Holden Astra

FIRSTDRIVES

NATHAN PONCHARD

All-new Astra will headline a cutting edge, high-tech future for Holden’s imminent European-sourced line-up

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

DESTINED to carry Holden’s fortunes from late 2016 in the most hotly contested class in Australia, GM’s new-generation Astra will need to muster every fibre of talent, backed by a classrattling value package, if it’s to get anywhere near the 34,218 sales high it set in Australia just a decade ago.

Thing is, Astra faces exactly the same challenge in Europe, hence why GM’s German outfit has thrown everything at the latest generation of its biggest seller.

Riding on a brand new platform that is both lighter and stronger, the Astra K (as it’s known in Opel circles) is externally smaller than before, yet internally larger in several key dimensions.

Boasting a class-leading 0.285 drag coefficient, its sleek new body has shrunk 49mm in length, 25mm in height, 5mm in width and 23mm in wheelbase, yet Opel claims the Astra gains 35mm in rear-seat legroom – making it bestin- class – and an additional 22mm of headroom for the driver. Boot volume (with a space-saver spare) is 370 litres, though a Cruze hatch is roomier.

It is new Astra’s serious weight saving, however, that amends the previous model’s biggest failing. Even the smallest weight loss is a sizeable 120kg, while some diesel models have dropped 200kg.

All of this makes life easier for Astra’s new engines. It’s the first car to debut GM’s entire new-generation engine line-up simultaneously, including an all-aluminium direct-injection 1.4-litre turbo-petrol four, as well as the 1.0-litre turbo three-pot and 1.6-litre turbo four that have been progressively introduced since 2013. The Euro Astra also scores a new range of 1.6-litre ‘Whisper’ turbodiesels, though they’re not coming here.

Boasting variable intake and exhaust camshafts, but no variable valve lift, the 1399cc turbo-petrol’s aluminium block saves 10kg over the old 1364cc cast-iron unit, while its fuel consumption is vastly superior. The manual 1.4 turbo Astra’s combined fuel figure of 5.1L/100km – supported by a virtually seamless idle-stop system – puts it just ahead of VW’s 92TSI Golf.

Opel offers the 1.4-litre turbo-petrol in two guises, but we’ll only see the 110kW/230Nm high-output version. Tied to a carry-over M32 six-speed manual with reduced friction and shift-quality improvements, or GM’s 6T40 six-speed auto, the German-spec 1.4 manual we drove proved somewhat underwhelming.

Running very tall gearing – just 1900rpm in sixth gear at 100km/h – the Astra 1.4 feels flat-footed in its response, with little to give at 1500rpm. Grunt

builds to a respectable mid-range, and it revs out fairly cleanly to 6250rpm, but this engine lacks character, as well as the supreme flexibility of a 1.4-litre turbo Golf.

Apparently Holden has the scope to make adjustments to gear ratios and engine calibration, and Opel’s powertrain director, Roland Kessler, said “we will see evolutions of the 1.4 turbo going forward”. So there’s hope this promising new-gen engine will live up to its potential.

Its big sister, a 1598cc version punching out 147kW at 5500rpm and 280Nm from 1650-3500rpm (with an overboost function taking that to 300Nm from 1700-4700rpm), is much tastier.

Already featured in Holden’s current Astra GTC Sport – the coupe version of the previous-gen Astra – the 1.6 turbo is shorter geared than the 1.4 (2200rpm at 100km/h in sixth) and pulls with proper authority no matter the ratio, even from 1500rpm. It’s generally louder than the 1.4, but it’s a better quality of noise.

Opel quotes 7.8sec to 100km/h (versus 8.5sec), but in reality the performance difference is much greater. The 1.6 turbo is 3.3sec faster from 80-120km/h in fifth gear than the 1.4, with little penalty to its combined fuel number (5.9L/100km). And while the 1.4 has no trouble attacking motorways at 150km/h-plus, it lacks the effortlessness of the 1.6.

The new Astra is a quiet car, even at such hefty speeds in strong crosswinds, and it feels incredibly stable. Suspension architecture reads the same as before, meaning struts up front and a torsion-beam rear located by a Watts linkage (on all Astras with 110kW or greater).

Opel benchmarked the Focus for handling and the Golf for ride, aiming to be more dynamic than the VW, but also comfortable.

And for the most part they’ve succeeded. The highlight is arguably Astra’s steering, with a crispness and accuracy around straight-ahead and through constant-radius corners that makes the car easy to place.

