It was epic – I will never forget the two weeks I spent cruise-shooting across the Groot Karoo in the previous-generation Opel Astra OPC. Sure, it was ridiculously fast, properly comfortable and ate up the kilometres like a low-flying spaceship. But what I remember most was the feeling that came from a combination of ability and friendliness. It felt like a mate, a pal, someone you’d want to spend a lot of time with. I loved coming back to it every day, climbing into the big cabin with its huge doors, fighting with the gearbox until it was warm, blurring along at Mach 2.
I’m thinking all of this as I cruise across an unfamiliar landscape in the south of Europe, the new Astra thrumming away quietly and the miles adding up. It’s taken a while to comprehend what a paradigm shift Opel has undergone, mirroring that of the larger motoring world. A few short years ago, it was that stonking two-litre with a turbo like a sea bass’s mouth. Now, the Astra I’m driving has Opel’s dinky little 1.0ℓ, three-cylinder petrol engine moving it along. And the novelty is I’m enjoying it.
The seventh-generation Astra is a very important car for Opel, and coming off the back of the success of the Adam and the newest Corsa, it has a fighting chance in South Africa. Happily, parent company GM has thrown everything at it: technology, engineering and, crucially, fun. Yes, fun – the headline from the marketing men in the conference hall pre-drive was that the new Astra is to be a driver’s car, rather than just the traditional combo of friendly, comfortable and easy. Fair enough; other than the OPC I sped through the Karoo in, no recent Astra had melted my butter.
So we’re here, trailing around the Med, and yes, the suits were telling the truth. The new Astra is both light on its feet and happy-keen to change direction. It’s firmly sprung, certainly, resists body roll, is nice and grippy in the corners and encourages a degree of yahooness that speaks of misspent teenage years and anthems on the sound system. There’s a spiritedness about it that comes from the light, agile new chassis and you drive it with a smile on your face and an eye out for a twisty pass. Who’d have thought?
The tech sheet confirms that chassis feel – GM’s D2XX platform, announced in 2012, weighs an impressive 77 kg less than the outgoing structure, is more compact (wheelbase and front and rear overhangs have been shortened), but still allows for improved passenger and boot space. Nifty trick. It’s much stronger too, helping with torsion rigidity and, ultimately, handling. Good skeleton, good car. Suitably impressed, I move on, and thanks to a weight saving of more than 200 kg, even the little triple shuffles the big Astra along with decent verve. Later on, I try the 1.4T and the 1.6 turbo diesel, both of which turn out to be winners, the diesel especially a rocket, though sadly, it doesn’t look as if GM SA will bring that model to our shores. The 1.4T will be Opel’s bread-and-butter car here, and I’m happy to say it is a trippy little camper, a good balance between comfort and clip – fast enough to be fun, soft enough to be viable for commuters.
There are some niggles. The variable steering, though usefully direct, is oddly weighted, being at first too light and then taking its time to muscle up as the speed increases. And the ride is definitely on the firm side, the price for Opel’s decision to make the new car a sportier animal. Firm springs and hard(ish) bushings are the culprits, GM being unwilling to break the bank on more expensive damper tuning kits and body control electronics that are the hallmark of today’s best hatches. Still, it isn’t a dealbreaker and the overall drive is a great deal of fun.
It’s a welcome return to dynamic driving for Opel. In this segment, it isn’t all just performance and attitude, though. There is practicality to be considered too, and here, the new Astra steals a march on both the Golf and the Focus. The roomi-ness I remembered and admired from my Karoo blast has been kept – there’s ample space back and front, as well as a sizeable boot. Best of all, the loading length with seats down is the longest in its segment, so all manner of items, such as surfboards, sideboards, bicycles, event signboards –whatever – will find a home, no problem.
Inside, things have improved, though the Golf and Peugeot 308 still have nothing to fret over from a purely quality perspective. The first thing you notice is the handsome seats. Turns out they’re as comfy as they are good looking, usefully long in the squab and high and contoured in the backrest.
Handsome seems to be a byword – fans of the new Opel aesthetic, best typified by the Adam S, will recognise the mixture of simple analogue instruments matched with a large central digital infotainment screen. The architecture is particularly well executed in the Astra: the screen is neatly incorporated in a large dashboard swoop that is as ergonomically correct as it is stylish. There is plenty of detailing to admire, from double-stitched seats to colour inserts and the return of accent chrome for bevelled edges. Hallelujah.
The tech, too, is notable, following up on GM’s statement in 2013 that it wanted to be the marque that brought expensive tech to the masses. It has kept its promise with the Astra, adding a raft of innovations such as active LED matrix headlights, auto crash mitigation and avoidance systems, and GM’s IntelliLink infotainment set-up, which works with an app-based system to provide almost limitless aid to the driver.
Tech, space, dynamism… It all adds up to a good day at the office for Opel, but the ruby slipper turns out to be its looks – on test in the Med, where every second car is recently launched and fabulous, the Astra got intense interest – and lots of praise. That’s no easy feat, given the previous car’s already handsome profile. Step back and the new Astra is notably smaller than the previous car, yet is, as we’ve noted, bigger inside. There’s a freshness to the design,
a deftness that is classy and, unlike the raft of same-same designs doing the rounds, individual. The new wider grille gives it real presence; the slim headlights underline that. The significant crease across its flanks originates at the hatch, flowing all the way around the car, and the effect is arresting. The only question mark is the slightly odd C-pillar with its painted-in black detailing. It means rear vision is awful. Expect to see it revised.
Will the new Astra be a success here? As I return to base camp, I find myself hoping so. I didn’t cover ground quite as quickly as in the OPC, but that friendliness is intact, and I want it to do well. There is something about the alchemy of gearbox, clutch, steering and engine that Opel got right. It’s pretty and it’s capable and it’s got that X factor, much like the Adam and updated Corsa. It has elements of both siblings, tapping into the energy and youthful appeal of the Adam and the practicality and geniality of the Corsa. It fits Opel’s ethos of being a quality German product for un-German cash, and that has to be a good thing.
In a nutshell: Opel Astra 1.4T
Agile, fun, well-built, good value German for Korean money
Ride on the hard side
- Engine: 1.4ℓ 4-cylinder turbo
- Power: 108 kW @ 5 300 rpm, 250 Nm @ 1 800–4 000 rpm
- Performance: 0–100 km/h in 9.1 sec, top speed limited to 200 km/h
- Tyres: 205/55/R16
- Economy: 5.5 ℓ/100 km
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- CO2 emissions: 114 g/km
- Price: R290 000
VW Golf 1.4 TSI Comfortline
Beautifully made, quiet at speed, extremely comfortable – a worthy class leader. 0–100 km/h in 9.1 sec, Top speed 200 km/h, Power 90 kW/200 Nm, Price R321 300
Ford Focus 1.5T Trend
The Focus’ core strength is its magic carpet
ride, the best in the segment. Economy, driving pleasure, power and excellent value for money makes it hard to beat. 0–100 km/h in 8.6sec,
Top speed 224 km/h, Power 132 kW/240 Nm, Price R299 900
Mazda3 2.0 Individual
Big engine, effortless cruising, solid, pretty and comfortable interior, good fun on the road. And at this price. Wow! 0–100 km/h in 8.8 sec, Top speed 200 km/h, Power 121 kW/240 Nm, Price R293 900