Car reviews - Holden - Astra - LTZ sedan
Handles well, rides OK on 18s, smooth and willing drivetrain, good driving position, pretty practical, good auto-parking and infotainment tech
Room for improvement
No AEB, sloping rear roof compromises headroom and entry/egress, too many low-rent cabin plastics, expensive for the spec
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12 Jan 2017
CRUZE is dead, long live Astra. Except the Cruze lives on, courtesy of badge engineering, in the form of Holden’s BL Astra sedan.
The sedan tested here is sourced from GM South Korea, meaning the Astra nameplate has returned to the rump of an Asian vehicle for the first time since 1989 – which was when the Nissan Pulsar-based, Australian-made LD Astra was killed off.
Since then, the Astra badge has been affixed to cars built in Belgium, Britain and Poland. The current BK Astra hatch and wagon are respectively Polish and British by birth. Sophisticated, European, dare we say premium?But does the sedan version live up to the upmarket connotations of its borrowed badge?Read on to find out.
Price and equipment
We spent a week and many kilometres with the top-spec LTZ variant of the Astra sedan range, for which Holden asks $29,790 plus on-road costs. The range opens at $20,490 plus on-roads for the manual LS, or $1000 more for the automatic version that people will actually buy.
In between are the LS+ at $22,740 plus on-roads and the LT for $25,790. Like the LTZ, both of these come with an automatic transmission as standard.
Driveaway deals and other discounts are rife, but the LTZ missed out on Holden’s launch offer of free on-roads.
Equipment wise, the main difference between the Astra sedan and its hatch/wagon counterparts is a complete lack of autonomous emergency braking at any spec level.
But from LS+ grade upwards, the Holden Eye active safety and driver assistance suite is standard, comprising forward collision alert, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assistance.
Holden has deftly ensured that all its models come with a decent-sized and full-featured infotainment system, so the entire Astra sedan range has at least a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone connectivity.
The display also serves up vision from the reversing camera, which like the rear parking sensors, cruise control and automatic headlights is standard range-wide.
From LS+ and above there is also a leather-wrapped steering wheel, self-dimming rearview mirror and rain sensing wipers, plus LED daytime running lights and automatic high-beam assist.
The LT steps up from 16-inch to 17-inch alloy wheels while adding blind-spot monitoring, keyless entry and start, automatic reverse-park assistance, satellite navigation and DAB+ digital radio reception in the larger 8.0-inch touchscreen and a colour trip computer display between the instruments. There is also a lip spoiler on the boot lid.
On the range-topping LTZ are 18-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery with heated front seats, single-zone climate control and an electric sunroof.
Of the eight available colours, only two are no-cost options – Summit White and Absolute Red – and our test car was finished in Nitrate Silver, which is one of the six premium hues that all cost $550 extra.
Compared with the Cruze that went before, the top-spec Astra sedan’s leather upholstery has taken a step up in quality – it would be hard not to – while the the overall dashboard layout has come along in leaps and bounds in terms of presentation, ergonomics (mostly) and ease-of-use.
Happily, General Motors is getting there and we celebrated the absence of multiple clashing textures, finishes and colours.
As is the trend, contrast-stitched leather-like panels across the dash and doors helped raise the ambience, but not enough to overcome the scratchy hard plastic door caps that were like something out of the micro-car or commercial vehicle segments. A few more low-grade plastics were also easily found from waist-height down to remind us of this car’s primarily Asian and North American audience, in contrast to the Euro-friendly hatch and wagons with which it shares a nameplate.
So the overall result is merely competitive and far from class-leading in that it delivers very little feel of substance, quality or tactility. But the quality of fit was OK and nothing creaked or rattled.
Like many recent Holdens, we instantly found the Astra LTZ’s front seats odd-feeling and uncomfortable. And like many recent Holdens, after a couple of journeys we realised we could happily spend many kilometres behind the wheel without complaint. An odd phenomenon that demonstrates the value of extended dealership test drives.
The driving position is pretty much spot-on, too, but we never fully came to terms with the weird and cheap-feeling rubberised panels used for the various steering wheel-mounted cruise control and trip computer functions, nor the weird paddle-like controls on the wheel’s reverse for radio tuning/track skipping and audio volume.
Also, even well below the LTZ’s $30K price point almost every competitor has dual-zone climate and, come to think of it, several even have adaptive cruise control. A button on the Astra’s steering wheel that looks like an adaptive cruise control follow-distance adjuster is in fact for altering sensitivity of the forward collision warning system.
Worse, we found the single-zone climate system was hardly set-and-forget and necessitated constant adjustment to maintain a comfortable cabin temperature.
On the upside, the Astra’s semi-automated parking system worked very well, being easy to activate and able to search for vacant spaces at up to 30km/h so that following traffic did not get apoplectic with impatience. It was pretty accurate in operation, too.
A good quality reversing camera helped ease anxiety about the Astra’s big blind spots when manoeuvring, but the parking sensor proximity display on the instrument panel was all too easily obscured by steering wheel spokes and required too much neck-twizzling between the camera display in the central touchscreen, over the shoulder and back to the instruments again.
