeed for the Astra Convertible.

The old one.

It was an unfathomable slip on Vauxhall’s part, for there is, it must be said, quite a difference betwixt the two.

The old Astra chassis was, being kind, quite floppy. In saloon form, it was totally unable to cope with Vauxhall’s svelte 150 bhp two-litre engine when faced with anything other than straight roads. The open version was tamer and, mercifully, more controllable, if still sometimes at a loss for traction on slippery surfaces. At its most powerful it only had the milder 2.01 engine, and it featured a stout roll-hoop which acted as a brace in the interest of torsional rigidity.

All that has gone, now. Top down, the latest Astra Convertible has cleaner, more appealing lines. It is one of the most neatly proportioned cars in its class. Power comes from the same proven, eight-valve, sohc, two-litre engine that propelled its progenitor. Top speed is reckoned to be a whisker over 120 mph, but it’ll take you a while getting there. Beefing up the chassis to cope with the loss of the roof has added over 60 lbs. Whereas the equivalent saloon, the SRi, with its slightly better aerodynamics, will reach 60 mph from rest in under 9s, the heavier Convertible takes over 10.

Compensation for the slight loss of performance is both sensual and practical. Firstly, the Astra is an enjoyable cabrio; it may not be lightning fast, but it’s performance is adequate. (Besides, the opportunities for using powerful cars as they were designed to be used are diminishing in Britain, thanks to the Gatso plague.) Secondly, more robust A-pillars and twin door beams have not just increased the weight, but have improved overall rigidity by 10 per cent, despite the loss of the hoop.

Even so, you can still feel the body squirm uncomfortably under hard accelerative loads, so you wouldn’t really want any more fizz. As it stands, there is just enough performance to make it fun to drive, and not quite enough to tax the chassis intolerably.

In the dry. On a wet road, however, it doesn’t take much to set the wheels spinning and dancing uncomfortably across the surface. Yes, most small front-wheel drive cars with a little bit of power will do likewise if pushed, but the Astra requires less provocation than most, and we are only dealing with 115 bhp (an 82 bhp, 1.4-litre version will be offered next spring).

That apart, the Convertible offers an appealing cocktail for £15,800 (the effective and simple electric hood is a recommended option, for E750). Standard features include driver’s air bag, deadlocks, ABS, electric windows and (heated) mirrors, proper heated rear screen, alarm with immobiliser and a two-piece radio cassette system. The latter, a feature on most new Vauxhalls, separates the LCD display from the operational controls: stealing either element, or indeed both, would be messy, time consuming and, the key issue, completely pointless.

Although much of the switchgear has been carried over from previous models, the cabin layout has been revised. Overall, it looks neater, though switch placement remains a trifle haphazard, and there is still no readily visible warning to tell you that your fog light is engaged. The bad news for Vauxhall is that you can have a decent, no-compromise cabrio of equal performance but with greater chic for the same money: the Mazda MX-5, now selling out at a dealer near you. The good news is that, if you are prepared to accept a degree of compromise and a bit of scuttleshake, you can have four seats and a real boot (the biggest in its class) in a stylish package. S A

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