Astra R hatch: When the cheapest fare pays off

The R manual is the cheapest Astra hatch on the market. In many ways it’s also potentially the best version here.

For: Great drivetrain, good chassis, smart looker.

Against: No AEB, driver’s seat lacks support.

FAIR to suggest, surely, that deep down, no-one really enjoys truly budget travel?

Sure, the idea of saving bucks sounds great when you’re talking it up with your mates over a pre-flight beer and, assuredly, unlike some of my colleagues who sniff at anything less than Business Class I'm happy to take a seat in regular economy.

But what I'm talking about are those outfits that specialise in cutting everything to the bone, supposedly to the benefit of the customer. Seems to me that, bottom of the gut, you know it’s a risk when going with a crowd whose entire operation seems to be fuelled by the passenhger having spent less. There’s so much desperate wishfulness involved.

Will the flight take off on time? Will it take off at all? Crikey, is the plane airworthy? Have I misread the baggage allowance and will my credit card cover the penalty? Will the queues be interminable? Will the seats be tiny? Will mine be right beside the bathroom? Can I REALLY last ‘x’ hours without food or a movie while squashed between two Sumos who think the word ‘shower’ only applies to rainfall? And even though I can see that the plane is departing at 6am, surely it’s an error that check-in closes at 3am? Is the airport even open then? Actually, where is that airport …?

And so on …

Personally, not for me.

Budget cars? Things are looking up. Sure, you can still travel cheap and cheerful, but gone are the days when mid-alphabet single letter boot designations meant vinyl everything, more blanks on the dash than switches, hand-operated winders for the windows and a safety story that ran to a single word, ‘seatbelt.’ Today thrifty spending can buy a decent seat.

In saying that, the Holden Astra R nonetheless feels more special than average; it’s as welcoming as that out-of-the-blue upgrade to Premium Economy. Not full-blown luxury, but better than where you expected to be for the money, overall a $30,990 package brimming with goodness.

With a catch that’ll be a turn-off to most. To get so much for so relatively little you’re flying off-peak, buying into a gearbox that most people don’t want any more. The manual transmission represents an unknown destination for so many; most learner drivers nowadays simply sidestep it altogether.

Whether that’s a good thing I cannot say, but I do think the Astra’s three-pedal, shift-it-yourself setup potentially would not be too difficult for any novice to come to terms with. If anything, a master of the manual might not like it as much as newbie, as the clutch travel is generous and not as bitey as some, while the stick is a little vague in its cog-to-cog movement.

There is a six-speed auto in reserve, but it carries a premium and, for all its flexibility and greater friendliness to the unco-ordinated, is also less able to unlock the full potential and best traits of the engine it marries to.

This 1.4-litre turbo petrol is the smallest mill in the Astra family, but that doesn’t stop it from impressing as quite potentially the best engine that GM produces at the moment.

Don’t confuse it with the like-capacity unit in the Korean-built, US-Euro-flavoured Trax. That one used to be seem okay, but it’s definitely shown up by this new 1399cc Opel-developed unit, with respectable outputs of 110kW at 5000rpm and 240Nm at 2400rpm though it’s willingness is such you’d honestly think it was even more potent.

In some ways, this is a better engine, also, than the 1.6-litre that fronts up into the pricier RS and RS-V Astras.

All the good characteristics of a small turbo engine are here: It is energetic off the line and yet seems to save its actual muscularity for the mid-range, so it therefore has enough not just to provide a relaxed cruising nature but also quite surprisingly dollop of overtaking urge in reserve. There’s a ‘sport’ mode button that is worth using; it probably only alters the throttle mapping slightly, but the engine sounds and feels crisper all the same.

All up, then, though there’s less outright verve than the 1.6 delivers, the smaller capacity unit just comes across as the more spirited, more vivacious choice. Even though it thrives on revs, it is clearly also meeting the low running cost obligation that would be expected of it, not least from fleet operators.

Whereas the 1.6, in my experience, tends to struggle to reach the factory-cited economy figures, the 1.4 has ability to go the other way – so, while my overall average was slightly above the maker’s claimed 5.8 litres per 100km optimal, there were times on the longest drive when it was indicating well under that when on a steady 100kmh cruise. Certainly, too, a full tank from Auckland didn’t require refreshing until some days after the 580km run.

I can speak confidently about this from having clocked up more kilometres with this car than I generally would expect to during test, through circumstance beyond control. First of all, the drive started ahead of schedule – returning from an overseas event with Holden (the release, in Australia, of the Astra sedan – which is less involving to drive than the hatch), and finding myself fog-bound at Auckland airport, the hatch was offered by comms manager and all-round good guy Ed Finn as a last-moment solution to get me home to the Manawatu. A five-hour late Saturday drive instead of a one-hour flight that didn’t seem likely to ever happen proved really enjoyable: The further I drove it, the more this car got under my skin.

