Affordable small cars offer enormous bang for buck these days, but what do you buy if you also want a car that’s fun to drive? The recently launched Holden Astra R is making a play for that space. It needs to fend off the Ford Focus Trend and another latecomer to the scene, the Subaru Impreza 2.0i-L. So, which one is best?
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT | WINNER: SUBARU IMPREZA
In hatchback form with automatic gearboxes our three protagonists are very similarly pegged. The Astra R is cheapest at $24,190, Focus Trend is $24,390 and the Subaru Impreza 2.0i-L is $24,690 – just $500 between most affordable and most expensive.
It comes down to equipment, and in that arena the Impreza stands tall. For a few hundred dollars more than the others the Subaru gets dual zone climate control, where the Astra and Focus only have manual A/C; push-button start; leather-wrapped steering wheel (the Astra’s is bare plastic) and the most upmarket interior feel overall.
The Impreza also arrives wrapped in a thick layer of active safety gear known as EyeSight. The package includes radar cruise control, lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking, and other collision avoidance systems. It costs extra to get this tech in the Astra and Focus.
And let us not forget that the Impreza is all-wheel drive where the other two are front-wheel drive only. For anybody hoping to drive on icy or gravelly roads, this is important.
All three cars come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for excellent smartphone integration. Astra and Focus are better than many other competitors, though they’re not quite as comprehensively equipped as the Impreza.
INTERIOR AND VERSATILITY | WINNER: SUBARU IMPREZA
All three of these vehicles are relatively comfortable up front, and do well to make the driver feel like the most important part of the car. Styling inside the newer Subaru and Astra feels the most up-to-date when compared to the ageing Focus.
There’s little contest when it comes to rear seat comfort. The Impreza offers outstanding leg and headroom, and the nicest fabrics and door trims of the three cars here. An armrest tucks into the rear seatback that can be folded down when there’s no middle passenger. Impreza also has a large cargo area with a wider boot opening that’s easy to load and unload.
The Holden Astra places second with reasonably accommodating rear seats and boot, and a smartly designed cabin that feels more expensive than its price tag.
Focus is the least polished inside. The most recent update added an 8.0-inch infotainment screen, like the Subaru’s, which is more functional than before though the dashboard design is still clunky. Focus also has the smallest rear seat area of this trio.
PERFORMANCE AND ECONOMY | WINNER: HOLDEN ASTRA
Outright performance usually comes at the cost of economy, and that is true of the most powerful car here – the Ford Focus. Its 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine produces 132kW and 240Nm and is the sportiest of the bunch. However, it’s also the thirstiest when driven quickly.
The Astra’s 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine is also turbocharged, and isn’t far behind the Focus in terms of performance. It makes 110kW and 240Nm and responds well to spirited driving while using less fuel than the Focus. It’s the best compromise of the two. It gets an excellent ‘Sport’ mode for the gearbox that does a great job of selecting the right ratio.
Impreza has outputs that sit in the middle at 115kW and 196Nm. In the real world it’s the slowest, though it maintains speed nicely and isn’t a complete slouch once up and running. Its CVT gearbox is the least inspiring, especially when being worked hard.
Claimed combined fuel economy figures for each car are 5.8L/100km for the Focus, 5.5L/100km for the Astra, and 6.6L/100km for the Subaru Impreza.
RIDE AND REFINEMENT | WINNER: HOLDEN ASTRA
In one generation change the Astra has made a big step in terms of refinement. Its engine noise is the least intrusive, and its ride quality is very good for a car that opts for a firmer, sportier tune. It’s comfortable over long distances and feels well-suited to Australian roads.
The Subaru’s engine and gearbox combination is prone to drone at higher rpms, and that becomes a source of annoyance when climbing up hills or hauling heavy things. The Impreza also has quite a firm ride, though it never becomes harsh enough to be uncomfortable.
The Focus has a great engine note, which does come through to the cabin though it’s not unpleasant and adds to its sporty character. Road noise inside the cabin is more noticeable than in the other two.
STEERING AND HANDLING | WINNER: FORD FOCUS
The Ford Focus set the benchmark for dynamics before the new Astra and Impreza arrived on the scene, and its steering still has the greatest feel and feedback of the three. It weights up beautifully through corners and encourages you to drive it faster. Trend may be the entry level Focus, but it has the same sporty DNA as the more powerful models.
Sitting in a close second is the Astra, which offers good front to back connection and effective steering. It’s easy to place and neatly follows a line through a corner. Front-end grip is excellent on the standard 17-inch wheel and tyre package.
The Impreza does a good job with what it has. It’s the only one with power going to the rear wheels as well as the front, and there’s a good amount of interactivity from the back. It drives through corners with confidence. All three of these cars are competent handlers.
VERDICT | WINNER: HOLDEN ASTRA
At the end of the day, the Holden Astra does the best job of balancing equipment, performance, practicality and driver involvement in a package that looks more premium than its price would suggest.
It’s the cheapest of the three, yet it offers respectable engine grunt without being too thirsty, outstanding cabin refinement, and never falls too far behind the Impreza or Focus in the areas they nudge ahead. Astra should prove to be a lovable companion for those who need an everyday hatchback, as well as those who want to enjoy a brisk country drive from time to time.