Car reviews - Holden - Astra - SRi 3-dr hatch
Styling, handling, performance, price
Room for improvement
electronic flywheel effect, seats
15 Mar 2002
By TIM BRITTEN
THE hot hatch lives on. In fact, it's doubtful there has been a time when more swift, small three-doors have been available to Australian new-car buyers.
If you doubt that statement, consider the car-makers other than Holden (with the Astra SRi that is the topic of this story) with a hot hatch in their stable.
There's Renault, for one, with its zappy, 124kW Clio Sport, and there's Citroen with its Xsara VTS. Then there's Peugeot's hard-to-get 206 GTi - and even Proton's Satria GTi - in there swinging with swaggering looks and performance to match.
And let's not forget Holden has another entrant a little further down the food chain than the Astra SRi - the Barina SRi that inherits the 1.8-litre engine straight from base Astra models.
You would need to be blind not to realise that most hot hatches still seem to emanate from Europe - if you define hot hatches as family runabouts with more than just the odd spoiler or side skirt to provide an appropriate degree of separation from their more mundane siblings.
The Astra SRi is a worthy recipient of the hot-hatch classification because it gains a lot of good stuff that makes it much more of a driver's car than a regular Astra - and still does not cost a fortune. It sneaks in under the $30,000 mark, even in auto form, and adds the odd worthwhile feature not standard in even the CD version of the regular Astra.
Things like air-conditioning, ABS and traction control are all part of the deal - and that's before you get to items like the 2.2-litre engine used elsewhere in the heavier Zafira and Astra convertible models.
The 2.2-litre engine is more than just a bored and stroked version of the more familiar 1.8-litre. For a start, it is all-alloy and equipped with twin balance shafts to smooth out the vibrations that might otherwise have occurred with the capacity increase.
It gets the same basic architecture as the cast-iron engine with twin-camshaft, multi-valve heads, four separate ignition coils and a variable intake manifold, but it does have its own, upgraded gearboxes to cope with the extra torque.
Torque, in fact, is what the 2.2-litre engine produces more of, with a maximum (premium unleaded) 203Nm available at a surprisingly high 4000rpm. The 1.8-litre produces 170Nm at 3600rpm on premium unleaded, 165Nm on regular.
The power jump, from 92kW to 108kW - again on premium unleaded - is really quite conservative given the 0.4 of a litre capacity increase and is well in arrears of the smaller engined Renault and Citroen.
Given these reservations, the extra capacity does endow the Astra with noticeably more sting, particularly in the midrange where it produces swift acceleration for overtaking without the need to resort to high revs.
The SRi is quite a handy little device for long-distance cruising because as well as its fairly relaxed gait, it is also pretty economical. On test, which included a fair amount of country work but factored in some urban commuting as well, we averaged 7.6 litres per 100km.
Notwithstanding its on-the-move eagerness, the SRi does not feel red-hot off the line. The driveline has a different set of ratios compared to regular 1.8-litre Astras but the net result in terms of rpm for a given road speed is pretty much the same. Therefore the SRi's tendency to be initially quite modest can be blamed on the high rpm at which maximum torque is developed.
The standard traction control is nice to have but there is not often a problem with traction other than in normal front-drive situations where there is a wet or gravel surface.
Stick with it though and the 2.2-litre engine spins out sweetly and smoothly, showing the benefits of the twin balance shafts and a relatively free-breathing nature. Certainly the 2.2-litre Astra is happier with its extra capacity than the 1.8-litre Barina SRi, which reveals some engine harshness that Astra 1.8-litre drivers would never be aware of.
The only blot on the Astra SRi's copybook is the "electronic flywheel" effect that maintains engine revs after throttle lift-off and makes it difficult to swap gears smoothly. Things improve with acclimatisation, but it is still possible to mess up the odd gearshift.
The SRi chassis is tied down expertly by Opel engineers, sitting the car closer to the road and upping front spring rates by 14 per cent. Dampers and springs have been subjected to a major workover on all corners, resulting in a firmer ride that brings sharper turn-in and an ability to track faithfully on a pre-chosen line.
But the SRi resists going too far in the ride-handling compromise and rarely does it feel harsh, or inclined to bring a grimace of anticipation at every approaching bump in the road.
The Astra's electro-hydraulic rack-and-pinion power steering is pleasant enough, too, with just the right amount of weighting to make it feel secure on the open road while still being easy to park.
The SRi also gets a proper set of brakes, courtesy of Bosch, sporting four-channel operation to give the best possible control. They are the standard all-disc setup with ventilated rotors on the front and solid rotors at the rear.
From the driver's seat, it is nice to note that the backrests have a certain amount of extra side support and the cushions offer length adjustment to comfortably hold various statures. The steering column adjusts for both height and reach, and is nicely trimmed in leather for a solid, chunky feel.
The big surprise is that despite their Germanic efficiency, the Astra SRi seats do tend to let the driver down after, say, two hours at the wheel when the discomfort familiar to drivers of Japanese cars sets in. Fiddling with the height adjustment helps, but the driver is not guaranteed a relaxing day at the wheel without a few unscheduled stops.
In terms of general cabin comfort, the SRi is quiet on the move and relatively spacious, at least for front-seat passengers. The back seat is neither particularly easy nor particularly difficult to enter, but it is not the best for grown adults.
On the other hand, the split-fold rear backrest makes the SRi as handy as any other Astra when it comes to carrying loads.
The equipment in the SRi is pretty good considering its other charms and includes a six-speaker, 80-watt Blaupunkt radio-CD that is exactly the same as other Astras, including the steering wheel controls. There's also cruise control, as well as a mini trip computer and road speed-sensitive intermittent wipers.
The bodykit is generally mild until you get to the back where the massive rear deck spoiler dominates the view through the rear view mirror. This looks slightly out of place in what is after all little more than a quick, civilised three-door hatch. The 16-inch alloy wheels, on the other hand, are nicely complimentary of the Astra's slightly chunky lines.
So the Holden Astra SRi is a hot hatch to take notice of, not merely because it looks the part with its over-the-top rear spoiler, low stance and neat alloy wheels, but also because it delivers exactly what it promises.
It is a swift, sure open-road cruiser and quick point-to-point on more challenging roads. It is also obviously a handy urban commuter with the hatchback convenience backed up by pretty good fuel economy.
The only real negatives are the driver's seat that becomes uncomfortable after a few hours at the wheel, and the tricky gear-changing operation that is a factor of engine management more than a problem with shift linkages or clutch progressiveness.
Most Europeans suffer from similar maladies, but at least the driver's foot does not get tangled with the too-small foot pedals as it does in some of the competition.
Park it in your garage and be proud.
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