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Car reviews - Holden - Astra - CD 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Presentation, style, practicality, performance, versatility, value
Room for improvement
Firm ride (on alloys), niggling ergonomic questions

8 Apr 2005

THAT difficult second album syndrome strikes again.

Not that Holden’s new AH Astra is only its second attempt.

But let’s face it! Who remembers Astras before 1998’s brilliant TS? Its dumpy TR predecessor is best forgotten, while the earlier late-1980s Nissan Pulsar clones couldn’t crack it either.

Yes, the TS is a hard act to follow. It was so obviously mouth-gapingly good the Astra became a massive hit for Holden.

The good news is that the AH builds on the TS’s strengths – value, economy, performance, handling, ride, space, versatility and all-round user-friendliness – by improving cabin room and quality, adding sharper steering and handling and clothing it all in a funkier body.

And just like before, VW’s Golf, the Peugeot 307, Renault’s Megane, the Mercedes A160, Audi’s A3, and the BMW 1 Series – all costlier "premium" small cars – seem overpriced when assessed rationally against this Astra.

So it’s right up there with the small segment-leading Mazda3, Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Golf then, with the rest – including the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Pulsar and Mitsubishi Lancer – lagging behind.

But the latest Astra, built in Belgium and released last November fresh from Opel in Germany, doesn’t shine quite as brightly as before, and here’s why.

As good as the TS was back in ’98, elsewhere in the world it was the then-new Ford Focus that was rewriting the small car rulebook ... in one swoop, single-handedly, and with breathtaking boldness.

Ford’s obsession with dynamic ability was behind the Focus’ Control Blade multi-link rear suspension, which brought hitherto unknown levels of ride, handling and body control to the small car segment. The BA Falcon has since adopted a variation, with stunning results.

It forced VW to tear up the old torsion beam rear suspension template it helped developed with its first Golf for the 2004 Mark V version, along with the Audi A3, and various Seat and Skoda derivatives too, for a copycat design.

Vitally, Mazda’s3 has Control Blade too, from the new-generation Focus II it shares its platform with.

Meanwhile the Focus’ progressive design smashed staid old small car styling to smithereens, and has opened the door for a new era that’s so far spawned the brash Megane and BMW 1 Series.

Today small cars are vibrant and fresh because of the Focus’ profound influence. Yet Australians didn’t get to see it until late ’02. And Ford really hasn’t got a grasp on how to sell its icon here anyway.

So what does this all have to do with the new Astra?

Well, Opel’s decision to engineer it with the simpler old suspension – suitably updated and refined of course – seems to have limited its dynamic prowess.

Sure, it steers quickly, eagerly, and with a high amount of communication, cornering (on alloy wheels shod with 205/55R16s instead of the standard steel-wheel 195/65R15s) with a flat, body roll-free attitude that makes the Astra feel like a much smaller, nimbler number.

Push harder and it will corner commensurately wider, but it still keeps on gripping.

Also, the helm’s lightness, an electro-hydraulic set-up that’s perfectly weighted whether weaving at low speed around town (aided by a tight turning circle) or cruising along at highway speeds, is a real delight too.

But it doesn’t quite allow the driver to feel road surfaces quite as intimately as the Ford and Mazda do.

And while the Holden’s ride is isolating and absorbent, some really big bumps feel like they’re skimmed over without pliancy or subtlety. There’s a firmness that’s a tad unyielding. It’s like a therapeutic-soled sandal that isn’t uncomfortable but you always know is there.

Yet if you’ve never driven a 3, Focus or Golf, you’d be blissfully ignorant that there’s better.

Holden has also carried over the TS’s 90kW 1.8-litre engine, which is only bettered by Corolla’s 100kW 1.8 and Mazda’s 104kW 2.0 motors, and miles ahead of any other base Euro powerplant.

It’s just a gem, punching significantly above its weight (now up by 80kg) to feel the liveliest of the lot in the lower rev ranges. Thanks to an accessible 165Nm of torque, acceleration is always brisk, it never sounds strained and power delivery is smooth as silk.

Another Astra plus is the four-wheel disc brakes – now with standard anti-lock and brake-assist abilities – that almost seem over-engineered for hauling up the Holden, they’re so good.

Better still, the five-speed manual gearbox is a slinky delight, swapping cogs with fluency rare amongst front-drivers. And the clutch is right behind for light and effortless fun.

They all reveal a deep level of maturity to the Astra’s talents. Opel’s been building them since the late 1970s and it really shows.

Only beyond the urban limits do the more powerful opposition pull ahead, although the Holden Ecotec will rev happily, if raucously, to its 6500rpm redline.

Not that you’re likely to notice, because that Holden cabin feels strong and airtight (the upshot of a 15 per cent increase in torsional rigidity), without any of the intrusive road roar that mars some Mazdas, for instance.

It bodes well for a cabin that’s moved up a notch in its quality and presentation.

Like the TS, there’s an overwhelming Germanic ambience inside, from the weight of the doors and the (rather dour in base CD guise tested here) materials used, to the firm seats and smart symmetry of the dashboard.

And you can only describe the instrumentation as crystal clear the ventilation as excellent the steering wheel (adjustable for reach and height) as classy and the overall trim as very VW-now.

Thick pillars and a high waistline hamper vision, but the occupants are properly propped up in very spacious surrounds by superbly comfortable and satisfyingly multi-adjustable front bucket seats.

It’s deceivingly roomy out back too, so that’s probably the increased size (length: +139mm, width: +44mm height: 35mm wheelbase: +8mm) talking. The amount of legroom offered suffices, with no qualms about head or shoulder space either.

Now I’m inclined to mention the Mazda3 as feeling measurably roomier in every direction.

However, to be fair to the wieldier Holden, the Astra feels like a big small car (with all the positives this entails, particularly about town) where as the Japanese car is more like small mid-sizer.

The AH’s hatch area is smaller than before, as is the aperture. It’s still large (at 350L, down 30L) and deep though. But while the seats don’t quite fold flush, the tailgate now uses a natty pressure-sensitive button.

For your $21,990 equipment levels are excellent, and include the aforementioned ABS/BA, plus six airbags, air-conditioning, front powered windows and mirrors, keyless entry, a multi-function display and wheel-spoke controls for the impressive CD/audio system.

Big door pockets, a huge glovebox, and various other places for bits and beverages abound, for all you reps out there.

But as one of Europe’s star fleet cars, this new model has a couple of surprising oversights.

Try front seat passenger’s knees that foul the glovebox. Heater controls that are a stretch and can’t fully be seen by the driver. No temperature gauge or map pockets and a wheel-sited audio volume control that’s too-easily knocked by big hands.

This is nit-picking though.

Because underneath those chiselled good looks with the beautiful proportions and eye-catching design details (how good do the multi-lens bug headlights and opaque tail-lights look!) lay one of the world’s most complete small cars at any price.

And where else can you find a centre dash-top crease that led to one friend describing it as looking like "the bonnet from a ’66 HR Holden Special" (and it’s true! No drugs required either).

But it’s also true that there are now more powerful, dynamic, composed and spacious rivals out there.

Still, do yourself a favour anyway and check the AH Astra out. It’s not quite the future but then it’s much better than middle-of-the-road.

The Road to Recovery podcast series

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