“Like a bolt from the sky…”
Clearly, some people (stand up there Kyle) liked the new Opel Astra 1.4T Enjoy Plus quite a lot. Enough, in fact, to pen a word count more commensurate with War and Peace, than our traditional introductory “Quick Drives”.
Leaving me needing to do the somewhat Longer Drive, without very much to say, apart from to, broadly speaking, agree with the overall impression.
But wait, there is actually a bit more that I can add here, so let’s get to the nitty-gritty.
The new Astra is likely to instantly adhere itself to the walls of any South African petrolheads heart. When the marque was in such disarray, GM announcing that they’d be closed, then Germany offering to save it, then GM fudging the sale which might have meant now life, and associated shenanigans, South Africa must have shown our disappointment and exasperation only a little less openly than its country of origin.
It was sad to see a car, a motoring brand name, and one packed with such a long history of being able to deliver genuine people’s champions in various segments, coming to what appeared to be an end. Then Chevy stole the Corsa Utility for itself. Surely, that could mean only one thing – the GM stable couldn’t support two lightning-flash logos, so the life-giving machine Opel had been strapped to for months, was about to be turned off for good.
And then, along came this new Astra. Who really knew what to think, about that?
I was confused. Despite the modern, softly-slashed look, news of an interesting new engine range, and tales of ingenious chassis’ and suspension setups at affordable price points, the credibility of the marque had been taking a beating. This would have to be a car which gets everything, and I mean everything, it tries to do right. Impressively right at that, if it could swing all the bad publicity into a car which people actually wanted to buy, indeed desperately wanted to love, once more.
Honestly Opel may as well have called this car the Phoenix. Because if it doesn’t rise from and soar beyond the ashes left of Opel’s proud heritage, there probably won’t be another. Easing recession or not.
So with our hopes cautiously raised, we awaited delivery of this 1.4 T Enjoy Plus even more apprehensively than we do the arrival of a new Ford/Mazda. We didn’t want to be in the position to report that Opel had failed with the new Astra, thereby consigning it to the automotive hell of say MG – a British motoring icon now bought and being mercilessly savaged by Chinese mass-production principles.
Fortunately, as Kyle has already gone into some detail of, we may have underestimated the new Astra a little bit. It turns out our fears were completely ungrounded. This car needs no wordy embellishment. It is just very good, and an impressive effort by GM to resume contention in the mid-sized hatchback wars where Generallisimo VW continues to rule the roost.
The good stuff starts straight away with the styling. The rich, purple to black “flip” paint our test car came in may have helped slightly, but we all think the new Astra is a very attractive vehicle to behold. The advertising tag-line is “Graphic art in motion” and the fusion of modern techniques with older artistic values actually sums the character of the Astra up surprisingly perfectly.
As well as some impressively powerful surface magnetism however, the new Astra gets it just right inside too. In common with the Chevrolet Cruze, the new Astra actually has an excess of interior space. It has to be some very clever packaging, because the overall size of this family hatch isn’t all that extreme, but inside it feels like a much bigger car. I’m nearly 7 feet tall, and one thing I am not used to in any car is having to click the seat forwards a couple of positions from the railstops, but the Astra is so delightfully spascious that’s exactly what I had to do, freeing up oodles of space for a normally-framed person to sit behind me in comfort! Amazing.
There’s even a commodious boot to store your luggage, so they haven’t cannibalised this space for occupant comfort.
Before even turning the engine over, the new Astra feels very impressive. It may be a GM product in name, but beneath the skin it is all German, and this shines through in the built quality. It is streets ahead of the Cruze I mentioned earlier in this regard, with one of the sweetest, slickest 6-speed manual gearboxes I’ve driven since the acclaimed transmission in the Honda Accord and Civic Type R.
Sure, this Enjoy Plus is the priciest 1.4 in the range, but for R260K there is an astonishing amount of standard kit and luxury goodies. Full leather of course, climate control (even though ours didn’t work very well), audio system with integrated Bluetooth which you interact with via one of the most user-friendly voice-command systems ever, electric controls for everything but the seats, a full complement of airbags and safety electrics, and finally and perhaps most impressive of all in this class, the FlexRide adaptive dynamic system which includes electronically-managed active dampers at each corner.
