Price: $23,990 to $35,990
Opel Astra. The badge will be unfamiliar to most but certainly not the nameplate.
It was still an Opel Astra then, rebadged for this market, but now the model returns as the ace up the sleeve for the Australian launch of General Motors’ European division.
And Opel will need to use the Astra to good effect to achieve its ambitious target of 15,000 sales a year by 2015.
No surprises then that there will be a wealth of choice in the range that returns the Astra name to showrooms for the first time since it was replaced by the Cruze.
There’s a five-door hatchback, a three-door hatch dubbed GTC, and a wagon variant called Sports Tourer.
In Europe Opel’s financial and market struggles have seen it perform a U-turn on plans to distance itself further from sister brand Chevrolet – from where multiple models are now rebadged Holdens – and turn itself into more of a mainstream premium brand to rival the likes of Volkswagen and Volvo.
The Astra’s pricing does start higher than most of its rivals, kicking off at $23,990 for a five-door hatch. The more style-focused three-door Astra GTC also carries a fashionable premium and begins at $28,990.
All Astra models are well equipped, however, and pricing becomes more keenly positioned elsewhere in the range, though.
We tested the diesel variant that’s competitively priced from $31,990 – similarly positioned to the oil-burning versions of the Mazda3, Renault Megane and Holden Cruze, and more affordable than the comparable Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf.
With 121kW, the Astra is also the most powerful diesel in the mainstream small-car segment – if only by a single kilowatt from the diesel versions of the Focus, Cruze and Peugeot 308.
Its 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel doesn’t quite have the benchmark torque figure (360Nm shared by Mazda3 and Cruze diesels) but 350Nm is still more than handy.
Unlike the Mazda, the Astra’s diesel can also be partnered with an optional six-speed auto instead of the standard six-speed manual.
The engine lives up to its figures by providing plenty of rolling pace, and there’s enough torque down low that the driver isn’t forced to constantly row through the gears.
It’s worth changing up well before the ambitious 5000rpm redline, though, as the engine starts to run out of puff just after four-grand.
We averaged just 6.3 litres of 100km in fuel use, according to the Astra’s trip computer, which mixed freeway cruising with more spirited country road driving and allowed few opportunities to use the engine stop-start system that is standard on the manual diesel Astra.
The engine is relatively quiet, too, kicking over at just 1750rpm at 110km/h.
Wind noise is more of an issue at higher speeds while there’s also a prominent rumble from the 17-inch Contintental tyres of the mid-range Astra Select we tested.
That rubber provides generous grip, however, complementing handling that is composed if lacking the sharpness of class leaders the Focus and Mazda3.
Dynamically, the Astra’s vague steering is its Achilles heel. There’s a fair bit of play around the straight-ahead position and the wheel needs almost constant attention with inputs from the driver to keep the car straight even on freeways.
The Opel Astra is based on the same platform as the Holden Cruze that’s built in Australia, and employs a similar front-struts-and-rear-torsion-beam suspension arrangement.
There’s a firmish ride but the Astra is well damped and it copes well with big hits, though first impressions suggest the Opel isn’t as compliant on typical Australian roads as a VW Golf or Hyundai i30.
At 4419mm, the Opel Astra is one of the bigger models in the hatchback section.
Thankfully it’s not wasted because there’s a deep boot (though with a temporary spare wheel) and, whether you sit in the front or rear, there’s ample headroom (yes, despite that sloping rear roofline) and legroom.
The rear seat (with split-folding seatbacks) seems broad enough to accommodate three adults without excessive shoulder-rubbing.
The seatback and bench are also firm like the front seats, but positively so. Our Astra test car was even fitted with a driver’s seat that is certified by an independent German ergonomics group.
It forms part of a Leather Sports Seat Pack that costs $2500 and also brings heated front seats, front seat cushion extenders, leather trim and a rear centre armrest with ski port.
Our Astra review car came with a $4500 Prestige Pack that includes the aforementioned Leather Sports Seat Pack and also adds bi-xenon headlights with adaptive forward lighting, and LED daytime running lights.
Sat-nav with a 7-inch colour display and a seven-speaker set-up can be thrown into the mix by buying the $1250 Navigation Pack.
Every Opel Astra hatch comes with six airbags, active headrests and stability control as standard, as well as a five-star independent crash rating from NCAP.
Stepping up to the mid-range Select brings a 132kW 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine into play as an alternative to the 2.0-litre diesel that costs $4000 more than the diesel version of the base hatch.
There’s pleny of extra equipment, though, including bigger (17-inch) alloy wheels, auto on/off headlamps, automatic wipers, parking sensors at both ends, foglamps, higher-quality seat material, individual climate control for driver and front passenger, electric parking brake and leather steering wheel.
The Opel Astra Sport, the range-topper of the hatch line-up, also aims to live up to its trim name by employing a lower and stiffer suspension set-up plus the option of adaptive shock absorbers for $2000.
[Our pricing and specification guide provides more detailed information on the full Opel Astra range.]
The interior, regardless of what options are fitted, is a step up over Astra cabins of old. The perception of quality is elevated by soft plastics used for the top of the dash and door trims, smooth textures used for the centre stack buttons, and a generally classy feel and look to the Astra’s switchgear.
There’s also useful storage, a four-way-adjustable steering wheel includes multi function buttons, and the trip computer offers a range of information including a digital speedo.
Red ambient lighting under the gearbox that matches the illumination of the dash controls and instrument cluster is also a smart touch.
It all adds up to a package that, while not as sharply priced across the range as it could be and short of the Golf’s all-round class, makes the Opel Astra a worthy consideration for small-car buyers.
The Astra name deserves to be back.