The 1.6 adds a Sport mode that adds some meat to the weighting without muddying feel, while GM’s new steering wheel is brilliant to hold, matched to an exemplary driving position.

Astra’s handling treads a relatively safe path, with neutral balance leading to mild understeer in tight corners when pushed hard, and decent balance on fast country roads tackled at pace, though Aussie cars will receive a locally developed tune.

The 1.4 on 225/45R17 Michelin Primacys is arguably the pick, given its sweeter blend of suppleness and poise, though the sports-suspended 1.6 wearing 225/40R18 Bridgestone Potenza T001s has much more grip. That said, with traction control turned off to stop ESC intervention, the 1.6 will easily spin an inside wheel in tight corners, and deserves some front diff smarts.

Astra’s trump card, though, is its interior. With excellent front seats that took five years to develop, each weighing 10kg less than before, it combines class-leading comfort with extras like seat ventilation and even a massage function.

The rear seat is similarly impressive, with terrific support, great vision and tons of room, though the Golf is slightly better at seating three abreast. And while Astra offers twin rear USB ports and fold-flat backrests, even the top model lacks a centre armrest and rear air vents.

But it’s the front row that will impress most. Astra’s new column stalks are clearly visible above the wheel spokes, while the IntelliLink touchscreen infotainment is arguably the best in the business, with lovely graphics and smartphone-style functionality, plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The one grey area, though, is exactly what features our Astra will receive. While rear seat heaters are pointless, kit such as LED matrix headlights, forward collision alert and Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) with full auto-brake up to 40km/h would really set Holden’s Astra apart.

In terms of room, comfort and available features, new Astra already exceeds expectation. Now if Holden can find a ride/handling sweet spot for Oz, and cure the 1.4 turbo’s driveability and gearing issues, then Astra’s best may be yet to come.

Model Engine Max power Max torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Economy Price On sale Holden Astra 1.4T 1399cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo 110kW @ 5000-5600rpm 230Nm @ 2000-4000rpm 6-speed manual 1203kg 8.5sec (claimed) 5.1L/100 (EU) From $21,000 (estimated) September 2016

PLUS & MINUS

Tall-geared 1.4 turbo’s flat-footed performance; boot is a tad small Class-leading cabin space and comfort; refinement; styling; 1.6T’s grunt

01 BRIGHT LIGHTS

Just like Audi’s A8 limo, Astra offers ‘IntelliLux’ LED matrix headlights. They cost ¤1150 ($A1850) extra in Germany but they’re (literally) brilliant. The 16 LED segments constantly alter lighting intensity and seamlessly blank out patches to prevent dazzling on-coming traffic. And they look cool.

02 UNDERBELLY

Astra’s D2XX platform is totally new. Designed purely for frontdrive non-SUV applications, it is lighter yet stronger, and has a flatter floor because it doesn’t need to accommodate a rear driveshaft. Opel describes it as “slim fit” because it doesn’t carry unnecessary weight.

03 STAR POWER

GM’s ‘OnStar’ telematics offers 24/7 customer assistance at the touch of a button (even programming sat-nav for you), plus a 4G wifi hotspot that can connect up to seven devices.

Holden says it is “two to four years away” for Australia.

Tourer of duty

ALSO making its debut at Frankfurt, but not present at the launch, was the Astra Sports Tourer (above). Looking quite dapper in the flesh, if you open the wagon’s tailgate by waving your foot under its bumper (ala Ford Kuga) and fold its 40/20/40 backrests flat, it can swallow 1630 litres of cargo, which beats almost every mid-size SUV. The wagon is also available with a configurable luggage bay that includes side rails, slideable dividers and cargo nets (ala Audi). Holden is yet to confirm whether we’ll see the Astra wagon, but given its history in this department, there’s a strong chance we will.

Hot to trot

NEW-gen Astra’s weight optimisation covered everything from its body (-77kg) to chassis (-50kg) and electronics (-11kg), but also included fitting a smaller 48-litre fuel tank and shrinking the engine bay. Astra chief engineer Marc Schmidt said the engine ceiling is 1.6 litres “at this point”, but admitted “[we] can always do something special”. That special car is likely to be Opel’s next Astra OPC, based on new-gen Astra K coupe architecture. The current coupe is just past mid-lifecycle, so a 2017 Frankfurt show debut is likely for the all-new one.