Car reviews - Holden - Astra - Convertible
Fully electric roof, standard equipment, Italian styling
Room for improvement
Compromised boot space, too-high seating position
31 May 2002
By JUSTIN LACY
HOLDEN'S humble Astra small car has gone from strength to strength since the current TS model was released in September, 1998, to the point where it ran a very close second in overall sales to the top-selling Corolla during 2001, which no doubt gave Toyota a big fright.
The current Astra has also spawned a number of different body styles since it was launched - although only four are available in Australia - adding to its ability to generate sales across a wider cross section of the marketplace. They include a sedan, two hatchbacks (three-door and five-door), coupe and wagon variants (both Europe only) and now the convertible tested here.
Small-car based convertibles make up only a small percentage of the new car market in this country - or that is they used to until the Astra soft-top model came along.
Since it hit the market in January, 2002, the Astra Convertible has not only outsold all other four-seater convertibles, but the rest of the sports car coupe market as well, with the exception of its Holden stablemate, the Monaro.
The volumes it has generated are unprecedented for a convertible in the current climate, even if you factor into the mix the two-seater Mazda MX-5 and the more expensive, luxury models such as BMW's 3 Series and Saab's 9-3 - all of which are big sellers in their respective market niches.
To make matters worse for the opposition, Holden has said it could sell even more Astra Convertibles - twice as many, in fact, if it could only lay its hands on a greater level of supply from the factory in Europe.
As the latest rag-top model to hit the market, the Astra Convertible has certainly taken its direct competitors - Peugeot's 306 and Volkswagen's Golf cabrios - by storm, offering specification and equipment levels that put them to shame, while at the same time being reasonably priced.
A bulging equipment list is one of the Astra's main strengths and probably its biggest selling point. It offers a full leather interior, heated front seats, side airbags, active front seat head restraints, a trip computer, steering wheel audio controls, ESP (Electronic Stability Program) and traction control, and a fully electric.
While an electric roof is a relatively common feature on four-seater convertibles these days, where Holden's soft-top moves ahead of its rivals is in having a fully electric roof that does not require any manual operation.
The 306 (and smaller 206CC, for that matter), Renault Megane and Golf cabriolets all require the driver to release a retaining latch in the upper windscreen surround before the electric function takes over. On the Astra, an electric motor in the windscreen does the job of releasing the soft-top retaining hook, which also enables remote operation of the roof from outside the car via the key fob.
In these respects, the Astra soft-top is moving the game on for this type of vehicle, raising the bar for driver aids and equipment and laying down a serious value-for-money challenge to its rivals.
As with most convertibles, visibility from inside the Astra with the roof up is not great, as the small rear window and huge C-pillars make reversing and merging difficult at the best of times.
The A-pillars are also larger and more steeply raked than the regular Astra models (as it is based on the coupe) and it is easy to lose both cars and pedestrians behind them at intersections and roundabouts.
The only downside to its open-air cruising abilities is a too-high seating position that leaves even average drivers exposed at windscreen level to a bit of buffeting.
Apart from that, it is a relatively pleasant environment to be in with rear quarter windows that can be raised with the roof down (they don't even on a Porsche 911 Cabriolet), a large windbreak that fits across the rear seat opening to sit directly behind the front seats and a six-speaker stereo system that refuses to be drowned out by the wind noise.
Rear seat accommodation is generous for a small convertible - more so than its competitors - although the backrest remains too vertical for passengers to be comfortable on anything but the shortest of trips.
Boot space is also better than most, especially given all the room taken up by the electric roof system. It is the L-shape of the luggage area that hurts its carrying abilities and limits the size of bulky items that can be stored.
A specific, built-in area for storing the windbreak is a nice touch, but also cuts into the available space.
The Astra's build quality is another area that exposes some serious deficiencies in its rivals, particularly in body rigidity and fit and finish.
While the body will still flex over big bumps and things like railway crossings, it does the best job of any of its four-seat contemporaries of disguising the lack of a fixed metal roof - except for perhaps Peugeot's new 206CC, which is on a par but has a folding metal roof rather than a canvas item.
The Astra weighs between 110-140kg more than the equivalent 306 and Golf models, which no doubt goes some way to making it a stiffer, more rigid vehicle, but the simple fact that it's a more modern design plays a big part as well.
The Astra also comes up smelling of roses in the engine department. The first local use of the its 2.2-litre engine was in the Astra-based Zafira mini people-mover, which hit the road in mid-2001, although since then the 2.2 has also appeared under the bonnet of the Astra SRi three-door hot hatch.
It is a smooth, free-revving unit, just like the 1.8-litre powerplant in the bread and butter Astra models, and also offers a healthy torque output that benefits in-gear flexibility.
But the convertible is carrying over 170kg of extra weight compared to the SRi, so acceleration and overall performance have been softened noticeably.
As most convertible buyers are in it for show rather than go, they are unlikely to be concerned by the extra urge on offer to SRi drivers. Besides, the 2.2-litre unit still offers class leading power and torque outputs, so for now it is the best of what is available in a small soft-top.
The regular Astra models are known for their handling prowess and compliant suspension tune amongs the small car class, and the convertible continues that tradition.
The less rigid bodyshell hurts turn-in sharpness and mid-corner grip slightly, but only when you are pushing harder than most soft-top drivers will care to venture. A good example of the convertible car, the Astra does not feel all that different from its fuller-bodied siblings for at least 80 per cent of the time.
Of the current crop of genuine four-seater soft-tops, which in reality excludes the 206CC, the Astra Convertible is a clear winner.
Its European styling and ample equipment list make it a hit in this image-driven niche, as evidenced by the sales figures of its first few months on the market.
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