So, anyway, it came home … and, erm, because it was already somewhat surplus to press vehicle schedules, kinda stayed for weeks longer than would normally be the case. Even our cunning plan for another personal handover, this involving Ed and the Finn family coming down to stay with us and leave a Trailblazer in the drive (with them going home in the hatch) fell apart after the whole of the central North Island snowed in and we fell victim to an awful flu. Anyway, it’s gone now … and we still miss it.

Why? I guess you could sum it up as honesty of character. Plus, I quite liked the way it looks.

As an entry car, the R isn’t intended to look particularly glam, of course. It goes very light on the shiny bits – losing almost all the chrome-look bits from further up the range - has quite functional-looking wheels and is on the smallest (225/45 R17) tyres and delivers an interior dressed relatively plainly, with a hard-wearing cloth for the seats and a lot of dark, mainly unadorned plastics.

And, yet, such is the quality of the design execution and the sophistication of the shape that, even though ours was in rental/rep-mobile home appliance white, it still imparted as quite a good-looking exemplar of Euro flair. In a way, the stark contrast offered by the black trim and grille enhanced the impression that it’s no mere whitegoods on wheels.

That impression carries through the driving environment, which with one exception, is really nicely tailored for a good driving experience. It’s always a good start when you can adjust the steering column in both axes, as here, and Opel has also nicely sorted small things, like the shape and feel of the pedals. Despite it having a longish throw, the gearstick also falls nicely to hand, too.

What isn’t so good is that, while the seat has the adjustability range to suit all shapes and arm and leg lengths, the chair itself is not brilliant for shape or support. That initial drive, and several other decent hitouts that followed, left impression that it could do with better lower back support. At least the cushioning is pretty good; Euros like firm seats and, though initially you have to wonder if that’s the right way to go for comfort, I can assure that it really works out the right way.

The ergonomics of the front part of the cabin are also pretty decent and that will be appreciated, because this is not a sparsely-equipped car. Okay, the best part of the functionality relies on you having a smart phone, because without that you cannot use the Apple CarPlay (or Android Auto) that opens up the sat nav functionality and, of course, a range of media opportunities.

The back seats are harder than the fronts, but nicely scalloped and there’s reasonable legroom and decent headroom. Lots of hard plastics back there. The 370-litre boot is fine for the class. There’s also only a space-saver spare under the boot floor. There are more practical hatches, though it's acceptable.

There’s one area of technological advancement that the R does not share with the more expensive variants.

All Astras take ABS, stability and traction controls and feature a host of airbags, but the impressive five star safety rating from the independent Australian New Car Assessment Programme (ANCAP), applies only to the mid-range Astra RS and flagship RS-V, both which have autonomous emergency braking and lane-keeping assist, which helped them to earn a couple of crucial extra points.

The base Astra R lacks these features as standard equipment so was not rated because the initial test data was taken from NCAP tests in Europe where Opel does not sell an R equivalent.

I think AEB is an important feature but wasn’t too worried about driving a car without it. However, fleet managers might feel differently, given that they do tend to take heed of advice from the Government and local safety agency recommendations which do now back this proven accident-avoiding ingredient. The base car can be updated to take the camera-based active safety kit, but only at time of manufacture. And it’s a $1500 hit; not a big cost but enough to jeopardise the car’s value when measured against others chasing that fleet dollar.

But the driving dynamic will appeal, nonetheless. Opel used to sit well behind the likes of Volkswagen and Peugeot when it came to sorting chassis feel; basically, a lot of their previous cars just weren’t as ‘Euro’ as you’d want them to be. The Astra demonstrates that those days are over – it’s no wonder that Peugeot-Citroen owner PSA has now snapped up Opel. On the strength of what the base Astra delivers, the Frenchies need simply swap out the German badge for their own: This car is, in my view, dynamically superior to the latest 308. It also somewhat shows up the Ford Focus and VW Golf. The Toyota Corolla that so often heads the sales charts here? Huh, it’s not even a rival in this respect, frankly.

Actually, I can’t just give credit to the German suspension engineers. The base car’s MacPherson strut front, Watt's linkage at the rear has been given a good makeover by Holden's engineers in Australia, too. Those people are great at their job, too.

It’s not an outright sporty car; but it is one drivers will love. But not to the point where passengers might be seeking another ride. It can be driven at pace without any discomfort to the car or its occupants.

The main attraction here, though, is not just that it holds the road well and corners with a real confidence. The best result is from the ride tuning; the damper and spring settings are cleverly chosen. There’s a clear mandate to achieve reasonable urban comfort, but it’s no softy: Hit a challenging country road and you’ll be impressed how it’s tuned to both round off sharp hits yet never feel spongey. That means the body control remains remarkably good. Noise suppression is also excellent.

All in all, the R package is – in most respects – better than it has a right to be. If you just want a car that drives well and ticks all the basics, then the RS and RS-V Astras that respectively each represent $3k steps up the pricing ladder are going to be left gathering dust.

The money you save could go toward a decent holiday. And a decent seat on the plane.