Car reviews - Holden - Astra - SRi Turbo 3-dr hatch
Performance, power-to-weight ratio, handling, grip, gearshift, steering, versatile interior, equipment
Room for improvement
Price, unrelenting black interior, limited storage space, large rear wing
4 Jun 2004
By TIM BRITTEN
IN Australia, it’s not easy being a hot hatch. This is mainly because, using criteria that says anything less than 100kW doesn’t qualify, there are no less than 12 brands trying for a spot.
This includes car-makers such as Alfa Romeo (147 2.0-litre), Audi (A3 turbo), Toyota (Corolla Sportivo), Ford (Focus ST170), Mini (Cooper S), Renault (Clio Sport), Citroen (Xsara VTS) – the list is quite impressive, and it goes on.
Then, of course, there is Holden’s Astra, darling of the Australian small-Euro-car market, with its turbocharged SRi three-door hatch.
With no less than 147kW, the sporty Holden leads the power production charge - in fact it’s well clear of the pack.
Only the brilliant non-turbo Corolla Sportivo, with 1.8 litres and 141 high-strung kiloWatts, is able to snap at its heels.
But the Toyota’s 180Nm of torque, although highly commendable for the capacity, do not come anywhere near the Holden’s grunty 250 Newton metres - which are made doubly useful because they are all available from just 1950rpm, or 4850rpm lower than the Corolla’s towering maximum.
The fact is, the Astra turbo (Holden also offers a 108kW non-turbo SRi), as a performance package, is not to be sneezed at. With a power/weight ratio of 8.7kg per kiloWatt, it closes on the 8.3kg/kW of the all-conquering Subaru WRX Impreza.
But the torque figures are even more influential. A good torque-weight ratio at low rpm generally means plenty of readily available acceleration and, with 5.1kg per Newton-metre of torque, the Astra is once again not far away from the WRX, in which each Nm is burdened by just 4.6kg.
Another hot hatch rears its head here, equalling the Astra’s torque-to-weight ratio with a light body and a non-turbo, 124kW 2.0-litre engine. This is Renault’s feisty Clio Sport, which packs an oversize engine in a body that is virtually a category smaller than the Holden.
But the bigger Astra benefits from a handy-size interior that will quite willingly carry four passengers along with a decent bootful of luggage. Or, if there are only two on board, a mountain bike or two can be thrown into the loading area where a split-fold rear seat opens up all sorts of possibilities.
Like the Astra sedan and five-door hatch models, the SRi aims at making the most of its compact dimensions and there’s absolutely no problem with passenger space up front.
The seats are leather-trimmed too, which aims at helping justify the price premium (it’s the most expensive Astra apart from the convertible), and heated as well.
The trim is matched by a touch of leather on both the (two-tone) steering wheel rim and the gear lever boot, and there’s a bit of alloy on the gearshift knob as well as the brake, clutch and accelerator pedals.
The SRi instrument display is special, with white-faced dials in place of the normal Astra black, and there’s a silver console wraparound too.
Despite that, and the fact that the sports seats – with lumbar adjustment on both sides - are quite good at holding driver and passenger against lateral cornering forces, the interior of the Astra is still probably its weakest point.
The leather trim – on the doors as well as the seats – does not really help, visually, all that much in relieving a sense of drabness.
Maybe it was just the unrelenting black, but the SRi hatch somehow did not come across with the quality feel found in most Japanese competitors.
The surfaces seem to soil easily too, particularly the vinyl on the door-pulls. The limited edition SRi convertible model’s pale beige interior probably looks a lot better.
To add insult to injury, the storage space is not too generous either, with only a smallish glovebox, a small tray at the back of the centre console and bottle-holding slots in the door pockets.
But the hatch does quite well in terms of equipment, with cruise control, trip computer and a premium six-speaker sound system using steering wheel controls all standard – even if that is slightly offset by the lack of power adjustment for the seats and the manually operated air-conditioning.
The driver can set up the seat and two-way adjustable steering wheel in a way that achieves that nice feeling of being in charge, but will probably be a little surprised on discovering how much of the direct rear view is blotted out by the bulky, mostly gratuitous boot-lid spoiler.
But the SRi’s performance almost justifies it.
The SRi turbo is undoubtedly a very rapid small hatch, largely unaffected by the initial hesitation that afflicts many forced induction engines (turbo lag), and moves through its five well-spaced gearbox ratios with an unrelenting surge of acceleration.
The shift action is smooth with slick, precise movements and the clutch is quite light and progressive.
And, even though it’s not entirely eliminated, there are not a lot of times when front-drive torque steer becomes evident.
It is virtually impossible to rule that out altogether in a powerful, lightweight car driven by the front wheels, but the Astra – which features suspension tuning by Lotus – is certainly a long way from some of the shrieking, almost unmanageable, similarly configured cars of the past, or even the present.
The traction control, which works on both the brakes and engine management to arrest wheelspin before it completely sets in, helps as well.
The SRi’s grippy tyres keep the Astra tracking where the driver wants it, announcing their presence with a noticeable rumble that sneaks through the sound-deadening.
The Astra’s grip is enough to keep the standard electronic stability control system generally at bay, although understeer is naturally the usual tendency when it is pushed past the limit.
The electro-hydraulic power steering is precise enough in behaviour, well weighted and does not let the team down in terms of the car’s overall sporty behaviour.
The Astra SRi is a very handy, zippy package. If it wasn’t for the oversize rear spoiler, it would be considered a quite tasteful, restrained package with just enough road presence to warn that it’s a lot more than merely another Astra hatch.
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