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This model first hit Aussie roads in 2012, then badged as an Opel, and will be superseded by the new-generation hatch late this year, though the coupe body style of my Astra GTC Sport is likely to remain until at least 2017.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.
VIDEO REVIEW: Holden Astra GTC Sport
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.
By Alex Inwood
THE second month of any relationship is often more difficult than the first. Mostly this is because, having already acknowledged obvious strengths and weaknesses, month two is devoted to a deeper kind of critique.
Instead of noticing your partner’s sense of style, for example, which you once thought effortless and beautiful, you begin to fixate on some not-so-smooth details. Or a slightly dumpy behind that gives the impression of having soiled one’s underpants. It’s these little foibles that can make or break a relationship. And so it is with my Holden Astra.
Now familiar with the broad strokes of its ability, I’ve begun to delve deeper into the nitty gritty of its personality. Most of what I’ve uncovered is positive, like using the cruise control, which is not only a breeze to operate but doesn’t disengage when I press the clutch to change gears. This means that, unlike most manual cars, I don’t have to keep resetting the system every time I drive up a hill or slot into a higher gear to save fuel.
The idle-stop function is brilliant, too, and has none of the frustrating jerkiness or sluggishness of other systems. Select neutral at the lights and the Astra seamlessly shuts off the engine before restarting quickly when you depress the clutch.
I’ve also realised why gripping the leather steering wheel imparts such a strong sense of sportiness. While it might look round, it’s actually subtly shaped like a hexagon, with a flat bottom and moulded sides for your hands.
The biggest revelation, though, has been the MyLink system. After initially dismissing it as convoluted and pointless, I’ve since familiarised myself with the idiosyncrasies of its many menus and now use it on every journey. The sat-nav is quick to react to wrong turns and rivals Google Maps for selecting the fastest route.
I’ve developed an unhealthily dependant relationship with the female tones of the voice command, which understands nearly all of my requests and reads me my text messages in a soft American accent.
Better still, MyLink lets you respond to texts while driving. Hitting the reply button throws up a screen of pre-programmed replies, which after a month of replying to everything with “Call me, I’m driving” I’ve now discovered can be altered or rewritten altogether to suit your needs.
So, far from spoiling the relationship with crooked teeth, month two has revealed a welcome depth to the Holden Astra’s personality, to match its swoopy, good-looking exterior. I’ve stumbled across some new foibles, the most annoying being air conditioning that struggles to provide the icy coolness I’m used to from Aussie-built Holdens, but so far the positives easily outweigh the negatives.
Save it, sucker
Oh what a fuel-sucking fool I’ve been this month. After recording an impressive 6.6 in month one, I became overconfident about how efficient the Astra is. I should have remembered last month’s reading was helped by long stints on the freeway; instead I descended into lead-footed madness, racing between lights and shifting at the 6500rpm redline. Heavy traffic compounded the issue. The result was a dismal 10.4 for month two. Hopefully the next reading is somewhere in the middle of those extremes.
By Alex Inwood
WE’VE had a turbulent month, the Astra GTC and I. Those familiar with my time with Holden’s Sunny Melon hatch will know I’m in love with its swoopy design, its perky 1.6-litre turbo-petrol and the way it strikes a sweet balance between handling and ride comfort, even on 19-inch wheels.
SPECS & FEATURES: Holden Astra GTC
But this month we hit a hurdle. It arrived in the form of a tight and eerily dark underground car park where the Astra’s poor visibility, lack of reversing camera and wide 11.9m turning circle combined in a perfect, swirling storm of frustration. Let’s just say I haven’t completed that many three-, five- and seven-point turns in a very long time.
Swoopy, narrow glasshouse looks brilliant. Just don’t expect to use the rear windows for, you know, seeing stuff.
As good as that sexy, narrow glasshouse looks, it leaves you with zero reference as to the rear extremity of the car, so you’re totally reliant on the incessant beeping of the Holden Astra’s overly sensitive parking sensors.
Even when you’ve parked, the irritations aren’t over because you then have to clamber out of the thing. I’ve moaned about the Astra’s enormous doors before, but they really are heavy and cumbersome enough to taint a potential ownership proposition, especially if you live in the inner city.
All of this is sounding rather negative, which is disappointing because the Astra has excelled and surprised in other areas.
