Vauxhall has sometimes felt like the poor cousin of the Stellantis family.
The launch of its electric Corsa was pushed back because Peugeot wanted to get the e-208 out first and Vauxhall models tend to miss out on some of the bolder looks and blingy tech that their French stablemates enjoy.
But for once, Vauxhall is getting the first bite of the cherry with the Astra GSe. The Astra is the first of this generation of Stellantis cars to get a deliberately positioned “hot” variant. Yes, you can get the Peugeot 308 with the same drivetrain but it avoids any hint of being a hot hatch, whereas Vauxhall is positioning the GSe line as its performance variants.
Before anyone gets too excited, though, this isn’t some rabid VXR replacement intended to spend its days chewing through tyres at the local McDonalds car park. Vauxhall is quite clear that this is about embracing the brand’s performance heritage and using it to promote its electrification strategy.
By 2024 every single model in the Vauxhall range will have an electrified drivetrain - hybrid or full electric, and by 2028 the brand will only sell fully electric cars. The Astra already has a plug-in hybrid option and later in 2023 we’ll see the all-electric Astra go on sale.
So GSe stands for Grand Sport Electric and the Astra GSe uses the same basic hybrid arrangement as regular PHEV models but tuned for more power and torque. To match that, the chassis has been reworked with new suspension components and steering tuning while there are visual clues that this is the sportiest member of the Astra family.
The regular Astra’s styling remains more conventional than the avant-garde Peugeot 308 or Citroen C4, with which it shares its underpinnings, but it’s a fairly handsome machine with its broad Vizor grille, flat wide bonnet and crisp lines. As befits a sportier variant, the GSe gets a more aggressive styling pack with new lower grille and valance to give the front a wider and lower appearance, plus are unique 18-inch Commodore black alloys, inspired by the wheels on the 2021 Manta GSe concept car. A black finish to the roof complements the gloss black elements such as the grille, wheels and body trim and the car sits 10mm lower than the regular car.
The Astra’s basic cabin is the same but has also been given the sporty treatment for the GSe. The most obvious difference is the addition of bespoke GSe sports seats. These one-piece units are wrapped in Alcantara, with GSe badging and feature deeper side bolsters and prominent ‘wings’ to keep occupants safely in place during enthusiastic cornering. The seats are approved by the AGR (Germany’s Campaign for Healthier Backs) and proved comfortable and supportive, with plenty of adjustment. The leather-wrapped and heated steering wheel is also unique to the GSe, although it looks a lot like the unit in regular Astras.
The GSe gets the top-spec Pure Panel Pro twin display setup as standard, which stretches from the driver’s door to the centre of the dashboard and rather dominates proceedings. Elsewhere, the GSe’s interior is also largely similar to any high-spec Astra, with a simple, user-friendly layout and a frustrating mix of good and bad materials. The Alcantara upholstery is a nice finish and the soft-touch portions of the dashboard have a pleasing tactility but there are some cheap looking and feeling plastics on doors and the centre console.
As with the regular Astra, the GSe is available as a five-door hatchback with 352 litres of boot space or a sport wagon estate with 510 litres. In either case there’s plenty of space for front seat passengers and luggage and adequate but not outstanding rear leg and shoulder room. Unusually, the Astra is a model where the regular five-door hatch is more attractive than the estate, whose rear proportions look a little odd.
The Astra GSe uses the same basic 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine and single electric motor as the existing 178bhp PHEV but with the engine tuned to offer an extra 30bhp. There’s also been some trickery to unlock more power from the same sized motor, so total output is up to 222bhp.
In ideal conditions that will let the Astra get from 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds and carry it to a top speed of 146mph. The plug-in nature of the setup also allows Vauxhall to claim ridiculous economy of 256mpg and just 25g/km of CO2 - important for any business buyers considering it. Those don’t reflect real world figures but with a full battery, our test car returned around 50mpg and, perhaps more importantly, the battery should give up to 40 all-electric miles on a charge.
While the on-paper time is acceptable, the Astra can get bogged down by the sluggish standard-fit eight-speed auto, which gets caught out by sudden demands for power. Use the shift paddles to get it in the right gear, however, and it’ll pick up pace fairly well, and if you’re calmer with the throttle the hybrid functions smoothly and seamlessly.
The GSe features a new stiffer suspension setup from the regular car with frequency selective damping dampers from Koni. These, say Vauxhall allow for better control and cornering without the loss of ride comfort. That’s at least partly true. The Astra still rides well and soaks up lumps and bumps confidently but the difference in handling feels marginal. It’s a little flatter through corners and a little quicker to change direction (the steering is 9% quicker, apparently) but the difference isn’t transformative and the lack of feel from the wheel leaves the driver feeling disengaged. Not what you expect from a supposed hot hatch.
In truth, the GSe just feels like the Peugeot 308 GT or DS 4 E-Tense - a well balanced top of the range model. Starting at £40,550 for the hatchback it’s £150 more than the 178bhp Ultimate spec but offers virtually the same specification as well as more power without a sacrifice in running costs. Matrix LED headlights, the Pure Panel Pro displays, heated seats and steering wheel, and wireless Apple and Android phone mirroring are standard, as are a head-up display, 360-degree camera and packed ADAS suite with Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Change Assist. The estate also gets a powered tailgate.
The GSe shares most of its qualities and failings with the regular Astra. It remains a comfortable and competent family hatchback and the high specification and extra power from the hybrid are welcome. But as a hot hatch pretender it lacks the vital spark to really engage.
Vauxhall Astra GSe
Price: £40,550; Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol with 81kW electric motor; Power: 222bhp; Torque: 267lb ft; Transmission: Eight-speed automatic; Top speed: 146mph; 0-62mph: 7.5 seconds; Economy: 256.8mpg; CO2 emissions: 25g/km; EV range: 40 miles