Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson

Clarkson on: the Astra SRi

Once I spent a month in Australia and must admit, I didn't care for it much. Under a blanket of dark, foreboding skies Sydney reminded me very much of Birmingham while the Great Barrier Reef was a pale shadow of its equivalent in the Maldives.

Then there was Perth which is just the same as Milton Keynes, and Alice Springs which reminded me of being in an Aga. Only it's full of drunken Aboriginees who spend all night fighting outside your hotel room.

This, however, was preferable to the welcome that awaited us in every bar throughout the entire, spider-infested continent: ‘Oh backs to the walls everyone. The Poms are here.' Or ‘Hide your wallet under the soap everyone. They won't find it there.'

Australians reminded us loudly and often that they have a better climate than us and great steaks. But then we reminded them that we were brought up on a diet of fish fingers and drizzle and founded the largest empire the world has ever seen.

In summary then, I hated Australia and all the rude, uncouth, uncultured, trade-unionised slobs that live in it. And you can, therefore, imagine my dismay when, six months later, I found I had to go to New Zealand.

This, I figured would be even worse. A small-town version of Australia, a wart on the arsehole. But I was wrong. New Zealand was pretty, weird and full of the most delightful people you could ever wish to meet. They were friendly, worldly and they all had Hillman Avengers.

"Ever since the Vectra, I’ve pretty much loathed everything with that ridiculous Griffin on its radiator grille"

And so we arrive at my relationship with Vauxhall. Ever since the Vectra, I've pretty much loathed everything with that ridiculous Griffin on its radiator grille. The whole company seemed to have lost its way and was staggering into the market place with cars that were late and hopeless. The Monterey, for Christ's sake. What was that all about? And the Sintra. And I even found the new Astra about as wild and exciting as corduroy.

They tried to liven up their range by importing the Cadillac STS, but that car is just horrific. It's the most tiring and tiresome vehicle this side of an FSO Polonez.

But when-ever a new car was launched, the Vauxhall PR department would telephone to see if I'd like a test drive. And in the interests of fair and balanced reporting, I would always say yes. And I'd hate it. They even sent me a V6 Vectra, but a dog turd is still a dog turd, even when you smother it with horseradish sauce.

Then last month they sent me a new hot version of the Astra into which I climbed with a shoulder sagging sigh. Here we go again.

But wait, here we are one week down the line and I'm a changed man. This car is bloody good. It is Australia's New Zealand: same accent, but completely different.

The simple addition of some racy wheels and a discreet rear spoiler has transformed the sty-ling so that it is now attractive and aggressive, like Xena, Warrior Princess. Well sort of.

And inside, you get great seats and a dash that's enlivened with white dials to match your girlfriend's shoes. Best of all though was the driving position which suited both my wife, who's technically a midget, and me, who's technically a freak.

I set off expecting the Astra SRi, as it's called, to be nothing more than four wheels and a free tank of petrol. But on a late-night run into London, it amazed me on every bend. This is the first Vauxhall I've driven in 15 years that handles properly.

And the engine's a joy. If you like whizz bang top end power, it's not for you. But if you like to crawl up multi-storey car park ramps in fifth, it's ideal. There's big torque here and big torque means snappy throttle response at low revs and relaxed motorway cruising.

Now obviously, in London, I would rather have had a snazzy Golf GTI, because it cuts through bra straps more effortlessly. But the Golf costs almost £18,000 whereas the Astra is only £15,500. And believe me, to drive, I think the Vauxhall - deep breath here - has the Golf beaten. Yes, it really is that good.

All it needs then is an image transformation. The name must go. Vauxhall should call its cars Opels or Chevrolets. If this works, Australia could perhaps change it's name, too. To Hope Our Love Dies, Embryonic Nerds. Or Holden for short.

Jeremy Clarkson, Column, Hot hatches

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