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First drive: Opel’s GTC serves up style and substance

Panning for gold: The 1.7-litre turbo-diesel engine fitted to GoAuto’s Astra GTC is unlikely to make it to Australia but the car’s handling, ride and interior space shone through.

Astra GTC reveals many talents in UK drive ahead of Opel brand’s Australian launch

Opel logo11 Apr 2012

UPDATED: 16/04/2012OPEL’S three-door Astra GTC has been subject to a comprehensive re-engineering exercise with the aim of elevating it above the standard five-door hatch and wagon variants – and it shows.

During a two-week trip to the UK, GoAuto subjected a Flame Yellow GTC to almost 2000 kilometres and numerous driving scenarios including back-road blasts, transporting children, lugging boxes and motorway cruising in conditions such as snow, wind, rain and sun.

And, despite its swoopy looks, purposeful stance and that lurid paintwork, the GTC performed admirably in all conditions, offering a rare combination of user friendliness, driving pleasure and everyday usefulness while remaining comfortable, refined and a relaxing long-distance cruiser.

Of course, we uncovered a few niggles and annoyances along the way, such as the unpredictable and unfathomable climate control system, a knee-chafing centre console, poor turning circle and forward visibility problems caused by the A-pillars, exacerbated in the wet and cold by large areas of unswept windscreen.

Opel Australia has confirmed it will not be replicating the strategy of its European rivals and only importing the high-performance 206kW OPC flagship variant of its coupe-styled three-door small car in the third quarter of this year alongside the five-door and wagon-bodied Astra, three- and five-door versions of the Corsa light car and the mid-size Insignia sedan and wagon.

The brand's Australian arm is keen to introduce the OPC variant later but does not yet have the go-ahead for this, and it is too early to say which drivetrains will be offered from launch.

52 center imageThe only mainstream engine choices available with an automatic transmission on the GTC in Europe are the 103kW 1.4-litre turbo-petrol and 2.0-litre 121kW turbo-diesel – both of which will be familiar to Holden Cruze buyers but do not live up to the GTC’s sporting image, a fact often lamented in overseas reviews.

A 1.4 turbo GTC in high-spec SRi guise costs the equivalent of about $A31,500 in the UK, placing it between the top-spec Hyundai Veloster+ and entry-level Honda CR-Z Sport while the OPC is priced equivalent to $41,750, undercutting the Scirocco R ($47,490 in Australia), roughly on par with the Megane RS250 and slightly more expensive than a Subaru WRX.

Sitting in the centre of the GTC’s wheelbase, we felt placed far behind the windscreen at first, similar to a Mazda3, but this soon dissolved as the GTC’s vault-like cockpit – sealed by heavy doors – and meatily-weighted controls added to an overall ambience of solidity, complementing the consistently planted on-road feel and general old-school sportiness.

Like the Scirocco, the GTC’s conservative, largely black interior (think top-spec Holden Cruze but taken several notches upmarket) did little to follow up on the sporty exterior styling.

It was pleasant enough with stylish mood lighting and well-chosen, well-matched materials, although the plastic imitation brushed aluminium trim was a bit tacky and we were bewildered by the sheer number of buttons on the centre stack.

Instrumentation was clear and attractive but we found the multi-function display between the dials dated and not that useful compared with those offered by Volkswagen and Ford. Also, instead of turning off completely, the sat-nav screen displayed a large, bright logo that proved distracting in night driving.

The natural-feeling, accurate steering – claimed to be tweaked for the UK – was not up to Ford standards in terms of feedback, but better than most, not over-assisted around town and it firmed up perfectly at speed.

Combined with a HiPer Strut front suspension set-up, the optional 19-inch tyres delivered tenacious grip and a resistance to understeer while the Watts-link rear end had no hesitation in tightening its line when backing off mid-corner – and thrilling lift-off snap oversteer was available when deliberately provoked, with apparently little intervention from electronic nannies.

Quick direction changes, common when swiftly dispatching of the UK’s many roundabouts, revealed an eager agility, even though our car felt decidedly handicapped by its tax-dodging low-CO2 1.7-litre turbo-diesel – although we enjoyed the pleasant weighting and reassuring feedback of its six-speed manual transmission.

The big wheel rims were wrapped in chunky 45-section rubber and appeared not to corrupt the GTC’s firm but well-damped ride, although knobblier surfaces were transmitted through to the cabin.

Once speeds increased, the suspension felt more supple, although rear passengers were less isolated from the UK’s often less-than-perfect road surfaces. Interior noise levels were low, refinement was high and engine noise well suppressed – even with our agricultural-sounding (to bystanders) diesel.

Compared with the previous-generation AH Astra three-door, which was sold as a Holden in Australia before the Cruze came along and had dramatically angular bodywork, the GTC at first seems tamer-looking, but viewed next to a current five-door Astra it has plenty of details to make it look special – in fact it shares only the door mirror housings and roof aerial with its five-door sibling.

About 45mm longer and sitting 10mm lower than the five-door, the GTC also has 10mm added to its wheelbase, with front and rear tracks widened by 40mm and 30mm respectively.

Enveloping that enlarged chassis is a body with curves in all the right places, elegantly muscular flared front wings flowing into a taut-and-tidy centre section tummy-tucked by long doors and flaring out again into plump haunches with smoked tail-light clusters shaped like a cartoonish exaggeration of the five-door’s units.

In the UK’s narrow car parking spaces, length of the doors often proved problematic, forcing entry through a narrower gap than was ideal, although we expect less trouble in Australia’s more generous bays.

The size of the doors made securing youngsters in their child seats surprisingly easy, but when it came to swinging them closed again their weight, combined with forward-placed handles not providing sufficient leverage, would pose a challenge for the pregnant, the old and those just old enough to ride shotgun.

Reaching the front seatbelts from the distant B-pillars also required a learned technique, but the seats offered plenty of adjustment, with handy extendable thigh support for taller drivers and the steering wheel was of the tilt-and-telescope variety.

With the front seats set for tall adults, there was room for three average-sized adult occupants in the back, meaning that, unlike most alternatives, the GTC is a genuine five-seater – but we were irritated that the front seats did not return to their original positions after tilting them forwards.

A tall passenger behind a tall driver might get their knees squashed, but they would have no complaints about headroom, although a lack of rear vents is an oversight and the narrow, high-placed rear windows can make rear passengers feel a bit cooped up.

Overall though, the GTC trumped the Scirocco’s cramped, low-ceiling, two-seat rear and is way ahead of cars like the Honda CR-Z that have almost no rear space, as well as the Veloster, which offers decent legroom and has that odd third door for easy entry and egress, but lacks headroom.

Further enhancing practicality was the impressively large 380-litre boot (once we figured out it was opened by pressing the badge), which offers more space than the five-door and was sufficient to accommodate two huge holdalls and a small suitcase without removing the parcel shelf.

With the seats folded flat, cargo capacity increases to a useful 765 litres – enough for us to cart several large packing cases and probably sufficient for a fully-assembled bicycle – while folding the seats further into their footwells liberates the maximum 1165 litres.

What engine choices Opel will offer on the GTC when it arrives in Australia remains to be seen, but the car has much to offer compared with conceptually similar alternatives.

If the OPC is given the green light for Australia, it will have some serious rivals to contend with in terms of driving pleasure, but in standard guise it will offer an almost unique blend of style, fun and practicality – and probably relative rarity – against which few cars on the Australian market (other than perhaps the Alfa Romeo Giulietta) can compete.

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