GREAT RIVALRIES. WE love watching them unfold almost as much as General Motors enjoys participating in them. In Australia, its Holden marque trades bloody noses with Ford for saloon and Ute supremacy. Ditto Stateside, where for decades Chev SS and Camaro muscle cars have square off against Ford and Mopar’s brawny contestants. Here in South Africa, the Opel brand was left to raise the fighter’s belt, gaining a fanatical following for the Golf-rivalling Astra/Kadett series. Cult status was assured with flame-grilled derivatives such as the Superboss 16VS and manic Kadett TS. We’re fans of the raw urgency of last gen OPCs too, so you’ll forgive us for not understanding the company’s reluctance to bring us the newest examples.
It seems GMSA has recanted a fraction. You can buy a new Astra, and for this road test we’ve cherry picked the ‘green for the times’ 1.4 Turbo Enjoy in ‘Plus’ guise. At R263 400 it shares engine outputs of 103kW and 200Nm with the regular 1.4 Turbo Enjoy (R230 900). On top of the regular Enjoy’s extensive feature list (including a seven-speaker Infinity sound system, 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, six-speed manual transmission and leather-wrapped steerer) the extra R32 500 on the Plus list price brings a lowered sports suspension, Opel’s FlexRide adaptable suspension and stability control systems and a superbly advanced selectable lights array which includes bi-xenons. All of these well beyond the usual C-segment offering. Tech fest aside, how does it look?
More than a pretty face
The previous generation Astra shocked and awed with imaginatively cast metal bisected from nose to tail by a sharp style line so vehemently creased into the bodywork that it permeated the cabin. Perhaps because of this, Mk5 Astra’s design dated quicker than Volkswagen’s effort. So rather than subtly reskin in the VW tradition, Opel has cast a new mould for Astra, effectively going back to ‘formula’ phase. So no restricted glass house, no raked back roofline ending in an arrowhead. This one’s far safer. You could almost accuse new Astra as being a sort of ‘Best of the C Segment Hatch’ design fusion with elements of Mazda 3, Renault Megane and even Toyota Auris X thrown in for good measure. Our silver test unit plays well with the city’s dancing lights and shapes as we hurry along empty streets, and you have to admit the styling is not a bad mix, still wholly cohesive and reminiscent of the old car.
The metal may be conservative, but the face is an overt feast of reflective lights and LEDs each side of a wide airdam and prominently badged grille. The previous stubby profile gives way to a more swooping roofline in the Megane mode, while Opel’s new trademark ‘blade’ motif slices through the lower flank of the car from the base of the front arch, then kicks up to kiss the top of the rear arch. The rear end is saved from nondescript by the details: a ‘V’ shaped handle housing, blacked-up diffuser section along the base of the rear bumper, a boot-mounted rear spoiler and a rear lamp cluster that reminds of a collection of lit arrowheads.
Yes, it comes across as a pumped-up rethink of new Corsa rather than an evolution of Astra, but I like it. Importantly, and key to current C-segment success, you’ll find no offensive angles. Yet it does indeed turn heads almost as fervently as it swivels lights. That’s right, unlock your Enjoy Plus with Adaptive Forward Lighting (AFL) and Control Intelligent High Beam and Automatic headlamp levelling in an undercover parking facility and it will greet you with an intricately orchestrated ‘handshake’ in which it raises, dips, pans and focuses the beams in an eerie fashion seldom seen this side of a sentient being. Impressive, if somewhat creepy.
The light inside
Climb aboard and you’re greeted with a vastly improved environment. No intrusive style line to compromise interior space, no near vertical hang-down console. Instead the centrepiece angles towards the windscreen, allowing more light to fall on its multitude of knobs and dials. The button count has risen substantially, but a cleaner layout means better ergonomics. Vertically arranged airvents range down the entire panel, making a rather Korean styling statement, as does the new mood lighting. A red glow emanates from the base of the gear lever, while the digital display that sits atop the centre stack is borrowed from the more affordable Cruze sibling, and backlit in a friendly orange. To top the show, the old cool blue instrument binnacle mutates to a bloody red when the car is shifted to Sport mode. Literally, the red mist descends…
The leather-wrapped steering wheel was first seen on the Opel Ampera hybrid concept and feels great to hold. Similar tactile pleasure greets a grab of the gear lever. The plastic/hide interfaces on the dashboard and doors are equally complementary, though some of the designs are busier than they need to be. More overkill subsists in that the driver has access to four cupholders, excluding cup-friendly nooks in the doors. Rear occupancy is on par with segment rivals with that sloping roof line not adversely affecting head room, though more leg room would have been appreciated. Having said that, all five cloth seats are a pleasure to park off in.
Eager to please
Dip the clutch and twist the key (no start button silliness here) and a very subdued turbocharged 1.4-litre four-pot zings into life. Past Opels have always enjoyed a meatier resonance, which is missing in this more refined hatch. Yet it revs with verve, and while no performance car by any stretch of the imagination, it is eager. Cog swapping is a precise affair and the gearbox feels solidly constructed, up to the tasks demanded by what feels like a properly capable chassis. Engage Sports mode and the electronics dial in firmer suspension, heavier steering and sharper throttle response. The car employs the usual MacPherson struta upfront, with a torsion beam rear axle, assisted in this case by a Watt’s link cross member, essentially helping contain lateral loads between axle and body. The Cruze has amply shown the way here. You’ll not notice it when trundling along in city traffic, but give the nimble Astra a winding stretch of tar and you’re rewarded with an enthusiastic platform from which to mount a fairly entertaining attack as you whip from apex to apex. Understeer is present, but with only 103kW on tap you’ll not find enough to ruin the experience. If anything, the humble four-pot could do with more bottom end torque with which to slingshot through turns. Performance is comparable to previous generation 1.8-litre normally aspirated Astras, but this mill is greener and will reward with longer intervals between tank fills. In truth, it’s a gem.
It’s good to see the Astra back and ready for a fight. And despite Opel parent company GM’s recent financial woes, it’s good to see its brand values are largely intact. New Astra is still a thrilling drive for the 2% of the time you need it to be, and in default ‘Tour’ mode, still a pleasure to cruise in when you’re faced with real life’ 98% of the time. Is it as good as the latest Golf? On paper, yes. It offers great German build quality, competitive pricing and a design which this time will blend in with the neighbours. Where the latest Astra falls short however, is on character. It’s too robotic, clinical even. But you could level that arrow at most new vehicles. Ultimately, the fate of the Astra will be decided by the car buyer – you. And with increasingly stiffer competition from Ford’s Focus, Renault’s new Megane, and the stalwart Toyota AurisX, this is shaping up to be the hatch’s biggest fight yet.