WITH Holden’s local manufacturing chapter soon to close, the Astra hatch suddenly finds itself with a helluva lot of weight resting atop its shapely European shoulders.
And as the latest Holden model to be sourced from Europe (the 2018 Commodore will be next), the natural rival of this Polish-built Astra is Volkswagen’s supremely polished Golf VII.
Talk about a high bar.
With a nameplate stretching all the way back to 1984 (and badge-engineered Nissan N12 Pulsar origins), the Astra brand has cachet in this country, despite an on-again, off-again relationship spanning those three decades.
There’s certainly a lot more goodwill for Astra than there ever was for the Cruze, even though initial sales have been pretty disappointing. Punters will expect great things from it, and so do I.
But I’ll be honest – the new Astra hasn’t exactly dazzled me so far.
We praised it for its well-rounded performance in our recent 10-car small hatch/sedan Megatest, finishing second behind the Golf, yet there were elements that didn’t quite feel up to snuff to me.
The way it drove wasn’t one of them. Astra clings to corners like velcro and the R’s smooth, perky 110kW 1.4-litre turbo-petrol four is matched to a fine six-speed auto with a superb idle-stop system.
Ride quality is well-controlled, meaning the base Astra has merits beyond its sporty handling, so if not for the Golf’s existence, the Astra would have a Megatest crown to its credit.
Yet the Astra’s cabin quality isn’t quite as sparkling as its German DNA would suggest. Granted, it’s far from having the cheapest-feeling interior in its segment, but I find the GM-generic design and execution a little wide of the mark for a Euro hatch.
However, the design is a step up on the previous Astra’s button-festooned cockpit – and leagues ahead of the cheap and dated Cruze it replaces – though I find the mix of surface textures and materials cheapens it.
The door handles flex and creak as you swing the doors shut, the outboard rear passengers rub their elbows on a rock-hard plastic wheelarch trim, and its glossy piano-black dashboard plastic will no doubt become a magnet for fingerprint smudges, dust and scratches.
Then again, this mid-grade Astra RS manual that will be calling my driveway home for the next four months has some distinct positives.
There’s a seriously grunty 147kW 1.6-litre turbo-petrol engine under its lid, for starters. And being an RS grade, it also scores bingle-avoiding autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and blind-spot monitoring as standard – useful gear for highway commutes.
A leather-clad steering wheel improves the cabin ambience somewhat, plus there’s keyless entry and ignition to bring a touch of luxe that’s absent from the base Astra.
Sure, it’s cloth that covers the seats and door cards, but it’s a pleasant weave and I’d much prefer fabric to the synthetic ‘pleather’ that’s pitched as the premium upholstery in Korean-built Holdens.
Then there’s the appeal of what lies in the left corner of the driver’s footwell. I’m still a sucker for cars with three pedals and a DIY gear lever, and I’m hopeful my love of a good manual ’box will go some way towards overpowering my distaste for coarse-grained cabin plastics.
Plus, the Astra R has already proved that there’s a fine dynamic base beneath this car, so a manual gearbox and 37kW/60Nm more muscle should only enhance that.
Overall impressions so far are mixed. When the dark-coloured paint is spotless, the Astra looks incredibly handsome for a mainstream hatchback, and the 1.6-litre powertrain has vast reserves of mid-range torque that limits the need to row through the six-speed manual gearbox.
But on the other hand, I’m still yet to properly warm to that interior. Am I just being too harsh?
The Astra RS sits in the middle of Holden’s model hierarchy wearing a $26,490 sticker, and it’s arguably the pick of the bunch.
A larger, more powerful 1.6-litre turbo-petrol, a glut of electronic safety aids and none of the arguably unnecessary frills of the range-topping RS-V, such as a heated steering wheel and ambient interior light tubes.
But it’s missing two biggies: a proper integrated sat-nav and rear-seat air vents. Smartphone mirroring gets around the former, but the lack of the latter is not cool.
Already I’m starting to wish there was greater differentiation between this mid-grade RS and the base Astra R.
When you’re spending a few grand extra on your whip it’s nice to have a car that’s identifiably different to the boggo variant, but the five-spoke alloys (in the same 17-inch size), some extra chrome on the grille, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and an extra chrome-finished tailpipe don’t make the RS massively different ... until you’re in the driver’s seat experiencing that wonderful 1.6 turbo.
First published in the May 2017 issue of Wheels Magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.