Vauxhall Astravan - legend reaches the end of the road

Published 23 July 2013

At the end of 2012, one of the UK’s most enduring motoring icons got the bullet. Its maker made no fuss - and the motoring press largely ignored the event. But for us, the death of the Vauxhall Astravan feels like the end of an era - it's probably the last car-derived van that truly owned the outside lane.

When Vauxhall confirmed that production of the Astravan was to cease at the end of 2012, dealers must have been bracing themselves for a rush. The first Bedford-badged Astra Van hit the UK streets in 1981 and it rapidly established itself as a good to drive, cheap to service and commodious van that tradesmen and owner-drivers enjoyed... no longer as van drivers, did they feel second best to their car driving counterparts.

Its replacement, the new Vauxhall Combo, offers larger payloads and more choice, and Vauxhall says it will fill any gaps in the market created by the loss of Astravan. And although the tall-bodied Combo offers an appealing range of payload options, what it doesn’t have is over 25 years of heritage – the and the late, lamented Astramax were highly regarded within the trade, and with their drivers. And since 1981, it’s consistently been the fastest vehicle money can buy.

It’s impossible to imagine the outside lane of any 1980s or ’90s motorway not stacked with the things, generally riding hard the back bumper of whatever unsuspecting saloon driver is unfortunate enough to be stuck in front of it. But the Astravan wasn’t driven to within an inch of its life for fun – these sporting little vans were generally driven by Britain’s hardest working professionals, and were inevitably on a mission.

During its heyday in the 1980s and '90s, Astravan was probably the best vehicle of its kind – the Escort might have been cheaper to run, and the Maestro more economical and sensible – but the plucky little trooper from Ellesmere Port just felt ‘right’. Its model development echoed that of its car contemporary, but more often than not, new models were rolled out several months afterwards.

Except in the case of the current generation Astra, the Mk6, which never made the transition into commercial vehicle. Back in 2009, when the Astra I/J was launched, it was assumed that the late arrival of the stylish Sports Tourer would also be responsible for the arrival of the Astravan – but it would later become clear that the Mk5 was to be the final example of the breed. It’s a reflection of what happened at Ford – when the Focus was launched, a van version was never forthcoming, leaving the Escort to soldier on for another three years before being supplanted by the far more commodious Transit Connect.

Vauxhall Astravan 2012 (3)

Driving the last of the line Mk6, it's hard to suppress a tear or two for the hard working van. It still looks smart. In Sportive trim, finished in metallic silver, and wearing faux-alloy wheeltrims, the Astra Van still very much looks the part - a smart van that a small business owner could take anywhere. Indeed, many Astravans ended up being fitted with alloys and subtle bodykits by their proud owners. Inside, it's looking a little bit jaded these days compared with the younger purpose-built vans, and you'll certainly bemoan the lack of cupholders and storage space for even the smallest of items, such as your mobile 'phone or laptop.

Fire it up, and the 1.7-litre Ecotec diesel - which disappointed in our recent long-term experience - settles down into a muted idle, and responds eagerly to the throttle. But it's when you drive off that you suddenly realise why they are so popular with tradesmen in a hurry. Throttle response is is terrific, and acceleration (in our admittedly unladen example) is really quite rapid. There's a lovely fizz from the exhaust when accelerating at full throttle - and you're pushed into the back of your seat at the same time. The turbo comes in with a bit of a thump, and running hard through the gears has you up to the legal limit in next to no time. This really is the thinking (working) man's two-seater sports car.

Cruising in sixth at 70mph sees the rev counter just beyond 2000rpm - and yet if you get baulked by a slower vehicle and need to accelerate up to speed again, there's no need to change down, as it pulls strongly from low revs without any trouble at all. In fact, anything this side of a rapidly-driven hot hatchback will hold up the Astravan driver who's pressing on.

And that's pretty much what lies at the heart of the Astravan's appeal. It's quick, and holds it own on the toughest of motorways. And every driver out there probably has a memory or two of a hard-driven Astravan seeing them off in the outside lane. Of course, there is more to the Astra's appeal than its sheer driving appeal - after all, it's surprisingly commodious for a car-derived van, and in terms of servicing and maintenance, there's little that could touch it at the price.

But all good things must come to an end - and the market overtook the Astra. In an era of an increasing number of manufacturer joint ventures, and more purpose-built small vans, the Astravan, which was effectively a panelled in estate car, could no longer compete. Especially as it was based on a car that had been out of production for three years. The Astravan had been beaten comfortably in terms of loading space, sheer economics, by vans such as the Ford Transit Connect and Fiat Doblo. And that's why Vauxhall has launched the (Fiat-derived) Combi to replace it, and move with the times.

It's clearly the right thing to do for Vauxhall, as we don’t have a need for vans like the Astra any longer, even if those new to vans found them friendly and unintimidating. In the end, times have changed and demand for the Astravan has gone the way of the companies whose logos once proudly adorned its flanks - Visionhire, Rediffusion and VHS rentals… But we're still sad to see it go. Farewell to a British institution.

Vauxhall Astravan 2012 (2)

The Astravan family tree

Beford Astra Van Mk1
1981-1985


The Astra Mk1 really was big news for Vauxhall when it was launched in 1980. It was the company's first front-wheel drive production car, and earned itself quite a following thanks to keen dynamics and good value pricing. The first cars were imported from Germany - but when it went into production at Ellesmere Port in 1981, a Bedford-badged van version was launched. Its stiffest rival was the Escort, and in those early days, the Ford product easily outsold it.
Bedford Astra Van (1)

 

Bedford Astravan/Astramax Mk2
1985-1991


The egg-shaped Astra Mk2 was always going to be an improvement on the short-lived Mk1. For one, it was more aerodynamic, so could go faster on the motorway… A big change for the Mk2 was the arrival of the high-bodied Astramax, which offered twin-rear doors and a much larger load area. In 1986, the Bedford name was dropped. Soon proved extremely popular - and was soon parodied by Top Gear for being the world's fastest 'car'.

Bedford Astra Van (2)

 

Vauxhall Astravan Mk3
1991-1999

The 1991 Astra was an altogether more grown-up propostion than what came before it, gaining a sturdier interior, updated (and fully-engine managed) power units and a new 1.7-litre turbodiesel developed by Isuzu. But sadly, the Astramax derivative was dropped in favour of the smaller Vauxhall Corsa Combo. Still popular with fleets who needed a smaller delivery van, but facing tough opposition from the 1990 Ford Escort.

Vauxhall Astra Van (3)

 

Vauxhall Astravan Mk4
1999-2005

Another impressive update of the Astravan, and one that centred on the driving experience - which was vastly improved over the previous generation, thanks to chassis input from Lotus. Once the Ford Escort van went out of production in 2002, the Astravan pretty much had the UK's car-derived van market to itself.

Vauxhall Astravan (4)

 

Vauxhall Astravan Mk5
2005-2012

The final Astravan, and easily thebest of them all. Good to drive, fast, economical, and according to those who maintain them, impressively solid and reliable. Vauxhall really got into the spirit of the fast Astra, offering VXR-style bodykits and wheels - and buyers loved them.

Vauxhall Astravan (5)

 Read more on the Vauxhall Astravan 

Comments

Jimbo    on 29 July 2013

I have a 1.9cdti sportive astravan mk5 and i am gutted they aren't doing another one.

Howard    on 18 August 2013

I've bought Astravans since the mid 80s. I'm mortified! There's nothing out there for me now. I want a fast, stylish van I can use for business and pleasure. All vans now look like they were designed by the people at Trumpton. Come on Ford, VW or Toyota etc. give us the new successor to the Astravan.

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