Holden Astra: Euro cachet with Aussie spin

Anyone out there still interested in a mainstream hatchback with no small amount of flair? We drive the new Astra, now being pitched as a ‘premium sports’ offer, ahead of its local release.


THE HOLDEN ASTRA is carrying a lot of weight for a small car: In respect to expectation, at least.

The new model, driven in and around Canberra the past couple of days, is – at 1283 to 1363kg - about 160kg lighter than the previous model.

However, if hope can be measured in kilo count, then it’s perhaps it totes the heaviest load of any offer in the mainstream, compact hatchback category.

This model is expected to mark a turning point in Holden’s Australasian story and achieve the brand’s desired shift into the premium car category.

That’s no easy challenge. Hatches are another category also feeling the heat from consumer abdication to crossovers.

Discount the Toyota Corolla – because, even though it dominates the category, at least 90 percent of volume goes straight into rental and fleet where it all comes down to price – and it’s a much smaller pool, in which the major player becomes the Mazda3, but with much lower volume than the market leader’s car, then the Volkswagen Golf.

Both those models survive mainly on private sector buy-in but it’s not the same game as it once was. Look around the roadscape: You just don’t see them as much as you used to, right? It’s a fair bet that many CX-5 and Tiguan drivers now were previously ‘Three’ and ‘Golf’ fans.

Holden New Zealand has not shared any volume predictions with us but, chances are, their hope that Astra will become a key model will be tempered by the realities of the sector’s climate change and its own weak position within that sector.

While Astra more or less replaces Cruze – though how much is open to conjecture, with talk that the new Cruze will come back to undertake a sedan sales role that the Polish-built, rebadged Opel product cannot meet – Holden is still also faced with having to rebuild a fan base because it hasn’t had a car like this for years. It will play the fleet and private sectors but so much, ultimately, relies on how this car prices - and that’s still a mystery.

Holden NZ is not going to discuss dollars for a few more weeks yet; one reason being the car won’t hit the showroom until February – a strategy to allow full stock arrival while avoiding the Christmas period, always a dull time for car sales. Even then it’s not a full release: Some of the most hotly-anticipated features – notably, a Driver Assist Package– might not be available until closer to mid-year.

Don’t expect budget buying, however. Even though our countries’ currency are at virtual parity, it’s hardly relevant to us that Australian market Astra kicks off at $A21,990 plus on-road costs for a manual R, with the automatic adding $A2200, while the mid-level RS is $A26,490 in manual and $A28,690 in auto, and the RS-V is at $A30,990/ $A33,190.

Back on September 27 boss Kristian Aquilina told Motoring Network that while Astra will be cheap enough to avoid perception that it has a European premium, neither will it simply carry over those Australian stickers (where the public buy-in begins on December 1) because extra costs have to be factored in. It assuredly will place higher in the dollar-sphere than the $30,900 to $39,990 Cruze. The Mazda places at $32,795 and tops at $47,495. Golf, meantime, is from $33,490 to $42,490 in its non-sporting formats.

Assessing Astra’s place in the market might not be possible, but this week’s first drive – which we took in company of Australia’s media ‘A-team’, and thus had access to the full lineup of Holden heavy hitters, whereas the main NZ media contingent followed a day behind (and didn’t) -  gave a good chance to measure its on-road qualities.

Holden sees the key to accomplishing success with Astra as coming through a combination of high technology and design; or as the brand philosophy says, ‘Sculptural Artistry meets German Precision’.

This Astra represents the half-way point in Holden’s commitment to deliver 24 new models by the end of 2020. Developed and built in Europe with substantial adjustments by local engineers for Australian conditions, it’s already bringing with it the valuable flag of 2016 European Car of the Year as well as a Golden Steering Wheel Award.

Holden’s aim to imbue impression their car is good enough to warrant comparison with the Mazda3 and Golf was very much the key theme when we were invited to take the range through its paces.

Beyond the trusted name, it certainly has enough in the way of snazzy new features to catch the new car buyer’s attention. The modern local market car buyer, as Holden understands them, is into technology and travel as well as being image-conscious and ambitious, so these are the sentiments that the Astra is designed to tap into. Whether they’re enough to make Kiwis rethink the Astra, we’ll soon find out.

We were fortunate on our test drive to be joined by Opel’s Chief Designer – Interior, Kurt Beyer, the man responsible for designing the Astra’s insides (as well as having some input into the exterior as well). There’s something pretty special about hearing about a car’s styling and features directly from the person who created them, and it’s all the more impressive when delivered in a German accent…

The word that kept coming up during our drive was ‘natural’; this is a car that feels very comfortable and natural behind the wheel. Clever design means all your usual dials are kept in line with the steering column, so you don’t need to reach (sounds obvious but a lot of manufacturers get this wrong).

Depending which model you buy, you’ll be reaching for either a 7- or 8-inch touchscreen that supports mobile projection via both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The app icons (several in-built) are nice and big too – no mucking about trying to hit the right one. A lot of effort has been put into designing an iPad-esque screen that looks good and integrates smoothly into the dashboard design, and it shows.

Your mobile phone connection will also provide your navigation system, unless you shell out for the top-line RS-V model, which has embedded navigation.

On the right of the steering wheel, you’ll find audio controls, including source, volume and mute. On the left are your speed controls – cruise control, and speed alert if you want a pleasant little chime to let you know when you’re pushing your luck. The digital display between the taco on the left and the speedo on the right is nice, capturing handy facts like your current driving distance and speed as well as fuel consumption and eco info - though it’s a little busy for a quick-glance update.

