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First drive: Astra boosted

Born to perform: The Astra Turbo 3-dr hatch and convertible offer strong performance.

Holden's small car line-up is completed by hot turbo models

14 May 2003

MISSION completed. With this week's launch ofthe Astra Turbo three-door hatch and convertible,Holden has a performance king crowning each ofits model ranges.

It's enough to warm a managing director'sheart - certainly when it is that of Holden bossPeter Hanenberger, who set the target publiclywhen he took over the helm at Fishermens Bendin 1999.

And the last two arrivals jet straight from theGerman's home territory - GM's Opel division.

They go on sale late this month, promisingstrong enough performance to put them at thepointy end of their classes.

At the heart of both cars is the same 1998ccEcotec four-cylinder double overhead camshaft16-valve engine.

It's from the Family II stable and first saw light of day in the Calibra coupe. It has been further developed by GM's Brazilian operation to meet Euro IV emission levels.

Enhancing its prospects substantially is a KO3Borg Warner turbocharger that plays the key rolein boosting power to a meaty 147kW at 5600rpmand torque to 250Nm between 1950rpm and5600rpm.

Compare that to the standard normally-aspirated 2.2-litre four-cylinder SRi hatch and convertible which produce 108kW and 203Nm. And the base engine in the Astra range is a 1.8 which produces 85kW and 165Nm.

On the road that equates to a 0-100km/h dashin 7.4 seconds and a top speed of 240km/h.

For the SRi hatch that means there is enoughgo to outgun Ford's recently launched FocusST170 and it should also see off Toyota's soon-to-be-launched Corolla Sportivo, neither ofwhich get the added punch of forced induction.

Completing the handling package are 17x7.5 five-spoke alloy wheels surrounded by low-profiletyres

At $36,990, the SRi undercuts the Ford by just$10, but should be above the Toyota. In comparisonto the standard Astra SRi,the turbo is a hefty $8000 extra.

The convertible is, of course, in a completelydifferent pricing sphere, coming in at $49,990.

That's $4000 more than its normally aspirated2.2-litre brethren.

There is more to these cars than engine anddollars. They share the same five-speedmanual gearbox (no auto option here), the sameuprated sports suspension, wider track front andrear, electronic stability control and tractioncontrol.

Completing the handling package are 17x7.5five-spoke alloy wheels surrounded by low-profiletyres. Sitting in behind them are 308mmfront discs brakes and 264mm rear discs. Naturally, assistance is provided by ABS.

In terms of bodies, the cars diverge dramatically.

The SRi takes the Astra's boxy three-doorshape and adds some brutality with blackoutgrilles, sports bumper with integrated foglightsand air ducts, rear decklid wing spoiler, rearsports bumper, polished stainless steel tailpipeextension, body-coloured mouldings and Turbobadging.

The convertible, with its Bertone-styled and assembledbody, is much more subtle with only the bigwheels, a polished tailpipe extension and Turbobadging.

The sports theme continues in both cars wherethere's stainless steel door sill plates, sports styleinstruments and three-spoke leather trimmedsteering wheel.

Equipment levels are boosted by a trip computer,premium sound system, leather trim andheated front sports seats.

The convertible picks up electronic climatecontrol, power windows front and rear, heightadjustable front seats and - obviously - that automaticsoft top.

Holden plans to promote these two cars hard eventhough it estimates their sales potential is only600 for hatch and 500 for convertible out of anexpected total of 30,000 for the now 20-strongAstra range in 2003.

It shows how valuable flagships are to a brand,selling plenty of the rest of the range on image, ifnot heaps in their own right.


IF a hot hatch is all about big grunt in a small package, then look no further than the Astra Turbo SRi. In this case the engine really is the heart of the matter.

While the 147kW are impressive, it is the broad spread of pulling power that is the match that ignites the SRi's flame.

Tackle your favourite set of twisties and you'll find yourself quickly realising that heaps of gearshift twirling is unnecessary. In almost any case third gear will suffice - maybe second for the really, really tight stuff.

Out on the open road all that torque translates into tremendous overtaking and hill conquering urge, even two up with luggage. Perhaps the engine's only downer is it does not sound that sexy, with little evidence of that turbo whistle - but there's no sign of lag either.

The rest of the car does not exactly pale into insignificance, but it does play a supporting role to that engine.

The gearbox, for instance, is simply a beefed-up version of the standard five-speed mated to a taller final drive. So no close ratio shifting here, in fact it is probably a little sloppy in the gate if anything.

The MacPherson strut front/torsion beam rear suspension has only had damper rates firmed up (by Lotus no less) compared to the standard car, so it still felt pretty comfortable on the bouncy, rough Tasmanian roads used for the media launch.

There was jitteriness and some crashing over big holes but it is a fair bet the 215/40 ZR17 Dunlop tyres contributed to that, along with an increased amount of road noise compared to the standard car. They also gripped very well, even in some streaming wet conditions.

But when slip did overcame grip the ESP, traction control and four-channel ABS all came to the aid of the chassis and rubber to keep the show moving in the right direction. On the SRi the ESP and traction control can be switched off - which is how it should be.

The electro-hydraulic power steering is no more direct than the rest of the Astra, although travel is reduced slightly because of the bigger tyres. Nevertheless, the car turned in with enthusiasm. There was some torque and bump steer but nothing too alarming considering the amount of force pouring through the front wheels.

In fact, the quality of the hatch package is emphasised when you drive the convertible. The drop-top feels slower because it is 147kg heavier and it is not as torsionally stiff thanks to that missing roof, consequently it leans and rolls more and is prone to push the front end more easily, activating the electronic bells and whistles.

It's also noisier in the cabin because of that soft top. Not that it is an unpleasant car to drive, just not as focussed as the hatch and not as quick. An MG TF would be quicker along a mountain road, but the Astra can seat four rather than two and would be more comfortable.

Both Astras share an interior that has been suitably sportified with contrasting colours, grippy steering wheel and heavily bolstered seats, Look out the SRi's rear view mirror and you are left in no doubt about the car's intent, with a Subaru Impreza WRX-style rear wing dominating the scene.

And Holden encourages that comparison, nominating the iconic all-wheel drive as a primary competitor for the SRi Turbo (once you look past the Focus ST170 and Corolla Sportivo).

Be clear, it is not that good. The Subaru will cover ground faster thanks to its extra power and tremendous grip.

Where the SRi gets into the game is on grin factor. On the right road on the right day this is a car that reminds you of the sheer fun a car can deliver. And that's hard to argue with.

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