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Car reviews - Holden - Astra - SRi Turbo 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, handling, roadholding, value, standard ESP, comfort, composure
Room for improvement
Terrible rear vision, claustrophobic rear seat, long and heavy doors

Holden logo28 Jul 2006

STRIP away all the GTI, XR5 and MPS bits and pieces from the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus and Mazda3, and what you are left with are three fine examples of the modern small-car.

Or, in other words, you could just as easily be driving a Golf 1.6 Trendline, Focus CL and ‘3’ Neo. Sexy... they aren’t.

Do the same to Holden’s new AH Astra SRi Turbo, however – like the others, also a hot-hatch contender based on a bread-and-butter C-segment small car – and you are left with something quite different and, to many eyes, very special: a rakish coupe.

Now isn’t standout styling one of the fundamental reasons why somebody might be attracted to such a car?

We certainly believe so, which is why the Astra SRi Turbo stands so tall (or menacingly squat, to be more precise), and why it absolutely cannot be overlooked, particularly if you cannot quite stretch past the $40K mark that some of the Holden’s rivals now reside in.

Today’s Astra coupe is one of the most handsome cars Holden has ever sold in Australia, almost matching the timeless beauty of the 1990s Calibra.

Okay, the Citroen C4 VTS matches it for mould-breaking style, while the storming Megane RS three-door is also bold in its visage.

But the VTS bits underneath are a bit off the pace in this company, making the Citroen more tepid than hot-hatch, while the Megane is still more shopping-hatch than eye-catching to behold.

It’s the little things that Opel in Germany has added to the Holden that reel you in – the slightly longer (by 40mm) nose, chromed ‘V’ grille ornament (that’s V for Vauxhall you realise, not Viva), larger bumper air-intake, and gorgeous alloys. This thing looks H-O-T HOT!

Happily, perhaps even surprisingly, the Astra also delivers on the road – even if, on paper, its specifications reveal an outmoded rear suspension and a carryover engine from the old TS Astra SRi Turbo that now has to haul a much heftier car (1282kg versus 1401kg).

Driving the same front wheels (but with much more decorum and a whole lot less pull and shove) via an absolutely lovely six-speed manual gearbox is a variation of the TS’ 2.0-litre twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder powerplant, boosted by a Borg Warner turbocharger and oil-cooler.

Yet while the AH SRi delivers an identical 147kW of power as before (at 5400rpm), the 262Nm of torque that tops out at 4200rpm is a 12Nm improvement over the TS – partly due to, according to the press release, a new-generation engine management system that controls the turbocharger’s boost pressure for improved flexibility and low-end torque availability.

For the record, these outputs compare to the C4 VTS’ naturally aspirated 130kW and 202Nm, while the turbocharged Golf GTI, Focus XR5, Megane RS and Mazda3 MPS quartet kick out 147kW/280Nm, 166kW/320Nm, 165kW/300Nm and 190kW/380Nm respectively.

So you can understand why Holden charges a little less than the others (and why Citroen seems way too expensive in this company).

From $34,990, it undercuts the Ford by $1000, the Citroen by $2000, the Renault by $3000 and the VW and Mazda by $5000 a piece.

Better still, the AH SRi Turbo is $2000 less than the TS SRi Turbo.

Now in real-world driving conditions, the new Astra feels rapid, but not quite old-Astra, let alone Golf GTI, fast. A hefty push of the pedal is needed for really quick take-offs, and even then the engine needs to pass 2500rpm before the turbo really lets the SRi rip.

Once past 3000rpm the power comes on strong, but not too wildly so, all the way up to the 6500rpm redline.

The flipside is a civilised and progressive performer that isn’t fazed by slippery or uneven surfaces. The SRi simply and swiftly goes forth with strong acceleration and with minimum fight from the steering wheel.

Opel, however, has taken a leaf out of the old BMW M5 by incorporating a ‘Sport’ function that is represented on the upper half of the centre console by a button bearing this label.