Sleek lines and high-gloss black panels give the interior a very cool and contemporary feel. The furniture design is modern, but most of the dash and door plastics are pretty hard, cheap-feeling and scratchy. The leather on the top version’s seats frankly resembles vinyl too. And the seats are a bit flat, failing to support you in corners. But hard cornering isn’t the mission of this economy special. The dark grey seat fabric is complemented by white stitching, and the seat cushions are a stylish and understated black and grey check pattern.

The always-important storage space is a strength as well. In addition to the neat glovebox, there’s a roller-covered console with two drink holders and enough space to pop your mobile phone in there as well, plus a leather-topped storage bin further back between the seats and a tiny shelf beneath the climate controls. Both seats have pouches in the back for documents, umbrellas, etc.

While on the topic of climate controls, these are pretty standard, with no dual option. One thing we noted is that there’s no vent through to the rear, although I didn’t get a chance to poke my head under the seats, so, we’ll reserve ultimate judgement until we’ve tested the car for a week.

When I took a spell in the back seat, I was impressed by the amount of space and legroom (and the driver was a good six-foot too). This is the point at which I really do think, this feels like a much larger car. If you have big or little people that will be spending a lot of time in the back, this could be a real bonus for you.

As for how it drives? The simplest way of putting it is that the Astra feels great on the road. It has that nice, snug feeling you expect from European cars, and as we swerved and swung our model through a short ‘motorkhana’ course, it didn’t miss a beat (the same possibly can’t be said for the quality of this reviewer’s stunt driving skills).

Both the 110kW/240-245Nm 1.4 litre and 147kW/300Nm 1.6 litre come in automatic or manual transmission with turbo overboost – you’ll feel this kick in if you give it a bit of a push in a lower gear.  Stop/start technology is on the lower end auto and both manual and auto version of the RS and RS-V. I liked the performance of the auto much more in the motokhana than on the road; but to be fair, it was a pretty challenging, winding road, and I’m very used to driving a manual.

One feature that Commodore owners will be familiar with is the Performance Mode Lift Foot (PMLF) in Sports Mode, which automatically shifts gears down while braking, then back up while accelerating, to help match revs and drive more smoothly through, and then quickly out of, corners.

Interesting, whereas the 1.4 will happy run on 91 octane fuel, the 1.6 demands 95 RON or higher. The economy is okay at 5.8 to 6.3 litres per 100km, depending on the engine and transmission mix, but beware that it has a modest-sized fuel tank, of just 48 litres’ capacity.

Holden engineers found the European tuning of the Astra didn’t work as well on Australia’s rugged roads – including gravel roads and poor-quality bitumen - so they made three particular tweaks for cars coming to Australia.

First, the anti-lock brakes, stability control and torque vectoring were tweaked for our rubbish roads. Then, the steering was also de-tuned from its direct European standards (responsive to small movements of the wheel) to make it less twitchy for Australia drivers. Finally, our love for the automatic transmission over manuals meant a chunk of work went into calibrating this. Holden didn’t elaborate on what they changed in the way the transmission shifts on Australian cars to those out of Europe.

It would be remiss not to mention the IntelliLux adaptive LED matrix headlamps, which we got to experience on a short country night drive, and which drew murmurs of admiration from even the most hardened motoring journos in our group. Similar options are already found in luxury vehicles, and these types of headlights have already captured about a quarter of the European market, so it’s only a matter of time before they become more common here.

Essentially, the lights dip and adjust direction to avoid blinding a vehicle in front of your or oncoming driver. You can see them in operation here – from behind the wheel, it’s fascinating to watch the dark ‘v’ shape form around the car in front, or the shade drop over the oncoming lane as they work. This dynamic operation means the lights can basically function in high-beam the rest of the time. So overall, you get greater visibility and improved safety, both for you and others on the road.

Holden went to pains to talk up its servicing schedule and capped pricing for the new Astra. The service interval is 15,000km or an odd nine months.

A point that’s likely to attract a little controversy is that the higher end RS and RS-V models both score a 5-star ANCAP safety rating – but not the entry-level R type. The short answer is that all the passive safety features that a buyer would expect – airbags, quality seatbelts, child seat attachment and reverse camera –are there in the R model. It’s the active safety features that are missing in the base model, that secure the 5-star rating for the higher end.

If you want these active features in the R model, you’re looking at the Driver Assistance Package that will be a cost-extra. Holden NZ cannot say when it is arriving for our models; Australia, though, says it is only available from April 2017 onwards.

You’d likely want to wait. It consists of a leather steering wheel, electro-chromatic rear view mirror and rain-sensing wipers as well as the Holden Eye forward-facing camera which incorporates Forward Collision Alert with Head-Up Warning, Automatic Emergency Braking, Lane Keep, and Forward Distance Indicator, helping you break any bad tail-gating habits.

The RS and RS-V models also have Blind Spot Assist, using sensors on the bumpers to let you know if you’re about to lane-change into the side of someone; and, Advanced Park Assist, the always – fun automatic parking option that lets you wave your hands in the air while the car backs itself into both reverse and rear-to-kerb parking spaces (you still control the speed and brake).

A few very minor compromises knock a little off the shine and it’s a shame Holden expects buyers to pay extra for all the bells and whistles, but there’s no doubt this is a good little car.

Holden has strived to make a vehicle that you can boast about driving, and this has resulted in a strong contender for design, performance and safety.