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New models - Holden - Astra - Convertible

First Oz drive: Holden lifts the lid on drop-top

Euro origins: Famed Italian design house Bertone has had a lot to do with the Astra convertible.

Holden's Astra small car range gets a boost with a classy convertible

Holden logo26 Oct 2001

HOLDEN has thrown its hat into the ring of the rapidly expanding convertible/cabriolet segment with the introduction of the Astra Convertible.

While its previous entrant in this category, the Barina Cabrio, was more of an aftermarket conversion of an existing model, Holden has benefited from its European affiliate Opel and the Italian styling house Bertone taking the high road with the Astra and designing a fully-fledged production item.

That decision has given Holden a genuine contender to weigh into the drop-top battle with the likes of Peugeot's 306 Cabriolet and forthcoming 206CC, Volkswagen's Golf Cabriolet and Renault's newcomer the Megane Cabriolet, both in terms of styling and specification levels.

Although official pricing has not been announced, the Astra Convertible is expected to cost around $45,000 - sitting right in the middle of that group - when it goes on sale in January.

But Holden goes further, claiming the car's specification package allows comparisons to be drawn with Saab's considerably more expensive 9-3 convertible, which starts at around $65,000.

That may be stretching things, but there's no doubt the Astra offers a solid combination of performance and equipment compared to its generally accepted rivals.

One of the Astra's trumps is its engine capacity and power. It uses the Astra SRi's 2.2-litre 108kW powerplant, while its rivals make do with less powerful 1.6 and 2.0-litre engines.

Its soft top is electrically operated and can be opened or closed in around 30 seconds, but that is pretty much the standard for this class. However, it can also be operated from the remote central locking key fob by holding the button down for longer than two seconds, as manual release of the retaining hooks in the windscreen is not required.

The rear window in the triple layer fabric roof is scratch resistant glass - rather than the cheaper plastic alternative still found in some of its rivals - and is fitted with a demister. A detachable windbreak is also fitted as standard, but it can only be installed when the rear seats are not in use.

Distinguishing exterior features of the convertible include unique 16-inch alloy wheels, smoked-look headlight assemblies with dark bezels, front foglights and a chrome strip on the trailing edge of the bootlid.

The interior has charcoal leather trim - with red leather an option on silver and black cars - a leather steering wheel, silver finish on the centre console, SRi-style sports seats with extendable seat base that are also heated and steering wheel mounted audio controls.

Standard equipment extends to dual front airbags, air-conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, cruise control, trip computer and a six-speaker sound system with single-disc CD player.

On the safety front, the convertible offers features not seen on any other Astra models, such as an Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and side airbags.

The ESP system is an extension of the ABS/traction control functions and uses additional steering angle and yaw sensors to detect understeer or oversteer situations. It then intervenes by regulating engine torque and braking individual wheels to help the driver bring the vehicle under control.

The design of the Astra Convertible was a collaborative effort between Bertone and Opel and incorporated the Astra Coupe project as well. Bertone also builds both cars.

The main body alterations revolve around reducing the roofline of the regular Astra - thereby increasing the windscreen rake - as well as restyling the front and rear bumpers.

Naturally, there has been significant reinforcing of the body and floorpan in an attempt to maintain the body rigidity of the conventional sedan and hatchback models - evidenced by the kerb weight increase of 220kg over the CD sedan.

The A-pillars have come in for some extra strengthening as well, as they are an integral part of the rollover protection, while the foam-covered steel rear head restraints also serve in this regard.

Although not on sale until January, Holden is aiming to deliver at least one car to each of its dealerships in late December for prospective customers to view and test drive, before serious deliveries begin early in the new year.

Holden is forecasting 1200 sales per year for its new soft top, which could be somewhat ambitious given the total sports-convertible market in Australia last year was only 1878 cars and it has dropped steadily since 1998 when around 2800-units were sold.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

A brief drive over the hinterland roads of northern New South Wales revealed Holden has a definite drop-top contender with the Astra convertible.

The equipment levels are class leading, with the bigger engine, full leather interior, heated seats, 16-inch alloy wheels, ESP and side airbags the standout items.

The roofs extra functionality, in being able to be operated from outside the car, is also a step above basic electric operation.

Holden can be commended for taking the path less travelled by choosing the high ticket items and the price penalty that comes with them, rather than going for a cheaper, down-spec, lesser-engined car in the hope of greater sales volume.

The car wasn't tested over rough roads or angled crossings like gutters and railway lines that can often bring roofless designs undone, but over average Australian country roads it proved to be comfortable and refined.

While it is unreasonable to expect Porsche Boxster levels of body rigidity in a car costing less than half as much, the Astra appears to be slightly ahead of its class competitors when it comes to the bane of all soft-tops - scuttle shake or body flex.

Naturally luggage capacity suffers from the intrusion of the roofs designated storage well, but the space in the Astra extends further back than in its competitors and even has a load-through facility for longer items.

Tall items will still be a problem, but low, square cases can be pushed back to allow for irregular shape items.

With the roof down and the windbreak in place, a normal conversation was possible without having to resort to shouting.

Roof up did not bring with it the headroom penalty many convertibles suffer from, as the roof arched at the right point over the driver's head.

Noise suppression was good around the doors, windows and A-pillars, with the only downside a noticeable boom coming from around the rear - as the wind broke over the roof and onto the boot it seemed.

Overall, the Astra Convertible offers a real alternative to current offerings for drop-top buyers, falling in line with Holden's product philosophy of offering a mix of performance and value.

Astra upgrades for 2002

The regular Astra sedan and hatch range have also received some new features for the 2002 model year.

The entry-level Astra City now gets a single CD player as standard, as well as new cloth trim, while the high-grade CD version gains a leather steering wheel, new velour trim, height adjustable head restraints for all rear seat positions, chrome interior door handles and steering wheel mounted audio controls.

Although its has only been on sale for just on a month, the Astra SRi picks up chrome surrounds in the instrument panel on 2002 build-plated cars.

The active front head restraints introduced on the Astra Convertible will be fitted as standard on all Astra models, while there is a new selection of metallic and mica paint colours available for the entire range.

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