Car reviews - Holden - Astra - R
Design, value, packaging, powertrain, efficiency, performance, handling, quality, AEB availability, Holden back-up
Room for improvement
Firm ride, some cheap cabin fittings, not much else
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6 Apr 2017
Price and equipment
NOT for the first time but maybe for the last, Astra is back.
It came (initially as a rebadged 1984 Nissan Pulsar hatch) and went (for a rebadged 1989 Toyota Corolla) and came again (via its rightful German Opel sourcing) and went again (because of the locally made Cruze) and then came again (as an actual Opel…) and then went again (… that sadly flopped) and now finally it is back. Actually, the latter happened two years ago when the still-striking previous-gen TJ GTC and VXR coupes resurfaced as niche models brandishing the lion rather than blitz badges, but now the BK (or Astra K as it’s known with the contracting GM empire) is here as Holden’s tilt against the big-selling Mazda3, Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Golf. And be glad to see the nameplate back.
Slightly smaller in virtually every dimension than the short-lived PJ Opel Astra five-door hatch, the newcomer is actually roomier inside – the corollary of a complete redesign and platform overhaul that also sees some 140kg lopped off. At 1304kg, the entry R auto is just 8kg heavier than the Mazda3 Neo, but 71kg more than the Golf and a whopping 154kg lardier than the cracking Peugeot 308.
So let’s cut to the chase. How can the base Astra – expected to be the range best-seller – retail for $22,490 or $550 more with metallic paint as tested – when it is imported all the way from Poland? Especially when the R certainly doesn’t look like the cheapest version – not with handsome 17-inch multi-spoke alloys it also scores LED daytime driving lights, digital radio, a sizeable central touchscreen, reversing camera, rear parking sensors, cruise control with speed limiter, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, Bluetooth audio streaming, voice control, a USB jack, and idle-stop to help save fuel (and pollution).
We also applaud the company’s decision to offer the very reasonably priced Driver Assist Pack at $1000. Besides the increasingly desirable AEB Automatic Emergency Braking, Lane Keep Assist, Forward Distance Indicator and Forward Collision Alert with Head-Up Warning features, the bundle also brings a leather steering wheel (replacing the cheapo plastic item) and rain-sensors wipers, making it the proper budget Euro hatch experience.
Nice one, Holden.
For a base model, the Astra R’s interior is as elegant as the exterior, with a flowing horizontal dash theme featuring thick chrome and piano black trim, a large central touchscreen, neatly presented analogue instruments and classy night time illumination.
The latter is backed up by crisp white LCD markings that include a digital speedo and very comprehensive driving data, while the multi-adjustable driving position itself is both inviting and comprehensive in its scope.
Massive door bins, a sizeable glovebox, cupholders and a padded lidded central storage/armrest further underline the Holden’s practicality, and smaller families are also likely to appreciate the ample spaciousness and comfort of all outboard seating.
The front buckets might seem initially flat but they do their job well and have the bonus of an infinitely adjustable rake knob. And the rear bench is particularly inviting, backed up by a comfy angle and supportive cushion. This is a roomy and versatile hatch.
A large hatch aperture (with one of the best opening latch solutions available) opens up to a long and wide flat floor (with a space-saver spare residing beneath), and – as with the rest of the Astra – the fit and finish back there is of a high standard.
Spec wise it’s quite complete, with DAB+ digital radio, Isofix child restraints, illuminated vanity mirrors on both sides, auto on/off headlights, a detailed multimedia system with app compatibility and Apple CarPlay, and a quite nifty phone holder near the base of the centre console that allows it to be secure without needing to hold it.
Note however that there is no front passenger seat-height adjuster, rear-seat armrests and air vents are not available in the base Astra (though air output is excellent from a quartet of big and powerful outlets up front), and the otherwise-effective clap-hand wipers are surprisingly noisy.