Better news came from the well-suppressed engine and wind noise, with just a little vibration detectable from cold start. Road noise was also acceptable despite the presence of big 18-inch wheels. If anything, the Astra’s sound deadening eliminated annoying sound frequencies, as the volume of road noise was still quite high on some coarse chip and concrete surfaces.
Holden’s decent MyLink infotainment system was present and correct in its generously sized 8.0-inch touchscreen and provided easy USB-connected smartphone mirroring. Unfortunately it was awfully gltchy in our test vehicle and regularly operated at a snail’s pace, just like an ageing computer that is badly in need of a thorough drive-de-cluttering session.
We know the MyLink system usually works well and a dealership software update was probably all it needed to restore proper operation. Nothing but a full aftermarket work-over could save the muddy-sounding stereo that was prone to comedy levels of distortion at higher volumes.
Cabin storage, at least up front, is OK. The glovebox is reasonably big and supplemented by another about a third of its size by the driver’s right knee.
The front-central armrest adjusts fore and aft, serving as the lid to a storage area that is smaller than that of other small cars but still useful, and there is a small area in front of the gear selector beneath the USB/12V/auxiliary audio sockets that is not even big enough to hold a compact iPhone SE while it is charging.
The centre console is also home to a pair of cupholders that are well sized but are essentially just holes in the very cheap-feeling plastic. The rearmost of the two also extends into a rectangular box, with the narrow area linking the two suitable for storing long, thin items such as pens.
At 4665mm long, the Astra sedan is 279mm longer than the hatch, with a 38mm-longer wheelbase that stretches 2700mm.
We can report the statistical 33mm increase in rear legroom over the hatch does provide a meaningful level of extra back-seat space, but the sloping rear roofline and the fact our LTZ variant had a sunroof meant headroom was pretty poor for those over six feet tall and had to duck right down when getting in and out, even if their knees and feet enjoyed plenty of freedom.
Being just 2mm narrower than the hatch at 1807mm, the Astra sedan’s front headroom, legroom and shoulder room are unaffected between the two and apart from the LTZ’s low ceiling, the rear bench is broad and flat enough for a trio of travellers to sit side-by-side in reasonable comfort.
Isofix points and easily accessible top tethers made fitting child seats easy and the cabin length made it possible for those in the front to stretch out when seated in front of a rear-facing infant capsule. But when loading and strapping in the capsule’s occupant, that steeply angled roof and low-slung door aperture was obstructive.
There are no rear air vents plus just a single 12V power outlet to play with and fairly small door bins at the back, which aren’t great for holding drinks bottles. A pair of cupholders is provided in the fold-down central armrest and while there is access to two map pockets in the front seat-backs, there is precious little room for rear occupants to store stuff.
Meanwhile boot space of 445 litres is up 85L on the hatch, but identical to the old Cruze and about average for a small sedan. A big, sturdy hook is provided on the left-hand side for holding grocery bags.
A flat boot floor and 60:40 split-fold rear seats are handy, though the incredibly skinny space-saver tyre beneath might put off country customers and while the aperture is reasonably tall and broad with a low-ish load lip, usefulness is impinged by old-school gooseneck hinges that can collide with bulky items when closing the lid.
So it’s pretty practical, but for those regularly transporting tall folk in the back we’d recommend stepping down a grade to avoid the headroom-robbing sunroof.
Engine and transmission
Finally General Motors is getting its act together on small four-cylinder engines. The Astra’s smooth and quiet 1.4-litre turbo-petrol produces 110kW of power at 6500rpm and 240Nm of torque between 2000-4000 rpm, sent to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission.
These modest outputs are offset by a reasonably low 1318kg kerb weight, meaning in-gear acceleration is punchy enough even if standing-start performance can be a little leisurely, especially with a full load of passengers on board.
But responses to driver inputs are quick and, refreshingly, the drivetrain never felt hesitant, as is the case with many downsized turbos.
Power delivery is also pleasantly linear, complemented by a free-breathing nature that allows revs to rise willingly and cleanly.
This is a huge departure from the rough, gravelly feeling – and sounding – units that went before and makes getting the best out of this engine a pleasure rather than a chore.
Another departure was efficiency, although we never saw the official combined cycle figure of 6.1 litres per 100 kilometres even on the motorway. We managed 6.8L/100km in these conditions, while cross-town schlepping resulted in mid-eights to low nines.
Still, in recent memory a GM four-cylinder of this capacity and in a car of similar or even smaller size, would easily slurp more than 10L/100km during a week-with test.
We found the Astra’s torque converter automatic transmission painless and smooth when left to make its own decisions, although it could stumble when suddenly asked to kick down for quick bursts of acceleration. It was also a bit frustratingly dopey when left in Drive on a twisty road.
But using the manual gate, it repeatedly proved an ability to provide impressively quick changes.
That said, manual mode is a misnomer as it still automatically upshifts at 6500rpm and will still kick down automatically under heavy accelerator inputs if a lower ratio is available.
Overall, the Astra sedan’s drivetrain is more than adequate in terms of performance for most uses and was slick and enjoyable enough in operation to breeze through everyday journeys in a relaxed manner.