Press it, and the SRi Turbo quickly changes mood, taking on a snarly, edgier personality that manifests itself in three ways.

Firstly, acceleration occurs more quickly, as a result of sharper throttle responses. In every gear there’s a more pronounced shove, accompanied by a raspier exhaust note. The differences are immediately obvious.

Secondly, the steering – already nicely firm – feels slightly heavier and more direct, a corollary of a speedier ratio. In normal mode you would not have hesitated to call the handling sharp, but now it all feels faster and more precise.

Lastly, the ride quality hardens, from firmly absorbent to tolerably hard, resulting in a tighter feeling car. Big bumps are still traversed with adequate springing, but now the whole vehicle seems tauter if a little less compliant.

It’s all part of what Holden calls IDS Plus (Interactive Driving System), using the magic of computers to manage suspension and braking for increased grip, along with adaptable shock absorbers (CDC – Continuous Damping Control).

ESP stability control, traction control, 28mm-larger front disc brakes, anti-lock brakes with EBD Electronic Brake-force Distribution and brake-assist technology are also at the standby, while a lower ride height and 18-inch alloys shod with 225/40R18-92W rated tyres are further additions to the SRi Turbo upgrades.

So the Sport setting allows the car to be driven harder and faster than the previous model, since the engine has the extra low-rev response to power the equally more responsive chassis through a snaking set of corners with greater speed and agility.

Even on a wet mountainous road there is enough grip and steering feedback for the Turbo to be hurled through with confidence and security, backed up by a gradual intervention of the ESP, and strong brakes that could easily handle a series of quick-stop workouts.

Put it this way: in the old Astra SRi Turbo you always felt that there was too much engine for the chassis to cope with, resulting in a frenetic driving experience in the AH it seems that Opel’s engineers have struck a happy balance between power and control.

Unlike before, the SRi works with you and not against you, and in the real world, using the Sport chassis settings, it feels as quick as a proper hot hatch should.

Running on premium-unleaded fuel, the SRi Turbo’s ADR-81/01 fuel consumption average is 9.4 litres per 100km, although the car’s trip computer never budged from 10.7L/100, even during some seriously hard driving.

It’s only when you experience the discomfort of certain road irregularities, or the bump-steer that they may cause, that the Astra’s Torsion beam rear axle is betrayed, since it lacks the final poise and polish of the more sophisticatedly suspended Golf, Focus and ‘3’.

Yet this – along with the performance deficit that the SRi Turbo concedes to its rivals – isn’t enough to dismiss the Astra – especially with its supermodel looks thrown in.

Speaking of which, Holden also chucks in front, side and curtain airbags, climate control air-conditioning, six-stacker CD/MP3 radio audio with remote controls on the leather-trimmed steering wheel, heated front ‘sports’ seats, cruise control, a trip computer, power windows, electric mirrors, remote-central locking and fog lights.

There is also enough sportiness to the mock-carbon like trim, metallic-look console finishes, alloy pedals, chunky little steering wheel and 260km/h speedometer calibration for SRi Turbo buyers not to feel like they might have stepped into the $23,490 92kW 1.8-litre CD coupe by mistake.

Mind you, that car’s appalling rear vision remains – though not quite as bad, drivers of the XA-XC Falcon Hardtop will feel right at home here. Parking sensors should be standard.

Other drawbacks a slightly claustrophobic rear seat (although as a two-seater comfort and space are not issues), big wide front doors are heavy to open or close on an incline, rear side windows that don’t open or close at all, and... that’s about it.

Ample seating for four (five at a squeeze), good ventilation, easy rear cabin access and a large cargo area all mean that the Astra also has the everyday practicality and convenience stuff sorted.

So would we recommend the AH Astra SRi Turbo? You bet we would.

Sure, the steering is not quite GTI-sharp, and 147kW is down on the XR5 and MPS if bragging rights are important to you.

Factor in the SRi Turbo’s head-turning design, however, and you realise that the Holden ticks all the right hot-hatch boxes – without having to look like one should you choose to strip all the go-faster bits away.

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