After three months trapped in Melbourne’s choking traffic, an 1100km round trip to the Murray River town of Mildura finally gave it a chance to stretch its legs. And I can report that on the freeway the Astra chewed up the kilometres with quiet and efficient ease. Sitting in sixth for most of the journey returned a fuel figure of 7.3L/100km, the seats are comfortable, there’s plenty of useful storage and the door bins swallow two bottles of water.
Part of the trip even saw me cram two fully grown adults into the back, and as dubious as the Astra’s coupe exterior made them feel, they soon realised the back seat not only has a supportive and deep cushion but is seriously roomy.
The one annoyance on the trip was the ride, which felt pattery and struggled to settle on sub-par tarmac. A downside to those big, good-looking 19-inch alloys.
Another bummer is that the road to Mildura is mostly straight and featureless, so I’m yet to truly explore the Astra’s dynamic ability. This really is something I need to do, not least because it’s fitted with GM’s exciting-sounding HiPerStrut front suspension, which is meant to reduce torque-steer, and a Watt’s link rear-end. I feel an early morning blast on some choice mountain roads coming up.
It’s taken a while to figure out what the Astra’s Eco button, which sits loud and proud at the top of the button-infested centre stack, actually does. I’d prodded and poked the thing, but it didn’t seem to change anything. Throttle and engine response felt just the same. Realisation finally hit when stopped at a set of lights and
I discovered it controls the Astra’s idle-stop system. With Eco on, the system is engaged. Switch it off and the engine, and the air-con, continue to run, which is handy on hot days.
By Alex Inwood
IF YOU read the previous update, you’ll know I finished it by planning an early morning mountain blast to properly tap into the Astra’s dynamic ability. I’d been scratching at what felt like a promising depth of talent, conveyed by the Astra’s taut, well-controlled ride and grippy front axle, but needed a proper dawn drive to see if things got better or worse when push came to shove.
Well, that didn’t happen.
The ink had barely dried on my previous report when the phone rang with bad news. On the other end was Holden, telling me the Holden Astra had to go back. “But,” I sighed into the receiver, “it’s not scheduled to return for another two months!”
The problem was the Astra’s registration, which was due to expire later that week. “And we’re not renewing it,” was the stern message coming down the line.
So my time with the egg-shaped Astra was brutally and unexpectedly cut short. I barely had time to give it a tub and a tank of fuel before dropping the keys onto the countertop at Holden’s Port Melbourne HQ.
This left me with the task of signing off on our time together prematurely. And the twinge of sadness I felt as we parted ways showed there’s much to like about Holden’s ageing hatch.
Its design may not be as cohesive as the short-lived Opel Astra it replaced, but its swoopy coupe profile and tough stance on 19-inch wheels still make it one of the best-looking hatches around. The new 1.6-litre turbo four, which will also feature in the all-new Astra five-door hatch that arrives here later this year, is also a highlight, especially when paired with the six-speed manual.
It’s hardly the slickest shift around, but does provide a welcome 22kW/20Nm power hike over the 125kW/260Nm auto-equipped GTC Sport.
It also has oodles of personality, especially in that bright Sunny Melon hue. It’s a surprisingly roomy and comfortable four-seater, and even sounds alright high in the rev range.
For buyers chasing the looks of a hot hatch with more manageable performance and a cushier ride, the GTC Sport offers a sweet, much more affordable, option. The harder, faster 206kW/400Nm Holden Astra VXR costs 10 grand more.
This doesn’t mean there weren’t negatives. The doors are huge and heavy, rear visibility is poor, and the button-heavy dash really is starting to feel last-gen.
That said, the Astra was faultlessly reliable during its three-month stay, and the cabin quality is top-notch, unlike Damo’s Thai-built Focus, which has a flimsy gearshift boot and a self-detaching parcel shelf. Still, at least his Focus has rego…
Its stint in Australia might have been short-lived, but I reckon the Opel Astra’s design is better than the Holden-badged version that has replaced it, especially around the nose. The Holden’s chrome badging looks heavy-headed in comparison and the grille, which has been cut into in order to fit the number plate and tow point, looks messy next to the Opel’s more cohesive design.
Still, there’s no denying both are lookers. And the one carrying a Holden badge is cheaper and faster than its now-defunct Opel sibling.