Tim heads to Europe for the international launch of the all-new Astra hatch.
The return of the Holden Astra hatch to Australia in the second half of next year marks the beginning of the brand’s Europe-led revival in earnest.
The all-new Astra five-door will become Holden’s first volume model from German sister brand Opel under its plan to launch two dozen new or revised vehicles before the end of the decade. It follows the niche Astra GTC and VXR coupes, the Cascada convertible and the Insignia VXR sports sedan that arrived earlier this year.
The Holden Astra five-door hatch will rejoin the brand’s line-up after a seven-year absence, during which time the outgoing model was sold by Opel for little more than a year in its failed attempt to crack the local market in 2012/2013.
But back with lion badges (though not in the images you see here, as we drove the near-identical Opel version) and as a completely new vehicle, Holden has high hopes for its compact hatch that will go head to head with the likes of the Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, Hyundai i30 and Volkswagen Golf.
At 4370mm long, the new Astra is 50mm shorter than before, yet improved packaging efficiency means there’s an extra 35mm of rear legroom and no less boot space (370 litres). Overall height also dips 25mm, yet there’s above average headroom for those in the back. Combine these with a very comfortable rear bench and the Astra quickly gets a tick from passengers three, four and (for short trips) five.
The dimension changes don’t end there, either, and are even better news for the person behind the wheel.
Australian-spec Astra hatches will be up to 130 kilograms lighter than the previous-generation car. Those familiar with the old Astra could be forgiven for supposing most of that weight has been saved by removing the seemingly thousands of buttons from its dashboard, but the truth is the majority has been stripped from the body shell and chassis through the use of lighter, yet stronger, metals. Less mass translates to improved fuel economy and, theoretically, better dynamic performance (more on this soon).
Pulling weight out has allowed the new Astra’s creators to add more equipment in.
Headlining the new specification list are the Astra’s adaptive LED matrix headlights, which are firsts for a compact car. The LEDs shine bright white light, automatically switching between low and high beams, and can remain in high beam with traffic around by cleverly and effectively blocking the sections of light pointed towards oncoming vehicles or those ahead travelling in the same direction. It's the same tech seen in Mercedes-Benz models 15 times the price of the Astra.
At the top of the windscreen sits a forward-facing camera that’s the heart of the Astra’s advanced active safety suite, which includes traffic sign assistant, lane keep assist with lane departure warning, following distance indication, and forward collision alert with collision-imminent braking. The Astra’s autonomous emergency braking system works at speeds between 8km/h and 80km/h, and can stop the car completely to avoid a crash at speeds below 40km/h.
The Astra can also take control of the steering wheel to guide itself into parallel and perpendicular parking spaces semi-automatically.
Holden is expected to offer most of this technology to local customers, though the brand plans to confirm specifications closer to the car’s arrival next year.
The tech continues inside where the Astra benefits from the IntelliLink infotainment system that’s available with 7.0- and 8.0-inch touchscreens with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration software. We sampled the larger screen and found it clear to read and much simpler to use than the old car’s button-heavy system. Twin USB charging ports for back-seat passengers are a handy modern inclusion.
Overseas models will also get the OnStar connected services suite from launch, which includes an automatic crash response function, 24-hour emergency call service, 24-hour concierge call service, roadside assistance, stolen vehicle assistance, and a 4G Wi-Fi hotspot. Holden is determined to bring these features Down Under too, but admits the connected technology is between two and four years from local showrooms.
Back-seat comfort is eclipsed in the front where the Astra gets soft and supportive seats certified by Germany’s independent AGR (Campaign for Healthier Backs). The most feature-packed pews get ventilation and massage functions, and 18-way electric adjustment including side bolster adjust, although disappointingly there’s no height adjustment for the seatbelt.
Overall interior quality is good but not quite class leading. There are nice soft-touch surfaces lining the doors, dashboard and kneepads of the centre console, but the indicator and wiper stalks feel plasticky and clacky, and the silver highlights throughout the cabin are painted plastic rather than actual metal.
Interior storage space is likewise adequate but not as generous as some small hatches.
The Astra’s engineers have been a little more generous under the bonnet, with Australian customers to be given the choice of two four-cylinder turbocharged, direct-injection petrol engines, including a brand-new 1.4-litre and an uprated 1.6-litre.
The smaller of the two produces 110kW of power between 5000-5600rpm as well as 230Nm of torque between 2000-4000rpm when paired with the standard six-speed manual transmission and 235Nm at the same engine speeds with the optional six-speed auto. It’s claimed to propel the Astra from 0-100km/h in 8.5-9.0 seconds and consume 4.9-5.4 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle (the manual is both quicker and more fuel efficient).
The larger engine (an updated version of the one currently powering the Astra GTC) churns out a meatier 147kW at 5500rpm and 280Nm between 1650-3500rpm, which increases to 300Nm on overboost. It accelerates to triple figures in 7.8sec and uses 5.9L/100km on the combined cycle.
The 1.4 stands out for its refinement. Revved out to 4000rpm it can still barely be heard from inside the cabin. At these engine speeds it feels enthusiastic, too, though it’s unfortunately a little underwhelming lower down, lacking gusto, as well as any real character.
The 1.6 is noisier than the 1.4, but also significantly punchier and more versatile, pulling well from low down and feeling far stronger through its mid range. For these reasons, it’s likely to resound more with Australian buyers.
With no automatics available to test on the European launch, we sampled only the manual and found it to be a clean shifter with a nice, light feel to the clutch pedal.
Holden’s engineering team will get the opportunity to develop unique steering and suspension tunes for the Astra, and our early testing suggest there’s work to be done to suit Australian driving preferences and conditions.
There’s play in the steering around the straight-ahead position at anything beneath Autobahn speeds. It lacks the precision and engagement of the more dynamic cars in the class such as the Ford Focus and Mazda 3.
The benefits of its diet are obvious, however, with the Astra feeling nicely light and nimble – significantly more so than the hefty GTC coupe.
There’s also room for improvement in terms of ride comfort. Rolling on 17- and 18-inch wheels with 45- and 40-aspect tyres respectively, the Astra felt busy over the patchy roads of Bratislava that aren’t too dissimilar from those found throughout Sydney’s inner-city suburbs. Bumps tend not to jolt the cabin, but affect it enough to make the Astra feel frumpy.
The Holden Astra will bring with it crisp German styling, a spacious cabin with comfortable seats, modern infotainment systems, advanced safety and convenience technologies, efficient engines, and perhaps most importantly, a fondly remembered household name when it arrives as the long-term successor to the locally made Cruze hatch.
On first impressions the new Astra feels like a competent small car, though not one that takes the game a long way forward in any significant way. Consider us very keen to test it in Australia in 12 months’ time, however, when hopefully the local tuning and promised competitive pricing and equipment levels make it a more impressive all-rounder.