Car reviews - Holden - Astra - CDXi 5-dr hatch
Classy new interior, passenger space, ride and handling
Room for improvement
Inadequate 1.8-litre engine, clunky clutch operation
4 Mar 2005
By CHRIS HARRIS
HOLDEN’S Astra may have got off to a slow start when the first TR model was introduced here in 1996, but it has certainly improved in the credibility stakes since then.
In fact, up until recently, the TS series Astra that came along in 1998 was generally regarded as the top of the small-car crop, a step above what most of the Japanese companies were offering. Some people even claimed it was a legitimate competitor to the more expensive VW Golf – with which it did apparently have some price parity on European markets.
In terms of sales, the Astra in 2004 was only beaten by Toyota’s Corolla (by a substantial margin admittedly) and outperformed small-car stalwarts such as the Nissan Pulsar and Mazda3.
The latest AH series Astra arrived in late 2004 and in quite timely fashion, because competitors like the Corolla and the Mazda3 were by then new-generation models that went pretty much toe-to-toe with the TS.
The new version arrives with some interesting internal competition – it’s being sold alongside the previous TS that is now labelled as the Astra Classic and undercuts the new car by a worthwhile margin. The convertible version, which has contributed significantly to Astra sales, continues too.
That doesn’t mean the AH has been repositioned closer to where European relativities suggest it should be though. The new car starts at around $22,000 in CD form, while the top-spec CDXi automatic is a little more than $30,000.
The main difference between the AH and the TS is that the latter can be had either as a five-door hatch or a four-door sedan. The new one, so far, can only be had as a five-door. No convertible, and no three-door – although a turbo coupe and station wagon are on the way.
Like most cars that succeed an old model, the AH Astra is bigger and heavier, stronger and safer, and better equipped than before.
The range begins with the CD, progressing through the CDX to the plush CDXi. As well as a torsionally stronger body - with the extra safety and improved on-road handling that implies - it is also better fitted out, with ABS, front side airbags, air-conditioning and power front windows standard across the range.
The new Astra body is said to offer 52 per cent more longitudinal flex resistance and 47 per cent more lateral flex resistance than the TS, while torsional (twisting) rigidity is also up - although obviously not as impressively, because Holden doesn’t mention a figure.
The style is sleek-Euro, with more than the occasional reference to the larger new Vectra models, and the slight increase of all body dimensions, as well as a longer wheelbase and wider tracks, means there’s more space inside as well.
The weight penalty imposed by these things isn’t excessive compared with the previous model, but the Astra isn’t that light a car any more with the top-spec CDXi weighing in at 1283 kilos, or roughly 70kg above the TS equivalent.
The Astra’s interior has been lifted to new quality levels, and now makes a much more confident statement than the almost-stodgy TS via classier trim materials and a slick, ergonomic dash design.
Underpinning all this though is essentially the same chassis and driveline as before. In fact the 1.8-litre engine specs read exactly the same, with a meagre 90 kilowatts and 165 Newton metres of torque having to cope with the AH’s extra weight.
Holden’s strategy here is to give manual versions a lower final drive ratio that assists accelerator response around town and on the open road, but increases fuel consumption. The four-speed auto versions retain exactly the same ratios as the TS.
The suspension has been worked over to a reasonable extent, revising and upgrading where necessary without departing from the principles that have worked well for Astra so far.
It stays with a MacPherson strut front suspension using wider track dimensions, modified bushings, new mounts and lateral control arms. The simple but effective torsion beam rear-end layout (Golf used a torsion beam system from the beginning and has only just replaced it in the latest model) continues for the rear end.
The electro hydraulic steering has seen some work too, with new geometry helping improve response, while the braking now incorporates four-channel ABS on all models.
The favourable first impressions continue once you sit in the new car.
The doors close with a nice solid thunk (whose don’t these days?) and the interior grab handles have damped return springs to further add to the impressions of quality.
The test car was a CDXi, so there was not a lot missing from the specs. The seat facings are trimmed in a combination of leather and cloth and the shaping is designed to hold driver and passenger firmly against lateral forces.
The CDXi adds a cushion tilt adjustment, on both sides, as well as adjustable lumbar support, meaning there’s little likelihood of complaints from either front-seat passenger unless it’s to do with the seats being marginally less easy to climb into than a flat-cushion design.
For the driver, the chances of a comfortable seating position are aided by a two-way adjustable steering column, while there’s a neat, clean array of instruments and controls that are easy to comprehend and easy to operate. The menu-controlled radio and trip computer functions are supplemented by buttons that allow quick familiarisation.
All-round space is really very good for a small car. Front and rear passengers, even tall passengers, have excellent legroom and shoulder room and the boot is quite spacious with a volume of 350 litres with the rear seat in place.
Fold the 60-40 backrest down and there’s space enough for two pushbikes, front wheels removed, without impinging on the front-seat passengers. The rear-seat folding operation isn’t particularly clever, as the single-piece cushion remains fixed and immovable, but the seats fold to give a reasonably flat loading area.
In the CDXi, there’s not a lot to spend on when it comes to standard equipment. It adds full-length curtain airbags to the four-bag system used in lesser models, has eight-way adjustable front seats for driver and passenger, a trip computer that is accessible like the radio through a central control monitor, a six-stack CD player, cruise control, climate-control and (CDX also) power windows all round.
The new Astra drives similarly to the previous car. The TS always felt taut enough, so it’s hard to say without directly comparing the two cars that the AH is noticeably more rigid. But it does feel strong and solid, in a confidence-inspiring way.
The manual transmission’s lower gearing doesn’t seem to worry it in terms of highway noise levels, where 3000rpm in fifth equates to approximately 100km/h – pretty standard gearing for a small car.
The long-stroke 1.8-litre, to be fair, does a surprisingly effective job in the new car. It seems responsive in the mid-range but the reality is that, when it’s all boiled down, the Astra could do with more punch.
The impression of quick accelerator response is not backed up by any meaningful torque, especially when more than a couple of passengers are on board. In situations like these, there’s not a lot happening below 3000rpm.
But, as we said, it’s pretty good for a 1.8-litre and is at least quiet, as well as smooth.
The lower final drive brings the intermediate ratios into a closer-knit pattern, so the Astra manual progresses through the ratios quite nicely, even if the clutch action is a little clunky and tends to help create the odd rough shift.
Economy hasn’t improved of course. We averaged a little more than nine litres per 100 kilometres on test, which is not as good as the official combined figure of 7.8 litres per 100 kilometres, but still liveable with. In our case a few more freeway kilometres would have helped, as most driving was in urban conditions.
The car’s handling, assisted in the CDXi by a set of reasonably purposeful 205/55R16 tyres, is sure-footed and quite brisk, even if it’s not as sharp as, say, an Audi A3.
The Astra finds a compromise between ride comfort and steering response that we’d have to admit is pretty accurate, considering that in this class, and with this engine, you’re not really expecting a sports sedan.
The ride remains very good, quiet and absorbent, and the electro-hydraulic steering feels more “natural” than some of the other, similar, systems that are abounding at the moment.
In all, the AH Astra notches up the mini Holden’s status in the small car market where the important players have all – with the exception of Nissan, which has a new Pulsar coming later in the year – revealed their hands.
Its only deficit right now is that the engine is being asked to do a bit more than it is really comfortable with.
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