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VAUXHALL’S Astra GTC offers couture styling with blue-collar underpinnings. It’s a great combination. Powerful engines are available, but you don’t necessarily need them for the feel-good sensation that comes with GTC ownership.

It’s a relatively affordable compact coupe that can stand wheel-to-wheel with apparently more exalted rivals - and often come out on top. Wouldn’t it smarten your driveway? Many potential buyers will think so.

You could be excused for approaching a drive in this GTC model with rather low expectations. After all, it succeeds a couple of Astra coupe models that were no more exciting to drive than the frumpy five-door hatchbacks they were based upon. And quick glance at the badgework and under the bonnet might suggest that we’re again looking at something similar here. You might think that. Your friends might think that. But you’d both be wrong.

It’s true that apart from the potent 2.0-litre petrol turbo used in the flagship VXR version, GTC engineware is identical to that you’ll find in any ordinary Astra. But that’s only because engineering effort and investment has been directed into areas far more important to driving satisfaction. Sharper steering, a wider track and, most importantly, a completely different suspension set-up all combine to make this the most engaging driver’s car Vauxhall makes. Only a £30,000 Insignia VXR gets its power down and turns into corners as sharply - and that’s only because it shares this car’s clever HiPerStrut suspension system.

Before I drove this car, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for an Astra - any Astra - to offer a more rewarding drive than a rival Megane Renaultsport or a sporty Focus ST. I was wrong. Better still, you don’t have to spend extra money on Vauxhall’s hi-tech FlexRide adaptive damping system to really enjoy it, so well-judged is the ride and handling balance, especially tuned for our appalling British roads.

If you can’t stretch to the frantic 280bhp VXR 155mph high performance version, then the only engine in the mainstream range likely to really get your heart pumping is the one I tried, a 16v 1.6-litre petrol Turbo unit developing a useful 180PS. Its torque figure of 230Nm isn’t quite as impressive compared to obvious rivals, but this model’s still quick enough to flash past sixty from rest in just 7.8s on the way to 138mph. And there’s a lovely rorty engine note to go with it.

Most GTC customers though, will probably opt for something a little more sensible. There are a couple of 1.4-litre petrol Turbo units developing either 120 or 140PS, the faster of which is still able to make sixty in 9.0s. Or there’s a choice of either 1.7 or 2.0-litre CDTi diesel power which can get a bit clattery in the upper reaches of the rev range. The 1.7 comes in either 110 or 130PS states of tune, while the 2.0-litre unit is altogether punchier with 165PS and 350Nm of torque, enough to make this variant feel probably the most potent of all the mainstream GTC models. All drive through a reasonably slick six-speed manual gearbox, with an auto gearbox option available on 1.4-litre petrol Turbo 140PS and 2.0 CDTi diesel models.

Unlike its direct predecessors, this is much, much more than just a three-door Astra Hatch in a dress. In fact, it’s arguably the best handling car in its class, certainly the most practical choice and probably the most affordable too when you take dealer offers into account.

Ultimately, if you can get over the issue of buying into an Astra when maybe you’d started your search in this segment with an eye on something with an apparently more desirable badge, then this GTC is unlikely to disappoint.

A performance car for the everyday. And a big step forward for Vauxhall.