Well, I’ve just got back from Millbrook Proving Ground where I attended the launch of the 2009 Vauxhall Astra, courtesy of an invite from the guys and girls over at Torque Astra.
What a blast! Millbrook is like a giant playground for drivers, featuring some great sections of road and the awesome high speed bowl. While it’s great fun for drivers it’s not so much fun for the cars themselves. With areas such as ‘Kerb Strike Simulation’, ‘Pot Hole’, ‘Belgian Paving’ and the ominous ‘Punishment Area’ this is a place where cars come to get tested to destruction.
You might not have heard of Millbrook but the chances are you’ve seen it. Located in Bedfordshire the proving ground gives car manufacturers the facilities they need to test cars and trucks in all manner of different scenarios. The hill route has been used in countless TV shows, including Top Gear and Fifth Gear, and it was even used in the infamous crash scene in Casino Royale where James Bond rolls his Aston Martin DBS.
With prototype cars undergoing testing secrecy is a big thing at Millbrook and cameras are not allowed without express permission. When we arrived in the car park our names were first checked on the invitation list, and then we were ‘reminded’ of the camera ban. All cars were then told to follow an escort vehicle (Vauxhall Insignia, fitting in with the theme of the day) to the launch area in a convoy, deep inside the huge expanse of the proving grounds. I’m not sure what would have happened if we’d decided to deviate from the convoy route, but we got the feeling that we wouldn’t have been able to talk our way out of trouble.
The event was held at the Concept Centre and as we arrived we could see around thirty new Astras parked up outside. Inside we had our first chance to get up close to one of three Astras, all SRi models painted in black. It’s a handsome car, particularly with the optional 19-inch alloys.
One of the Astras had been converted into a 3D movie simulation where you were given a set of goggles to wear. The goggles played a brief movie where you were the stunt driver on a movie set, piloting the Astra through a sequence of action set pieces. It was a fun bit of technology and gave us our first glimpse of driving the new car.
Once everyone had arrived we were directed through to a mini cinema where we saw a presentation about the Astra and got to see an exclusive sneak peek of the new Astra advert. Look out for it on television when it starts on December 26th. Following that we were split into smaller groups where we were introduced to the Astra in more detail by one of the Vauxhall team. The two presentations gave a clear idea of the enthusiasm and passion that Vauxhall have for the new Astra and they are clearly very proud of what the company has achieved.
Following that it was time to get behind the wheel. Not only were there various models of Astra lined up to drive, but Vauxhall were so confident of the abilities of the new car that they lined up a selection of competitors to have a go in, including the Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf, Audi A3, Honda Civic and Peugeot 308. Suffice it to say that by the end of the day I had dismissed the Civic and 308 as having no chance, while the Focus, Golf and A3 are facing a serious threat from the new Astra. More on that later.
For just over an hour you had free reign to drive whatever you wanted. Any of the cars could be taken up Millbrook’s fantastic hill route, a section of winding track that features some serious gradients (21% in one case). It’s a great piece of road featuring tight hairpins, off camber corners, blind crests and some stomach churning dips. The hill route is a great test of a car’s handling and steering, while the suspension and ride quality are severely tested by a particular stretch of road that features some very harsh concrete bumps.
We also had access to Millbrook’s famous high-speed bowl. Two miles of banked concrete, the bowl is split into five lanes and allows cars to be run flat out. Only the Astras could be taken on there but thanks to the banking it was easy to take them up to their maximum speed.
The final part of the day was a ride with a professional driver to highlight the advantages of the new ESP system. The ESP system is made up of a series of electronic sensors that detect when the car is sliding and then cuts engine power or applies the brakes to the appropriate wheel to try and bring the car back in line. The first lap of the circuit was carried out with the system switched off and the driver showed how the car would understeer if provoked and would even slip into lift-off oversteer. On the second lap the system was switched on and it became immediately apparent how good it was. Understeer was nipped in the bud by reducing power, while the oversteer was brought into check with gentle braking. It felt very tidy and, while it might not be very good if you wanted to have fun on a track day, it would be reassuring to know that ESP was covering your back on a greasy road.
By the end of the day we’d had a go in several Astras and its competitors and got a good feel for the abilities of the new hatchback. So what is the new Vauxhall Astra like? Read on and I’ll tell you.