Astra coupe gives Alex a lesson in growing older gracefully.
First published in the February 2016 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
IT WAS my birthday yesterday and between the cake and presents I made a terrible realisation. I’ve reached the tipping point where celebrating my birth is no longer something to look forward to, but rather dread. A day that used to bring a wondrous sense of opportunity now offers an unwelcome reminder of my mortality.
I mention this because I feel I’ve found a kindred spirit in my new long term Holden Astra. In a world of newer rivals, it too is no longer a spring chicken.
This model first hit Aussie roads in 2012, then badged as an Opel, and will be superseded by the new-generation hatch late this year, though the coupe body style of my Astra GTC Sport is likely to remain until at least 2017. So while I may not feel it, my Astra is literally entering its twilight years.
Not that you’d know this from looking at it. After gazing at its seductively shaped body through my window for the past month, I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s the best looking hatchback currently on sale in Australia.
GTC Sport models, which slot into the upper end of the Astra range below the top-spec VXR, add bigger 19-inch wheels shod with 235/45 rubber, LED tail-lights and a sportier body kit, all of which deliver a look that’s chunky, bold and aggressive. I especially like it in profile, and from the back, where its fat Kardashian booty reminds me of a Porsche 911. I’m even enjoying the Sunny Melon paint, which is so bright that I constantly catch the Astra’s good-looking reflection in shop windows.
A screw the size of an infant’s thumb in the right-front stopped us in week one, but we were on our way again after a simple $30 repair.
It feels young at heart too, thanks to its new-generation 1.6-litre engine. This is the same 147kW/280Nm donk that powers the new-gen Astra hatch and in my car is mated to a six-speed manual. It’s a lively drivetrain with a fat mid-range, backed up by some throaty induction noise above 5000rpm.
It’s also stronger and more tractable than I first thought. In the first weeks of ownership, I found myself dropping back to second, or even first, at roundabouts and speed humps because the donk felt lacklustre below 2000rpm. Since then I’ve learned to push through the initial deadness and now leave it in third where, after a breath of hesitation, it pulls with authority.
A month stuck in city traffic means I’m yet to fully exploit the handling balance, but early signs are it feels suitably tied down and grippy. Helped no doubt by its HiPerStrut front suspension, which separates the damper unit from the steering to reduce torque steer.
All of this gives the Astra a strong warm-hatch feeling, which is suiting my inner-city lifestyle perfectly. The taut ride has a welcome suggestion of sportiness, yet still clambers over bumps with controlled compliance. And the engine has proved thriftier than expected, its 6.6L/100km figure bettering Holden’s combined claim of 6.9L.
There are a few wrinkles, though, most of which are inside. For example, the eight-way adjustable driver’s seat seems to move in every direction bar the one I want, which is down. And I don’t like the long-throw gearshift, which isn’t as slick as I’d like, or the chunky gear lever that looks like a prop from Star Wars. There’s also no reversing camera, which would have been welcome given that the swoopy exterior design limits rear visibility. And I’m hoping the button-heavy central stack and finicky infotainment system become easier to navigate with greater use.
Still, these age spots are mostly overcome by the Astra’s youthful looks and character. It feels so young and hip that driving it has been a soothing balm to my fear that as I get older, my best days are behind me. The car has been much more helpful than my wife, who after listening to me complain suggested that I should “grow up”. This proved she clearly doesn’t understand me at all. “That’s the problem,” I shouted back. “I am!”
Reaching for it
So far my chief complaint with the Astra is the placement of its seatbelts, which are so far behind the driver’s seat that only Houdini and Olympic gymnasts can reach them. Normal humans like you and are I left to lunge hopelessly over our shoulders as our finger tips graze a belt that’s tantalisingly out of reach. Front passengers fare much better, as they can simply slide their leather pew all the way back, grab the belt with ease and revel in acres of legroom.
Chief complaint #2 is the size of the Astra’s doors, which when open are so long they look like the wings of an Airbus A380. This makes getting in and out of tight spaces tricky and means every time you open a door, you run the risk of becoming one of the vilest humans in existence – someone who opens their door onto other cars. They’re heavy buggers too, and with gravity on their side close with a vice-like suddenness capable of squashing slow-moving fingers and feet.
Holden Astra GTC Sport
Price as tested: $29,990
Part 1: 1688km @ 6.6L/100km
Overall: 1688km @ 6.6L/100km
Date acquired: November 2015