Perhaps more annoying are the crackly plastic crunchiness of the steering column stalks, which are truly shocking (they’d shame a Viva’s, let alone a Cruze) one instead of two auto up/down electric windows is a disappointment the steering wheel is plastic rather than leather-wrapped the reversing camera resolution rivals that of the original moon landing’s footage for clarity and some of the cabin plastics are lower grade than you might expect from a German small car.
That all said, for the price point, the R is a very appealing, quiet, refined and Euro-centric package.
Engine and transmission
At the heart of the BK R is a box-fresh 1.4-litre direct-injection twin-cam four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine that is totally unrelated to anything we’ve seen in previous (and other current) Holdens and Opels. Despite the use of the quaintly ‘90s Ecotec moniker.
Delivering a healthy 110kW of power and 240Nm of toque in the conventionally engineered, quick-shifting six-speed automatic version (the manual offers an extra 5Nm), this is a smooth and spirited powertrain worthy of any premium hatch.
As eager off the mark as it is to rev, this 1399cc belter responds both evenly and enthusiastically to throttle response, pulling strongly through the gears, accompanied by a perky induction noise and a handy tip shift pattern that puts the keener driver in the mood to keep the right foot planted.
Fuel consumption isn’t brilliant, though, with an indicated average of 8.7L/100km achieved through a combination of inner-urban and cross-country touring similar test routes in the 308, for instance, netted us upwards of 30 per cent better economy. Maybe it’s because the engine’s upper limits are so willing to be explored.
A more relaxed style would probably net better consumption figures. Note the official figure is 5.8L/100km with standard 91 RON unleaded capability.
Ride and handling
Holden has revealed that the Astra underwent extensive testing and tuning in Australia, with input from the Australian arm right from the beginning of the BK program.
Fair enough, too, because the R’s steering is beautifully measured and balanced, for light yet fluid handling across a broad range of conditions. Turn the pressure up more and the chassis reacts with a confident, sporty edge that should please the driver in every family, to paraphrase a VH Commodore-era ad slogan.
Holden’s decision to tune the Astra’s suspension (MacPherson-style struts up front and a torsion beam with a Watts link retainer out back) to a sporty European spec isn’t all great news, however.
Even wearing quality Michelin Primacy 3 225/45R17 tyres, the overriding ride characteristic is firmness, which isn’t really noticeable on highways or smooth fast corners, but is immediately apparent in more urban environments.
Not uncomfortable, but also not supple either, the suspension lacks the finesse of rivals such as the 308, Golf or Ford Focus. On the other hand, it works quietly absorbing bigger bumps, so there is still a pleasing level of Euro refinement in the R’s overall dynamic make-up.
Safety and servicing
With six airbags, electronic/stability control, and a host of other safety features, the Astra scores a five-star ANCAP crash-test rating.
Service intervals are every 12 months/15,000km, whichever comes first. Holden includes the Astra under its so-called Lifetime Capped Price Servicing regime, meaning there is a minimum cost amount per service published.
There is so much to like and very little not to in the latest Astra.
In base R auto guise, it walks the fine line between affordable practicality and premium quality with confidence, bringing a welcome dose of European chic to the lower-end of the small-car class.
Truly worthy of engaging a Golf and 308, let alone a Corolla or i30, the latest Astra hatch is Holden’s best small car in generations. It is certainly the most competitive.
Volkswagen Golf 92TSI DSG from $25,340 plus on-road costs
Still the global small-car benchmark no matter what the price or class category, the seventh-gen Golf is an over-achiever on almost every level – comfort, dynamics, efficiency, performance, refinement, quality, space and class. The premium is well worth it.
Ford Focus Trend auto from $24,390 plus on-road costs
Why the Focus doesn’t sell better remains a mystery, because in its current third-gen guise, it remains roomy and comfortable enough for the family, yet with enough sporty involvement to please enthusiasts. Powerful and gutsy to boot, it remains a favourite.
Mazda 3 Neo auto from $22,490 plus on-road costs
The Mazda3 continues to fly high because of a broad range of talents, backed up by great reliability and excellent dealer service. A great buy – especially since its 2016 facelift, which brought standard AEB and more refinement – this is always a safe option.
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