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Car reviews - Holden - Astra - CDX 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

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

20 Jan 2006

TIME: Any given weekend.

PLACE: Ikea.

MISSION: To legally transport two fully erected 202cm X 60cm X 28cm shelves (ex-floor stock, slightly damaged, 40 per cent off), along with one 178cm and one 201cm human cargo (slightly damaged, approaching 40), for 15km.

METHOD: One 2005 Holden AH Astra CDXi wagon.

HOLDEN’S new Astra wagon would not have been our first choice for transporting two hefty shelving units.

And frankly the chances of making it in a single trip didn’t look too good.

Based on the current AH model launched in September 2004, the Belgian-built Astra wagon is quite a compact vehicle. After all, everything from the nose to the B-pillar is pure Astra small car.

But appearances are deceiving.

Its wheelbase has been stretched 89mm to 2701mm to accommodate more cargo (rather than increase rear-seat legroom as some wagons do).

So the upshot is a 454-litre space that blossoms to 1549 litres with the split-fold seats down, approaching old mid-sizers like the 1997-2002 Holden Vectra and Toyota Camry wagons.

And the Astra’s suspension has been honed. The rear’s is an especially compact torsion beam axle that allows for a flatter floor and full-sized spare tyre portability.

Yet there were still doubts. The Astra isn’t the most powerful small car on the market, packing in Holden’s venerable 90kW 1.8-litre unit when Mitsubishi’s Lancer packs in a 118kW 2.4. Even the ageing Corolla 1.8 can crack 100kW.

But fate was on our side as far as the golden-hued Holden was concerned.

To begin with the seating is quite a lot more multi-configurational than first glances might suggest.

Now we all expect wagons to have split-fold backrests, but the AH’s also has a split-fold cushion that tips forward so said backrests can lay flush.

However, that wasn’t going to be enough for the two metre-plus length of our cargo.

Lucky then the cushions can also be clipped off and taken out altogether, effectively adding crucial centimetres to the available cargo length available.

And with the front passenger seat and its backrest set as far forward as possible, the first 2.02 metre object easily slid in. And because it did so on the horizontal, the second one was sat on top of it with space to spare to the ceiling and with the tailgate shut tight.

Better still, because of their 60cm width, they fit within the perimeter of the wider of the two split seats, so the driver could operate the vehicle completely unimpeded while the 200cm passenger could travel in the back seat fully belted and in place beside the snugly placed cargo ... easy.

Finally, despite the potential for ripped trim from the jagged wooden shelving corners (it was a cheapo clearance number remember), no bits of trim or carpet was damaged in the making of this particular move.

About the only complaint was the difficulty in replacing the fiddly rear outboard headrests. Can’t they have been designed to sit flush with the backrest like the middle row one does?

Nevertheless then, ten-out-ten to the Astra wagon for versatility and function it fulfils what the boxy styling promises with cleverness and simplicity.

From the angular lines and sleek glasshouse to the large tail-lights and wheelarches, the Astra wagon’s chunky detailing looks great. Front complements rear harmoniously.

And the clever cargo cover that rolls back gently at a tap of its handle is a really nice touch.

Now being a wagon, some sympathy is needed as far as the dynamics are concerned, because a gaping big space supporting a large rear door and the need for a flat rear floor do result in some degradation in steering, handling and ride.

In fact, there’s barely a compromise here compared to the AH Astra’s fine but never class-leading driving abilities.

Opel’s decision to engineer it with the simpler old torsion beam rear suspension – suitably updated and refined of course – seems to have limited the hatchback’s dynamic prowess compared to the brilliantly agile Focus, Golf and Mazda3 hatchbacks. But it works extremely well on the more-utilitarian wagon.

The powered steering is quick, eager and with a high amount of communication, cornering (on alloy wheels shod with 205/55 R16s) 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.

And the Holden’s ride is isolating and absorbent, although some of the bigger bumps feel like they’re skimmed over without pliancy or subtlety, with a firmness that’s a tad unyielding.

However, Holden has also carried over the TS’s Euro-IV emissions-compliant 1.8-litre twin-cam 16-valve Ecotec four-cylinder engine, which is now behind most of the pack for power and torque delivery.

And this is only exacerbated in the heavier wagon format – particularly when paired to the four-speed automatic as per the test car and (presumably) most of the cars to be bought.

It pumps out 90kW of power at 5600rpm (92kW on premium) and 165Nm of torque at 3800rpm (PULP: 170Nm).

The official ADR 81/01 combined fuel consumption figure is 7.8L/100km for the manual (7.9 CDX) and 8.3 for the latter.

In fact, the auto's not too bad for a non-sequential shift four-speeder. It tries hard to match its available gear ratios as seamlessly as possible.

But, saddled with the latter gearbox, performance isn't what you'd describe as sprightly - especially with the air-con on.

The Ecotec isn't gutless or even slow. It's just not very punchy on take-off or during overtaking manoeuvres.

We said it after the wagon’s launch and we’ll say it again. What the Astra asks for is a gutsy 2.0-litre or even the old TS SRi's 108kW 2.2-litre unit.

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.

This feeling is also carried over inside.

Like the TS, there’s an overwhelming Germanic ambience inside, from the weight of the doors and the 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 somewhat, but the occupants are properly propped up in very spacious surrounds by superbly comfortable and satisfyingly multi-adjustable front bucket seats.

The rear seats too are certainly adequate for two adults, or three at a pinch.

Best of all though, and as you know, this is deceivingly spacious out back.

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 six-stacker CD/audio system, 16-inch alloys, velour-trimmed seats, a trip computer and a six-stacker CD audio.

Big door pockets, a huge glovebox, and various other places for bits and beverages abound.

On the other hand the front seat passenger’s knees can foul the glovebox, the heater controls are a stretch and partially hidden and there’s no temperature gauge.

But these are petty things in a wagon so pretty and practical.

As it stands, the Holden is the choice carryall compared to the Corolla and Lancer, and even places the petrol-powered Peugeot 307 Touring in the shade.

And though the engine is probably the Astra’s weakest feature, it isn’t its Achilles Heel by any means.

So if you’re after a hauler that’s smaller than the Commodore but funkier and more fun to drive, the Astra wagon should be at the top of your list.

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