What’s more, its willing and smooth-revving nature didn’t disappoint when more was asked of it.
Ride and handling
Unlike the hatch that deploys a Watts-link independent rear suspension setup for enhanced roadholding, the Astra sedan uses a basic torsion beam.
Holden’s Australian engineers have clearly tuned everything well because the Astra sedan was pleasingly free of torsion-typical vices and foibles. It tracked true through some pretty rough and rippled corners, with the rear wheels faithfully following the fronts.
As recompense for adding a little sharp-edged nature to the Astra’s generally comfortable and compliant ride quality, the 225/40/R18 Kumho Ecsta tyres provided outstanding levels of grip in the rather wet conditions of our test that showed how far this rubber company has come in just a few short years.
Had we not taken note of the tyre brand prior to our dynamic test, we’d have been convinced the Astra was wearing a set of Bridgestones.
A light, accurate steering setup that turned in crisply then felt impressively natural in the way it loaded up through bends helped, too, and the whole car felt surprisingly communicative as we attempted to keep the pace up on greasy roads. It even had plenty to give and could carry respectable speeds through a set of tight, occasionally off-camber switchbacks.
Even in the wet, the Astra sedan felt so composed on a fast country road with plenty of sweeping bends that it delivered very little sensation of speed. On numerous corner exits we realised we could have easily taken the bend a fair bit quicker than we did.
This was unexpected from an otherwise pretty dull and uninspiring small sedan.
It was fun to drive, helped by that willing and smooth little 1.4-litre engine.
For the majority of buyers not interested in driving like their hair is on fire, the Astra’s dynamic smarts make the car safe and predictable, as well as agile and nippy round town.
This car’s keen body control and composed nature also allows the driver to get on with traversing a twisty road without frustrating following traffic or worrying about upsetting their passengers too much.
On 18-inch wheels as specified on the LTZ the ride comfort suffers a bit, but not to an unforgivable degree that ruins the car, as is the case with some rivals.
Safety and servicing
ANCAP gave the Astra sedan a maximum five-star safety rating. Its overall score was 34.94 out of a possible 37, made up of 13.94 out of 16 in the frontal offset test, a maximum 16 in the side impact test and a perfect 2 out of 2 in the pole test.
Whiplash protection was deemed ‘good’ and pedestrian protection ‘acceptable’.
Dual frontal, side chest and side curtain airbags are standard, along with anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist, and electronic stability control. As mentioned in the Price and Equipment section, no autonomous emergency braking is available, but lane departure prevention is on all but base LS variants.
Service intervals are nine months or 15,000km. Under Holden’s Lifetime Capped Price Servicing regime, maintenance visits are $249 for the first four (up to and including 60,000km), with the following three each priced at $309 (correct at the time of writing).
A look at the standard equipment you get on the rivals listed below, all of which are less expensive than the Holden, and the argument for an Astra sedan starts to fall apart at the seams.
For example, a Subaru Impreza 2.0i-S sedan gets dual-zone climate control, AEB and adaptive cruise, not to mention the Japanese brand’s all-wheel-drive system, a bigger boot and much classier cabin – all for $800 less than the Astra.
Apart from tackling our dynamic test route with aplomb and offering a pretty good drivetrain combination, the Astra sedan was just a bit ordinary. It did most tasks we asked of it pretty well, but rarely with any sparkle.
Of course, a Holden’s asking price is merely a suggestion and at the time of writing the Astra LTZ sedan was advertised on Holden’s website with a driveaway deal costing not much more than the manufacturer’s list price before on-roads.
And while plenty of credit is due to Australian Holden engineers for extracting Superman levels of fast-road fun from this Clark Kent of a car, the rest of the package does little to justify the cheekily European connotations of putting the Astra badge – and ambitious price – on a Cruze.
Holden should know better than anyone that Australia’s small car segment is tough and competitive. As such, the Astra sedan lacks sufficient sparkle to deserve a place on your small sedan shopping shortlist.
Hyundai Elantra Elite from $26,990 plus on-road costs
The Elite is as much Elantra as you can get without going for the sporty, turbocharged SR that is around $1300 more expensive than the Astra LTZ and worth every cent. Even at this affordable Elite level, there is loads of kit and tech including leather and dual-zone climate. It makes the Astra sedan a bit of a hard sell, to be honest.
Subaru Impreza 2.0i-S from $28,990 plus on-road costs
Massive spec for the money, including some of the best suite of active safety and driver aid technologies on the market plus the unique standard fitment of all-wheel drive. The latest Impreza also happens to be the best Subaru in years and has a vast amount of interior space for its size. The Astra sedan has better engine performance but it is otherwise outgunned by the Subaru.
Mazda3 Touring from $27,290 plus on-road costs
Although it is getting on a bit now, the more you spend on a Mazda3 the better it gets. Good value, range-wide AEB and an overall classy package that is only really let down by road noise.
Honda Civic VTi-L from $27,790 plus on-road costs
We found a lot to like about the latest Honda Civic, from the way it drives to the generous amount of space, decent standard equipment level, versatile infotainment system and overall sense of robustness. It’s not without its quirks and the styling is a bit polarising to say the least.
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