Now while in European markets the new Astra could lay claim to being the first car in this class to feature adaptive suspension, here the Alfa MiTo QV beat the German-Americans to the punch, and at a similar price point even. However unlike in the Alfa, the three driving modes which can be selected in the Opel actually work! In Sport, although the suspension doesn’t go all crashy and unruly on you, there is a tangible firming of body control and damping, the steering goes a tad weightier, and the throttle response becomes much sharper.
Uncomfortably sharp in stop-start traffic conditions, yes. So you simply hit the button above the entertainment system to select Tour mode, and everything is backed right off for totally smooth and entirely unruffled progress regardless of the strangled traffic condition you’re sitting in. The Normal mode, meanwhile, is an excellent compromise between these two extremes, with the dampers actively adjusting themselves based on the inputs of various sensors to adapt on the fly to the conditions at hand.
Further augmenting the clever FlexRide system dynamically, is a Watts linkage at the rear. These setups have been around for a long, long time, but it seldom finds itself installed onto regular road cars. Luckily we have an Alfa nut in the office, and his GTV 6 daily driver also sports a Watts linkage at the back, so he could explain it to us. Essentially, it’s like an anti-roll bar, but rather than suppressing the roll of the entire chassis, it reduces the effect of body roll on the rear axle keeping more rubber in contact with the tar during hard cornering.
Whatever the technical explanation, you can feel the effects in the Astra. This Enjoy Plus model also gets the lowered Sports chassis/suspension combo, and all together they make for a family hatch which feels even more in control than the 103kW of power being produced actually merits. That is, possibly my only real complaint with this car – it’s a little bit too civilised for my tastes. Regardless of how much of a lunatic you are behind the wheel, you’re not going to unstick the rear end for a bit of a play. You’re just not.
That little 1.4 turbo motor was described as “lethargic” by a colleague who’s opinion I quite respect, Phuti Mpyane, currently of Blaq magazine. But in this case I have to disagree. The turbocharged nature and small displacement mean that at low rpms it doesn’t have the instant grunt of say VWs twincharged 1400, but once the blower is developing some pressure the engine certainly hits harder than its capacity would suggest.
And yet, the fuel consumption whether pootling along in traffic or stretching the cars legs and kissing the limiter in each gear, stays impressively frugal. We honestly struggled, with plenty of spirited pedalling, to get it above 10l/100km. Very impressive, considering the similarly-engine MiTo QV, albeit with a healthy dollop of extra power, struggled to get below 12l/100km.
It won’t trouble GTI drivers, sure, but nat-asp 2-iltres would be in trouble lined up against this Astra, particularly here at the Reef. Cruising, this car will easily breach the 200km/h mark, and will cruise happily at this sort of speed all day long. The clever chassis does get wrong-footed occasionally at this type of speed, most notably under hard braking, but it’s nothing that being awake (which you really ought to be if you’re travelling at this velocity) won’t cure.
The sensation of driving this new Astra then, is, thankfully, absolutely brilliant. With product like this, Opel is more than still just breathing, it’s kicking and screaming and clawing its way out of the automotive manufacturer graveyard populated by the likes of TVR – in fact all of the British manufacturers really! It’s a car which will undoubtedly make a strong case for itself if you’re in the market for a R260K family hatch today and get to an Opel dealership for a test drive.
More than that, it’s a car in which you can really feel that the manufacturer is trying. And not just trying to stave off Death’s merciless scythe kind of effort either, they’re actually still working on building good cars – singing the same old Opel tune in fact! Practical, good looking, adequately sporty, very well built, and great value to boot.
For an entire nation for whom Opel was practically a local hero thanks to SA specials like the SuperBoss and Kadett/Astra 200tS, this new model is cause for massive celebration. Hopefully purchasers will be able to look beyond the rough waters the company has just come through, particularly because most of that turbulence wasn’t actually caused by Opel at all, but by its parent company, and vote for the Astra in volume. It deserves it.
Liked: Sensation of integrity
Cool tech (Voice-controlled Buetooth, FlexRide)
Lots of space, ample style.
Disliked: “Sticky” throttle now and then.
Engine: 1364cc four-cylinder turbo petrol
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Power (kW) 103 @ 4900rpm
Torque (Nm) 200 @ 1850-4900rpm
Driven wheels Front
Price R263 400
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