Opel Astra lifts its game
Former car of the year gets an automatic gearbox and a twist of style, at a price
For a car that was Europe’s Car of the Year in 2016 and SA’s in 2017, it’s difficult to explain why local sales of the Opel Astra trickle along at a lacklustre 20 to 30 units a month – way behind rivals like the VW Golf, Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla hatch.
Perhaps buyers don’t set great store in car awards, or they see Opel as less of a safe bet since General Motors quit the country and the brand was taken over by independent importer Unitrans.
Either way, it was pleasant to catch up with a car that I first road tested in 2016 and predicted back then that it was a strong car of the year contender.
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On test here is the new six-speed automatic version of the range-topping Astra 1.6T Sport, a hatchback that was until now available as a manual only. Along with the auto gearbox the car was also jazzed-up with an OPC-Line exterior styling pack, which on the outside comprises front and rear sports bumpers, and on the inside a black headliner, a sport leather-wrapped steering wheel and aluminium pedals.
With its 147kW output the Astra 1.6T occupies something of a performance middle ground, it’s not quite in the hot-hatch league of the 169kW Golf GTI and 184kW Ford Focus ST, but sits above wannabe sporty hatches like the 121kW Mazda3 Astina.
It’s fair to call this Astra a warm hatch, if you like. It’s not as palm-sweatingly exciting as today’s hottest hatches, but that 1.6 turbo delivers effortless punch in a very appealing manner. The car gets off the mark with minimal turbo lag, effortlessly cruises hilly highways, and is able to briskly overtake long trucks.
It does all this with soft-spoken refinement – underlaid by a hint of sporty chortle from the exhaust – and great fuel efficiency to boot. Our test car averaged 7.2l per 100km over the test period.
The auto gearbox makes swift, unobtrusive shifts, and these can be quickened by selecting a sports mode.
What’s always apparent is the car’s easy-driving nature and agility. The 11th generation of Opel’s hatch is between 120kg to 200kg lighter than the previous generation Astra depending on the model, and this shows in the spring in its step and quick-turning nature.
Shedding all that weight hasn’t giving the Astra a lightweight feel in terms of build solidity. On the contrary it has better torsional rigidity and general refinement than its predecessor, and also an impressively bump-soaking ride.
Though it’s slightly smaller than the old Astra, clever packaging has made the interior roomier and it’s a cabin that will comfortably accommodate four tall adults. The boot’s reasonably spacious too, helped by the fact that it contains a spacesaver spare wheel.
The cabin has a reasonably premium feel with a pleasant choice of materials, including soft-touch surfaces and leather seats. This is perked up with chrome trimmings but I didn’t particularly like the shiny chrome at the base of the gearshift, which sometimes distractedly reflected the sun into my eyes when driving.
This is a very highly-specced car that bundles a lot of standard features into its half a million rand pricetag, including heated front leather seats, which switch on automatically on a chilly morning, and semi-autonomous driving features like lane keeping assist. Also part of the standard package are LED Matrix adaptive headlamps that allow you to drive at night on permanent high-beam without blinding other drivers.
Controlling all its functions is relatively simple and you get the hang of it quickly, and the infotainment is bundled into a large touchscreen interface that includes navigation.
The Astra’s an underrated car in terms of sales figures, but it’s a great all rounder: roomy, refined, very well-kitted, and delivering a winning combination of pace and fuel economy.
It just may be a little too well-kitted, however, as this brings its pricing right into the territory of premium German brands.
Type: four cylinder petrol turbo
Type: Six-speed automatic
Type: Front-wheel drive
Top speed: 235 km/h
0-100km/h: 7.2 seconds
Fuel Consumption: 6.1l /100km (claimed); 7.2l/100km (as tested)
Emissions: 138 g/km
Tilt and telescopic adjustable steering wheel, heated steering wheel, LED Matrix headlamps, LED daytime running lights, leather seats with heating, climate control, power windows, onboard computer, electric and heated side mirrors, interior ambient lighting, cruise control, keyless operation, rain-sensing wipers, electronic stability programme, hill start assist, advanced park assist with rear view camera, side blind-zone alert, forward collision alert, lane keep assist, low speed collision mitigation braking, traffic sign recognition, touchscreen infotainment with Bluetooth and navigation, 225/40 R18 tyres
Warranty: 3 years/120,000km
Service plan: 5 years/90,000km
* at 10% interest over 60 months no deposit
Opel Astra Sport 1.6T OPC Line
Driveability, peppy performance, high spec levels
Underrated “warm hatch”
***Value For Money
• Alfa Romeo Giulietta 1.4 TB Super auto, 125kW/250Nm – R456,900
• Audi A3 2.0T Sportback S Line, 140kW/320Nm – R510,176
• BMW 120i Sport Line auto, 135kW/270Nm – R516,659
• Mazda3 Hatch 2.0 Astina Plus, 121kW/210Nm – R427,000
• Mercedes-Benz A200 AMG Line, 120kW/250Nm – R525,012
• Mini Cooper S hatch 5dr auto, 141kW/300Nm – R473,380
• VW Golf GTI, 169kW/350Nm – R565,800