The Astra GSe marks the arrival of a new breed of performance-oriented Vauxhalls, but in a much more subdued package than those of the VXR era
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The Astra GSe may hark back to the firm’s GSi models in name, but it doesn’t signify Vauxhall’s performance car renaissance. It’s usefully quicker than regular hybrid and ICE versions of the Astra, but the GSe’s restrained character and lack of engagement is somewhat at odds with the sporty new badge. Its easy-going nature, generous kit list and attractive BiK tax rates will appeal to company car users, but the GSe leaves room for an Astra with a bit more bite.
Vauxhall has gone through a sober patch as of late. Following an era of fierce VXR models, the company has seen a dry spell of genuinely exciting driver’s cars, but the arrival of the Astra GSe could change that. It’s pitched as a more powerful, electrified version of the eighth-generation Astra, and provides a first taste as to the future of fast Vauxhalls.
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In the coming years, the GSe badge will be attached to numerous performance flagships which bring more pace and tauter dynamics to the table, each with either hybrid or fully electric propulsion. The Astra GSe – alongside the Sports Tourer estate and Grandland GSe crossover – is the first to receive the treatment, and wades into battle with the Volkswagen Golf GTE and Peugeot’s 308 Hybrid 225.
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On first acquaintance, the Astra GSe dilutes the racy VXR design formula almost to the point of anonymity, and this is indicative of Vauxhall’s new approach to performance. The plug-in hatch is designed for a broader audience than previous offerings, and as such, receives only minor front bumper tweaks and a set of 18-inch alloys inspired by the retro Manta GSe ElectroMOD concept car. Still, the square stance and tightly folded bodywork provide strong road presence for a family hatch.
Vauxhall has cherry picked the Astra GSe’s powertrain from elsewhere within parent company Stellantis, rather than using a unique engine as it has with VXRs previously. This is another sign of the GSe’s calmer character, although the plug-in hybrid set-up – which combines a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine with an electric motor – still serves up a respectable 222bhp and 360Nm of torque.
Up to 40 miles of pure electric running is possible thanks to a 12.4kWh battery, dropping the Astra GSe into the eight per cent Benefit-in-Kind tax bracket for fleet users. On the WLTP testing cycle it achieves 256.8mpg, but don’t expect to reach this figure unless performing shorter journeys from a full battery, which takes less than two hours to top up using the optional 7.4kW onboard charger.
For what they provide in extra grunt and efficiency, the battery and electric motor add weight to the package, and the Astra GSe comes in at a chunky 1,703kg. To contain that mass, the GSe sits 10mm lower than standard, with 11 per cent stiffer springs and bespoke dampers at each corner; the latter feature an extra internal valve to provide a better blend of comfort and precision, according to Vauxhall.
The changes aren’t transformative from behind the wheel, but the GSe is tangibly more alert and crisper in its responses. On the whole, the GSe follows the standard model’s neat, approachable character, feeling easy to place and fluid along smooth roads.
Over undulating tarmac, the hybrid hatch feels less ponderous than regular models as the new dampers reign in that hefty kerbweight, but broken roads and surface imperfections do patter through the structure. It's a refined, mild-mannered machine on the move, but when you dial up Sport mode and begin to work the chassis, the Astra GSe begins to unravel as a hot hatch.
The GSe is certainly brisk in a straight line – the claimed 0-62mph time of 7.5 seconds feels well within reach – but the engine feels strained in its delivery when stretched to the redline, and the soft brake pedal doesn’t feel reassuring underfoot.
Push through a corner and the car begins to squirm around on its eco-focused Michelin Primacy 4 tyres, the front end bleeding away from your intended line as you feed in the power; patience, rather than commitment, is required to get the best from the GSe, since the car feels laboured at a faster pace on a back road.
Given their efficiency-biased compound, the Primacy tyres struggle to bite into the tarmac and transmit useful feedback to your hands, and they cause the otherwise accurate steering to feel indistinct when approaching the limit. The transmission isn’t adept at fast driving either; gear changes are mostly seamless under normal conditions, but it’s prone to upshifting early and dulling the power out of tight bends.
It’s clear that, at least for now, the GSe sub-brand isn’t gunning for absolute driver focus, and the Astra feels far more in its comfort zone when you dial things back. The engine is much happier operating in the mid-range, relying on the hit of electric torque to carry the car at decent pace, and the chassis is at ease along flowing A-roads and motorways.
There’s an impressive array of tech included with the GSe as standard. Vauxhall’s dual-screen infotainment set-up takes centre stage on the dashboard, with the flagship model receiving a pair of flush-fitting 12-inch displays as part of the Pure Panel Pro system.
The resolution is crisp and the interface is relatively intuitive despite the occasional laggy response, while users can hook up their devices through wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto if they prefer. Other equipment such as IntelliLux Pixel Matrix headlights, a 360-degree parking camera and an extended suite of driver assistance systems are also thrown in.
A slightly reprofiled steering wheel and grippier Alcantara seats hint at the GSe’s extra focus inside, but even so, the ambience is very similar to lesser Astras. There are smatterings of faux carbon fibre trim and gloss black surfaces, with sturdy overall build quality. The 352-litre boot is significantly bigger than a Golf GTE’s, too, but a Ford Focus offers more room in the back. Tall adults may find their knees brushing against the front seats in the Astra.
The GSe’s appeal very much depends on your priorities in a plug-in hybrid hatch. It doesn’t deliver as an outright performance car, but at £40,550, it costs just £150 more than the now defunct 178bhp Ultimate variant. With the extra grunt, generous kit list and an eight per cent Benefit-in-Kind tax rate, the GSe begins to make a lot more sense as a company car.
Vauxhall Astra GSe
1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol + e-motor
Eight-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Vauxhall's mid-sized SUV has also received the GSe treatment, read more about the Vauxhall Grandland GSe…
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