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First drive: Holden Astra keeps its cool

Triple treat: There are three AH Astra three grades – CD, CDX (pictured) and CDXi – starting at $21,990 for the base model.

Stylish upgrade for Holden's Astra range adds a touch of class

21 Sep 2004

BACK in 1998 Holden was a small player in small cars. Japanese brands like Toyota, Nissan and Mazda were the big names.

But then along came the TS Astra, the second version of the car Holden sourced from GM’s European mainstream manufacturer, Opel, and the third in total if you count a rebadged Nissan Pulsar from the late 1980s.

From an initial range in 1998 that was limited to only a five-door hatch, the local Astra range eventually grew to encompass all body shapes except the Bertone-built coupe. Even the Astra-based Zafira people-mover got a look in.

If it had an Astra badge it was snapped up – to the extent that as Holden prepares to introduce the all-new AH generation, TS has racked up more than 112,000 sales and become the second biggest Holden nameplate behind the locally-built Commodore.

TS wasn’t cheap at launch, instead bringing a level of build and engineering quality and Euro chic to the class that made the rest seem average and tinny. It was a cool car and it drew in a huge new, predominantly female buying group.

In fact Holden will continue to sell the TS alongside the AH when it goes on sale in October (November officially). It already offers a Polish-built four-door and five-door called the Classic with pricing starting at $18,990, including air-conditioning.

The purpose of the Classic is simple, to keep Holden represented in the sub-$20,000 part of the small car category where Toyota Corolla, Nissan Pulsar and the South Koreans play.

Classic will be around for about 12 months, until the company is able to ‘re-launch’ the Holden-ised GM Daewoo Nubira back into the market, remembering that the South Korean brand exits Australia (at Holden’s behest) at the end of the year.

13 center image AH will sit in the rapidly emerging premium part of small car which now claims around 50 per cent of sales, primarily lined up against the excellent new Mazda3, as well as Subaru Impreza and even the new Volkswagen Golf V.

Yes, that means that AH Astra is no budget entrant, but with an entry price in Aussie dollars of $21,990 including air-conditioning and ABS, it easily undercuts the launch price of TS, which was $22,490 without those two key features.

That gives you an idea of just how tough and competitive the booming small car segment is these days. It’s grown so much these past few years that it now regularly contests with large cars as the single biggest selling Australian new vehicle segment. The difference is that while there are only two truly serious large car contenders, in small cars there are 23! Just one AH Astra bodystyle is available at launch, the five-door hatch that has been on sale in Europe since May, and just one engine, the carry-over 1.8-litre four-cylinder double overhead camshaft Ecotec unit, mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission (both also carry-over).

If it seems surprising that there is no 2.0-litre engine in this car when GM has the perfectly good and pretty new L850 unit in its line-up, blame Europe’s mania for turbo-diesel engines.

The business case just didn’t work to calibrate that engine for this car purely for Australia.

So what we get are three grades – CD, CDX and CDXi – starting at $21,990 for the base model, which is $500 more than entry level Mazda3 Neo.

Standard equipment for CD – in addition to ABS and air-conditioning – includes front power windows, power mirrors, steering wheel-mounted radio controls, CD player, front passenger and driver airbags and side impact airbags. There is also a $990 optional pack with rear power windows, cruise control and 15-inch alloy wheels.

The CDX adds16-inch alloy wheels, six-stack CD player, trip computer, leather wrap steering wheel, velour trim and woodgrain highlights.

The CDXi has differently styled 16-inch alloys, front foglights, eight-way adjustable seats, leather wrap steering wheel, electronic climate control and curtain airbags.

The engine tune for all three models is identical, producing 90kW at 5600rpm and 165Nm at 3800rpm. And the suspension is fundamentally the same as the old car with MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam set-up at the rear.

What has been achieved is a striking template that will set the tone for the rest of the range as it flows out over the next year or two

Holden and Opel argue the torsion beam is preferable to new fangled rear-ends now adopted by virtually all rivals because it provides additional boot space.

The only problem with that is official Holden figures credit TS with 380 litres and AH with 350. So figure that one out.

But really, it seems clear Opel decided TS was a pretty good mechanical package and what really needed tweaking was the styling inside and out, which was conservative (although not unattractive) at launch and now starting to age.

What has been achieved is a striking template that will set the tone for the rest of the range as it flows out over the next year or two. The wagon has already been shown and could be coming Down Under to replace Zafira, while the three-door hatch is being launched at the Paris motor show this week and will be sold here in 2005 complete with turbo power. Further out are the sedan, convertible and perhaps more.

