Is it possible to separate any review of this, the sixth-gen Vauxhall Astra, from the political furore surrounding GM? Probably not. As we pick up our test car from Vauxhall's Ellesmere Port factory - where Europe's first batch of Astras, Vauxhall and Opel, are inching down the production line - company chiefs are locked in negotiations with Magna and the unions down in London, attempting to thrash out a deal over the future of GM Europe and tens of thousands of workers. No pressure, lads.
But, as we edge out of the factory gates and point the Astra towards the motorway, we're going to give it a damn good try: assessing the Astra as, well, a car, free from the doom-tinted spectacles of GM's financial woes and the skew of nationalistic pride. Let's drive the bloody thing for miles, with no map or plan, until we run out of motivation and fuel and words. Let's go to Wales, boyo.
We aim west out of Ellesmere, onto the M56 and into sheep country. We're in a high-spec Astra with the new 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine, and the first impression is how well the thing rides. It's a bigger car than the previous generation, having grown by 17cm in length and 7cm in wheelbase, yet it tackles motorways like a larger car, floating serenely over dodgy Liverpudlian tarmac, delicately smoothing bumps without ever feeling disconnected.
Unlike the Golf and Focus, Vauxhall chose not to adopt multi-link rear suspension on the Astra, instead using a development of the last car's torsion beam set-up, but with a new Watt's linkage - a pair of horizontal supports connected by a short vertical bar - to reign in the lateral movement of the twist axle, a novel arrangement patented by GM. Vauxhall claims this wasn't a cost-cutting measure: it would actually have been cheaper to adopt the multi-link set-up from the Insignia, apparently. This design, they say, is more space efficient, lighter and adjustable - UK cars have been uniquely calibrated for our uniquely crap roads - while offering a better balance of comfort and handling. The aluminium front suspension borrows heavily from the Insignia.
It all adds up to a light-footed motorway cruiser, and as we fade onto A-roads and finally to a sinuous stretch of back road, it's time to see if the Astra can handle these, the best roads in Britain - hell, the world - as well as it does the motorway schlep.
It's taking a tenacious punt at it. As we climb through tiny villages crammed with unpronounceable vowels, it's immediately obvious how much grip there is from the rear tyres: tight bends require a genuinely daft approach speed to get the traction control light flashing, the Astra remaining composed no matter how badly we try to bend it out of shape. Right on the limit, it feels as if the Astra may lack the delicacy of the Focus or Golf, but to be sure we'll have to wait for a go in the more powerful 1.6-litre turbo petrol, or, for a proper chassis work-out, the three-door VXR, which arrives in 2010.
The new engine is a slow burner in every sense. The figures look good - 138bhp and 147lb ft of torque coupled with 48mpg and 139g/km of CO2 - but don't be fooled into thinking that this is even a warmish hatch. Though it'll crack 60mph in a respectable nine seconds, it feels slower. You'd barely guess it was turbocharged: power arrives discreetly, with the only real hint of forced induction a subtle whooshing noise around 4,000rpm. Though smooth and tractable, the 1.4 feels a little lightweight for the Astra: the tried-and-tested diesels should make more sense for most buyers.
No such qualms about the cabin. It's great, a proper mini-Insignia. Tiny red mood-lights lurk around the base of the front doors and under the gear lever, throwing a welcoming glow across the cabin like a cosy Amsterdam brothel on a stormy evening. Maybe you'll find it a bit chintzy, maybe it'll irk after a few years, but it makes people go ooh-look-at-that, and we like it. The instrumentation is classy and clear and the needles throw a pinpoint of light onto the rim of the dials.
As we continue to sweep south and the Astra fills up with the junk food, energy drink and highbrow magazines that inevitably accrue on a long drive, the cabin comes into its own. The storage bins in the front doors are, we discover, wide enough to fit those whacking great two-litre bottles of Irn-Bru, and the other holes and nooks are, miraculously, all exactly the right size for Actual Stuff: phones and wallets and bruised fruit. Not revolutionary, but important - proof the Astra was designed by people who not only drive cars but occasionally conduct impromptu business meetings from them.
We roll through Barmouth, a quaint seaside town where an English accent gets a suspicious stare and a shiny new Vauxhall even more so. A few design flaws begin to niggle. The boot, wedged full of assorted Top Gear road-test paraphernalia - emergency flares, a 24-piece antique crockery set and, for some reason, a portrait of Laurence Oliver - features a floating floor, but the mechanism to adjust it is fiddly, nowhere near as simple to use as the similar system in the Citroen C3 Picasso. The electronic handbrake switch is so tiny you'll end up losing it for days at a time, while those thick A-pillars make it tricky to accurately place the front corners of the car. But they're minor flaws in a convincing cabin, an easy place to spend many hours.
Night is falling and, 400 Welsh miles down, we slip quietly over the border back into England and rejoin the motorway for the monster night-time haul back to Fortress Top Gear. The Astra slips into long-distance mode, giving us time to consider the crunch question: should you consider one over a Golf or Focus?
Short answer: yes, you should. The price, for a start, should keep you interested: similarly specced, the Astra undercuts the Focus by a few hundred quid, and the Golf by more. Mechanically, dynamically and, er, interiorially, the Astra is a fine car. It doesn't move the hatchback game on like the original Focus did in 1998, but it propels Vauxhall right to the head of the pack, a worthy rival that'll match the big boys in just about every department and maybe edge them out in one or two. And damn it, it's (mostly) British and for that reason alone it deserves to save Vauxhall, so bally there.