Car reviews - Holden - Astra - range
Styling, specification levels, pricing, powertrains, performance, cabin comfort, ride and handling
Room for improvement
Small cabin storage, autonomous emergency braking optional on base R
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9 Nov 2016
THE Astra nameplate has a long history in Australia and actually goes back more than 30 years to 1984 when Holden launched the first-generation Nissan Pulsar-based model.
It stuck with Nissan under a badge-engineering deal until 1989 when it was replaced with the Toyota Corolla-badged Holden Nova that was killed off in 1997, just after the Opel-sourced European Astra reintroduced the nameplate to Australia.
Another two successful models further endeared the badge to the Australian public until the global financial crisis saw Holden source many of its cars from GM’s new Korean outpost – formerly Daewoo – including the 2009 Cruze.
Now the Cruze is officially dead in Australia thanks to the closure of Australian manufacturing, and Holden has again turned to its German cousins Opel for a new small car that also carries an Astra badge.
Holden launched three-door versions of the outgoing Euro Astra last year as niche variants to sex up its image.
This all-new model, however, is expected to bring real volume to Holden’s line-up, picking up where the popular Cruze left off.
As part of Holden’s brand reinvention, the company is talking up the European heritage of the new Astra – the company wastes no time in reminding us that it is the reigning European car of the year – as it is hoping to appeal to the more aspirational end of the small-car segment where the Mazda3 and VW Golf rule.
While the car receives a European suspension tune, Australian engineers have helped adapt the electric power steering and stability control program for Australian conditions.
Pricing is more in line with Golf and Renault Megane than the segment-leading Toyota Corolla and Hyundai i30, but specification levels, even from base level, are generous.
The entry-level R gets reversing camera, rear parking sensors, cruise control with a speed limiter, six airbags, MyLink infotainment system with a 7.0-inch high-res colour touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, DAB+ digital radio, Siri Eyes Free and much more.
Autonomous emergency braking is standard in mid-spec RS and flagship RS-V but available as an option via a Driver Assistance Pack for $1000 in the R. Aside from that though, the kit list is strong.
The Astra is a handsome car in the metal, particularly in RS-V guise which gets 18-inch sporty alloys and, if optioned, fancy IntelliLux LED Matrix headlights (part of a $3990 Innovations pack).
Part of the launch program involved a night drive in the nation’s capital to showcase the impressive LED technology, which ensures oncoming vehicles or cars in front are not dazzled by the lights. The adaptive units turn in the direction the car is travelling and, as our drive showed, are effectively considerate of other road users.
There is also a palette of eight colours, some of which – Coconut, Carragreen Green and Deep Sky Blue – are not typical of the segment, positively so.
Inside the base R manual which starts at $21,990 plus on-roads (auto option is $2200 per variant) it certainly does not feel like an entry-level car.
Sure it has cloth trim on the seats and the steering wheel doesn’t have leather, but the materials look and feel high end. Soft touch dash materials are broken up by lovely gloss black inserts and brushed chrome flourishes.
In RS and RS-V guise, the leather wheel and nicer seat trim further enhance the feeling of being in a more expensive car. In fact, there are a couple of German premium car-makers that could learn a thing or two from the Astra’s cabin in terms of providing a near-premium feel.
Cabin storage is just okay, with a pretty small glovebox and centre console storage housing just one USB outlet.
Lovely design touches such as the integrated 8.0-inch touchscreen in the RS-V are welcome inclusions, while all controls and dials are visually appealing, easy to reach and use. The indicator stalk on the right hand side is welcome too, given it is built in Europe.
Other cute touches include a useful place for mobile phones in a slot integrated into the centre stack as well as a quirky shark motif hidden in the glovebox as an Easter egg, put there by a designer who wanted to add a fanciful element for his child.
It all helps to push the new Astra well ahead of not only the the outgoing Astra but also a number of its rivals.
Despite smaller exterior dimensions than the model it replaces, there is plenty of room in the Astra cabin, with ample head, leg, shoulder and elbow room up front, while visibility is excellent through the heavily raked windscreen and rear window.
Scalloped sections of the car’s ceiling and trimmed down front seats ensure ample space for rear-seat passengers too. Smaller occupants will feel as though they are sitting low due to the high shoulder line but the wonderfully comfortable and supportive seats (up front too) mean any time spent in the second row is pleasant time.
The base R is the only variant to use GM’s new all-aluminium 110kW/245Nm 1.4-litre turbo-petrol unit, which is available with a six-speed manual or auto.
Our time behind the wheel of the manual 1.4 revealed that anyone choosing the more affordable option was certainly not missing out with the smaller powertrain.
Clearly there is a divide when it comes to power and torque – the RS and RS-V have a potent 147kW/300Nm 1.6-litre turbo-petrol engine – but the smaller engine is no slouch.
The output difference was noticeable when taking off from standing start up a steep incline, but around town and cruising on country roads, the delivery was linear and, thanks to a terrific manual gearbox, performance was well above expectation.
We managed to overtake easily without fear of running out of puff. It’s a strong little engine and we can’t wait to spend a bit more time with it.
Stepping up into the 1.6 brings an instant response from a standing start lifts the Astra from a great performer to a fantastic performer. The silky smooth six-speed automatic helps, and when Sport mode is engaged, it holds the gears intuitively.
The taut chassis is perfect for punting the Astra into corners at surprising pace, and the well sorted suspension setup (MacPherson up front and Watts link at the rear) minimises bodyroll and ensures a smooth ride over a variety of surfaces.
And we do mean a variety. The roads in and around Canberra ranged from perfect blacktop in town, to shoddy B-roads and unsealed surfaces, ending on a freeway.
The Astra maintained its cool and didn’t skip on the loser surfaces, providing loads of confidence in its capabilities.
The steering setup – tweaked by Australian engineers – is a real highlight, offering a perfect weight and precision that is up there with the best in class. Watch out Golf and Mazda3.
Another highlight was the cabin noise which, aside from a little road noise, is definitely one of the best we have experienced in the mainstream small-car sector. Dare we say, it is better than a number of those aforementioned German premium rivals too.
There are few things to complain about with the Astra and a lot to like. Holden is acutely aware that people expect a lot in the segment and the car-maker is intent on delivering it.
The new Astra is the best small car from Holden in decades and given its sharp pricing, strong packaging, and impressive ride, handling and performance, it is sure to nab more than a few sales from those big-hitting rivals.
It’s a welcome return for the much-loved nameplate.
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