Externally, Astra is all creases and smooth slabs from the waist down, with big angular lensed headlights that include a complex and striking lamp array. Separating them are a big slab of chrome and a huge Holden Lion badge.

Retreating back up the bonnet is a crease line that continues on into the interior, running down the centre console.

The upper part of the exterior abandons the geometrics. The A-pillar arcs back in a curve to the C-pillar which hooks down and around in BMW 1 Series style, providing an extended glass area for rear seat passengers.

The rear is meant to reprise the front, with big, stepped tail-lights and another chrome strip. The glass area is noticeably larger than the old car, with a descending bottom edge to aid the rear view.

Overall, the body is 139mm longer, 44mm wider and 35mm higher.

The bodyshell is also claimed to be 52 per cent stronger in terms of flex resistance, and 15 per cent improved in terms of torsional rigidity.

Underneath, the wheelbase has grown, but only by 8mm, while the front and rear tracks are all up by a few mills, but varying depending on the model.

Move inside and you find an interior that is eons ahead of its predecessor for classiness. The TS was tall and dark inside with lots of plastic and buttons.

The AH trades that in for a much cooler and diverse display. This car is roomier too, mainly in the rear where 40mm more headroom is released.

In total, Opel claims its design team spent 60 per cent of its time working on the interior and 40 per cent on the exterior. It’s easy to believe.


Holden Astra CD $21,990
Holden Astra CD (a) $23,990
Holden Astra CDX $25,490
Holden Astra CDX (a) $27,990
Holden Astra CDXi $29,490
Holden Astra CDXi (a) $31,990


DRIVING the new Astra certainly confirms that overhauling the looks was the priority for this model series.

While Holden says it has had a fair degree of input into the chassis balance of the AH, a role that has dramatically improved the behaviour of Opel imports like Barina and Vectra in the past, on initial tasting this Astra’s not a class leader the way its predecessor was.

The best part is the ride, which is plush and well controlled. There is a little suspension noise over really rough stuff, and only the occasional series of stutters can get things a little bit jittery.

It feels very stable on its longer wheelbase and wider track. Certainly one of the best in class, ahead of any of the Japanese and right there with the Golf V in terms of delivering a real quality feel.

However, the handling, grip and steering don’t seem up to the same level of ability. While the initial drive in the countryside west of Brisbane was not varied enough to draw final conclusions, there is no doubt that this car has been tuned as a safe rather than exciting handler.

That means the early onset of understeer, plenty of bodyroll and not too much feel from the electro-hydraulic rack and pinion steering.

At least Holden has eschewed the electro-trickery that Opel engineers sometimes seem to think is an adequate substitute for chassis balance, as there’s no sign of traction or stability control.

The carry-over drivetrain doesn’t inspire either. How could it when the same amount of power and torque is pushing a minimum 50kg more weight? Yes, the manual gearboxes final drive ratio has been shortened from 3.74:1 to 3.94:1, but that still can’t disguise the breathlessness in the top end of this engine, an area you spend a lot of time in when seeking to keep momentum going uphill, let alone overtaking.

It’s not helped by a baulky, slow manual gearchange that could easily be beaten (crunch!), much preferring a slow and steady progress, a method that still saw changes missed.

Opel – with a smidgin of Holden assistance – has delivered an original and impressive look and feel for the new Astra

It’s a drivetrain that simply can’t match the Mazda3 for performance – particularly the 2.3-litre SP23. And there’s plenty of the sub-$20K contenders as well with 100kW-plus and /or full 2.0-litre engines.

But while you might not be progressing at the same pace as the Mazda, you will be doing it in a class-leading cabin. The driver enjoys big, comfy seats, plenty of steering wheel adjustability and clear, concise instrumentation.

In the back, kneeroom is a tad tight six-footer behind six-footer, but there’s plenty of space to tuck feet under either seat in front. There was a lack of dexterity from the rear seats though, only split-folding the backrest and folding forward. No tumbling or flipping here.

In the end the fact is that Opel – with a smidgin of Holden assistance – has delivered an original and impressive look and feel for the new Astra. It’s only once you start pressing on that any disappointments arise.

Hopefully then, when the three-door turbo turns up, Holden’s undoubtedly capable engineering team will have more opportunity to display its skills and deliver an Astra equal to any car in terms of the driving as well as design.

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