Tim Gibson takes new Astra Sports Tourer for a family adventure in the Devon countryside, in what turns out to be an action-packed day
It is 6.03am. I’m in a reverie, looking forward to a relaxing day of hand-in-hand sunlit strolls with my wife Sarah, as we plan to take our three-year-old and his friends on a back-to-nature adventure in Haldon Forest, near Exeter in Devon. There’s a new Vauxhall Astra Sports Tourer glistening red on our driveway outside, waiting for us to embark on what promises to be a positively dreamy day.
Suddenly, my thoughts are interrupted. “Daddy!” shouts my son, Monty, at a volume loud enough to wake the whole neighbourhood. “WE’RE GOING TO HALDON FOREST! TODAY!” Thoughts of a quiet day communing with nature drift out through the gap in the window where just a moment ago the cool morning breeze was flirting with the curtains. I realise that this will be much more full-on than I’d been anticipating. The time is now 6.06am. My zen-like calm has lasted for precisely three minutes. Now, I am super-Dad. And I’m ready for action.
Taking the load off
Fortunately, the new-generation Astra Sports Tourer has a large enough boot to swallow the bikes, scooters, helmets and picnic hardware that we need in order to leave the house. It might be the same size on the outside as the model it replaces, but New Astra is more generously proportioned on the inside, offering extra head room and rear leg room. It’s something of a car-design magic trick, and the kind of resourceful thinking that makes New Astra a brilliant family car and ensured it was crowned the 2016 European Car of the Year.
As I stagger towards the car with my arms full, the optional motion-activated tailgate comes into its own. I simply swipe my foot beneath the rear bumper and the automated boot lid swings up, saving time and irritation as I wrestle with all manner of awkward-shaped objects.
Power to the people
After collecting Monty’s best friend Heidi and hitting the westbound A303, we have a handy opportunity to evaluate it in a range of conditions during our trek to the woods.
The SRi-spec car I’m driving has the 1.6 Bi Turbo Diesel unit that generates an impressive 160PS. It’s extremely zesty on the open road, and delivers razor-sharp handling through corners. Other engine options in the range include a 150PS 1.4 Turbo Petrol that returns 50.4mpg on the combined cycle and a 110PS 1.6 ecoFLEX diesel that gives up to 83.1mpg; capable of running for 870 miles on a single tank, it is a perfect example of the resourceful engineering that makes New Astra. These will undoubtedly be the biggest-selling engine choices in the range, but I have to say that I found the Bi Turbo unit to be extremely entertaining.
One of the reasons for that is the lightness of New Astra – Vauxhall has trimmed up to 190kg from its weight, depending on the model. Allied to a new chassis, the result is a car that’s extraordinarily pleasing to pilot, especially when, like mine, it comes equipped with a Sport mode that sharpens throttle response and changes the feel of the steering for a more dynamic drive.
Sport mode or not, New Astra Sports Tourer is a treat to travel in. Sarah and I both remark how comfortable we feel in the front seats, and the kids have plenty of space to stretch out in the rear. The best adjective I can think of to describe life with the car is “effortless”.
Into the wild
At 10.06am, we arrive at Haldon Forest, where we’ve arranged to meet up with Hannah Standen, who runs A Touch of the Wild Forest School. “I really enjoy sharing my love of the outdoors with children,” remarks Hannah. “There’s so much to smell, hear, see and touch when you’re in the woods. My job involves connecting kids to the natural world, so that they develop an appreciation of all that it has to offer.”
Once there, the first task is to light the fire. Hannah does this with nothing more than a flint and a bundle of cotton wool, impressing children and grown-ups alike. A wonderful few hours ensues, during which Monty, Heidi and company create wonderful flags by folding a square of linen over some bracken fronds, then gleefully bashing the living daylights out of them with mallets. This causes the sap to ooze out, resulting in beautiful green patterns embedded in the fabric.
Naturally, there are plenty of games of hide-and-seek, complemented by rope swinging, mud-pie manufacturing, den-building and general forest-based fun and games. Another creative endeavour involves sticking treasure found on the forest floor to a sheet of cardboard, creating beautiful 3D pictures that will go on to adorn various parental and grandparental fridges for many months to come.
A walk in the woods
There’s a variety of wholesome entertainment available to enjoy at Haldon Forest, with miles of trails for walking and cycling, as well as the opportunity to carry out Segway tours accompanied by panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
We decide that the best way to see the forest is on foot for us, and bike and scooter for the children. There are well-signposted trails throughout the 3,500-acre site, and we take our time, inventing a treasure hunt for Monty and Heidi that involves filling a nappy sack with stones and pieces of dried mud collected from the forest floor. Sometimes it’s the simple things, right?
After a couple more hours of fresh air and exercise, we pile back into the Astra, connect a brace of iPads to the internet using Vauxhall’s OnStar technology that equips your vehicle with a 4G Wi-Fi hotspot, and load up some more Peppa Pig. Better still, OnStar comes as standard on selected New Astra trims. You can find out more about Vauxhall OnStar at www.vauxhall.co.uk/onstar.
On the road, I am struck by the brilliance of the Astra Sports Tourer as a family car. In addition to all that space, you have the reassurance of safety features like the Front Camera System, which monitors the road ahead and alerts you if a collision looks likely. It will also apply the brakes whilst travelling at speeds under 37mph if you don’t respond, and has another function that prevents you from accidentally wandering across lanes on the motorway.
Vauxhall OnStar brings reassurance, as well. If you have a crash, it automatically connects you to an OnStar advisor who will check if you’re OK and call the emergency services if required. It also locates your car if it is stolen, and provides remote diagnostics for key vehicle systems whenever you want.
Features like these offer great peace of mind, and other touches bring a welcome enhancement to the experience of living with New Astra Sports Tourer. Consider the optional PowerFlex bar as a case in point. Located in the centre console, this enables you to attach a universal smartphone charger or permanent fragrance diffuser to the dash.
The long day closes
Mind you, the forest already seems like a distant memory as we wind our way home after a pub dinner in the Devon countryside. A quick glance at the clock reveals the time to be 9.01pm, and the shadows are lengthening as the kids lean back in their seats and go to sleep.
With LED Matrix Headlights to illuminate our way, the dark West Country lanes are a breeze to navigate, meaning we get home in no time at all. Having returned Heidi to her parents, we lift a very contented Monty from his car seat and carry him upstairs to bed.
And just as I tuck him in, reaching to turn off his bedside light and feeling the cool breeze of evening blow in through his open window, he utters his final verdict on the day, which started so many hours ago: “I love Haldon Forest, Daddy,” he murmurs. And having spent a day with New Astra Sports Tourer I can see why everyone loves the European Car of the Year, too. It’s 10.03pm. About time I put my feet up.