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Driven: Holden's Astra heralds brighter future

Deja view: It may look familiar but the Astra has not worn a Holden badge in seven years.

Holden confident first Euro-sourced pioneer vehicles will trounce Opel sales

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Holden logo29 Apr 2015

By DANIEL GARDNER

AFTER a seven year hiatus, Holden’s Astra has returned to Australian soil, marking the start of an expanding European-sourced line-up for the company, which says lion-badged vehicles will be given a warmer welcome than when they were labeled Opels.

The Astra nameplate made a brief appearance as an Opel in 2012, but following a disappointing local reception, the European brand pulled up stumps about a year later.

This time around, Holden is expecting the three-door hatchback to garner significantly more interest, bolstered by a strong existing infrastructure and a national affection for the well-known brand.

Speaking at the local launch of the new Astra range, Holden executive director of sales Peter Keley said that while the returning Astra was largely similar to the Opel version, its new Holden badges would transform its sales performance.

“You know what the Opel brand is, I know what the Opel brand is but does that mean every punter knows what the Opel brand is? No it doesn’t,” he said.

“A network of 20 dealers compared to a network of 230 plus is totally chalk and cheese.

“Just that accessibility of people walking into a Holden showroom and already having existing relationships with their local dealer is key. The way we communicate with customers these days is a lot more direct.” Mr Keley was not ready to discuss sales expectations for the new Astra and its accompanying Cascada convertible model, but did say that the prime directive of the vehicles was to elevate the Holden brand and not necessarily create a cash cow.

“The awareness we can bring around that product is far greater than was ever achieved under Opel,” he said.

“We are adding aspiration and interest for the whole Holden line-up. It changes the way you think about the Holden brand. This is all about what’s coming.” Over the next five years, Holden will introduce 24 new vehicles that utilise 36 new drivetrains resulting in a 30 per cent Euro-sourced line-up, and it is with these future vehicles that the company will enter new markets said Mr Keley.

“The market is getting more and more fragmented. Choice is out there and everywhere. The cars that we are building are talking to certain elements of the market but not all elements of the market,” he said.

“The Commodore product, especially the sports models, appeal to a certain buyer type that tends to be more mature. There is still a body of car enthusiasts that want to use a car to express themselves and I think that’s where we are missing out.

“The Astra GTC range in particular will appeal to those buyers.” Like the discontinued Opel version, the now Holden badge-wearing Astra is available as either GTC, or GTC Sport, while a hot 2.0-litre VXR version previously named the OPC still sits at the top of the pack.

Compared with the Euro-badged line-up, the returning Astra range has been treated to price reductions across the board, with the range kicking off from $26,990, plus on-road costs, for the entry level GTC manual – a wind back of $2000.

Ordering the base variant with the Active Select automatic transmission brings the price to $29,190, which represents a reduction of $1800 over the previous comparable variant.

Moving up to the GTC Sport brings the greatest savings over the equivalent Opel with manual versions, costing $5000 less at $29,990 or a $4800 reduction for the automatic which now costs $32,190.

The Flagship VXR price has dropped by $3000 taking the feistiest Astra below the $40,000 mark at $39,990, which should worry some prestigious hot-hatch heavyweights.

With 206kW and 400Nm, the VXR’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine beats the ephemeral Volkswagen Golf GTI by 37kW but undercuts its price-tag by $2000.

To match the Holden’s power, the Golf has to slip on an R badge which adds all-wheel drive and pumps the price up to $52,740.

The VXR’s Ecotec engine makes use of some serious racing-derived technology with sodium-filled valves, oil-jet cooled pistons, double contra-rotating balancer-shafts and twin variable camshafts, allowing its twin-scroll turbocharger to blow up a 1.5 bar boost storm.

Opting for either of the GTC pair brings a smaller 1.6-litre four-cylinder Ecotec donk but much of the same technology. When paired with the six-speed automatic dual-clutch transmission the GTC four-pot pumps out 125kW and 260Nm, but the six-speed manual gearbox can handle more punch with its taps turned up to 147kW and 280Nm.

Where the Opel was available with a 1.4-litre engine, the new Holden range is cutting straight to the performance chase and only offering the 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre versions.

When bolted to the automatic transmission, GTC Astras use 7.5 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres, while manuals use 6.9L/100km. VXR variants are available with a self-serve manual gearbox only and consume 8.0 litres per 100km.

As is typical for the Australian arm of GM, the company is not talking about performance figures for any of the new vehicles, despite their sporty nature.

With three-door styling and turbocharged engines, Holden is aiming the Astra range firmly at the sportier end of the market and says its chassis delivers the promises made by its looks.

Up front is Holden’s take on the tried and tested MacPherson strut it calls HiPerStrut and combined with short spindles and reduced kingpin inclination (KPI), the car-maker says it has tamed the dreaded torque steer experienced by many powerful front-drive cars, while maintaining sharp handling.

Rear-end suspension is dealt with by a Watt’s link set-up, which Holden says reduces travel friction compared with a multi-link solution.

VXR versions are fitted with FlexRide switchable settings, in which standard mode offers the most comfortable ride, Sport has a stiffer more agile chassis, while the VXR offers the most direct steering and a more responsive throttle.

Steering is electrically power assisted and brakes are discs for all variants, measuring 300mmm on the front of 1.6-litre versions and 292mm on the back, while the VXR gets beefier 315mm at the stern and its 355mm drilled front discs are pinched by Brembo callipers.

Each of the variants are easily distinguished by their differing alloy wheel sizes, which measure 20-inches under the VXR, 19-inches in diameter when fitted to the GTC Sport, or 18-inches on the GTC.

Other more subtle exterior features also set the trio apart with LED tail-lights and a full bodykit worn by the GTC Sport, while flagship VXR gets a boot spoiler and a choice of Arden Blue paint that is unique to the fizziest version.

Inside the Astra range it is the same story with entry-level GTC variants fitted out with cloth sports seats, leather steering wheel and a good selection of entertainment applications accessible through the 7.0-inch MyLink information and entertainment system. Bluetooth, USB and 3.5mm jack connection is also standard.

Drivers are given a helping hand with rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlamps, front and rear parking radar, satellite navigation and hill-hold assist.

Upgrading to the GTC Sport adds leather seats that are heated in the front row and eight adjustment planes for the driver, dual-zone climate control, a sportier leather steering wheel, alloy pedals and an electric park-brake tidies the centre console.

At the top of the pile, the Astra VXR adds to the CTC Sport kit with the most figure-hugging seats covered with Nappa leather with more adjustments for the front passenger, VXR-branded steering wheel and floor mats, tyre pressure monitoring and a reversing camera.

All versions of the Astra have six airbags, Isofix child-seat anchors, ESC and ABS.

Storage comes in the form of a 380 litre boot but that can be expanded by a 60/40 split rear seat, while the VXR has a FlexFloor that allows items to be hidden out of sight under the boot floor.

The Holden Astra just straddles various segments with its three-door layout and dimensions measuring 1840mm wide, 4466mm long and 1482mm tall.

Inside, the Astra accommodates front-row occupants with just under a meter of headroom, 1064mm of legroom and 1394mm of shoulder room.

In the back things are a bit tighter as you would imagine from the sporty diving roofline with 870mm of legroom and 1292mm of shoulder space. Holden does not specify rear headroom.

Holden Astra pricing*
GTC $26,990
GTC (a) $29,190
GTC Sport $29,990
GTC Sport (a) $32,190
VXR $39,990
*Excludes on-road costs.

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