2016 Holden (Opel) Astra Review

The 2016 Holden Astra is still a few months away, so while we wait for local tuning, specification and pricing, James takes the opportunity to take the European car for a bit of a spin.
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The launch of the all-new 2016 Holden Astra has been a bit of a drawn out tease for us in Australia.

Not so much for buyers, who have plenty to choose from in the small-but-roomy hatchback marketplace, but for Holden who, aside from Commodore, don’t really have a world-class car hero-ing their showrooms at the moment.

Oh sure, the new Spark is good… but that’s pretty much it. Forgetting the locally developed Commodore suite (which is what Holden seems to be trying their best to do at the moment), everything else is an old hand-me-down from GM’s global Skymall catalog.

In the competitive small-car segment, the venerable Cruze is set to end production in just a few month’s time, leaving the door wide open for some shiny new metal.

And that new car is the seventh-generation GM-Europe Astra which was launched at the Frankfurt Motorshow in September 2015.

While we do score the ‘current’ three-door Astra offerings, the last five-door was here in 2013 wearing an Opel badge. There hasn’t been a ‘Holden’ Astra since 2009.

Local cars are still a few months away, but for good reason. As with the Cruze, Holden’s local engineering department is tuning the suspension and handling characteristics to suit Australian road and driving conditions. They are pretty good at this, as if you have ever driven a Cruze in North America (or any other market for that matter) you would swear it is a totally different car to the Australian version.

GM itself has said that the Australian Cruze was the best-built in the world. Although they may have had their Spinal Tap training and just said that everywhere they went… but we know that Holden can tune the way a car drives as well as anyone, but what is the rest of it like?

Tim drove the 2016 Astra range at the launch, but we felt with the local car edging ever closer, we would re-acquaint ourselves with the European version to see if the wait is going to be worth it.

Our test car is a pretty-basic ‘Selective’ specification so there are no fancy driver aids or other techno whizbangs to distract and confuse things. Powered by a 1.6-litre 110kW/300Nm turbo diesel and six-speed manual transmission, it lists for around €21,000 (A$32,000) which puts it in between European pricing of a Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla.

Interestingly it is exactly the same price as a similarly equipped Volkswagen Golf.

On the outside, even in black (an optional metallic paint colour) with the basic 16-inch alloy wheels and halogen headlamps, the 2016 Astra is a sharp looking car. The C-pillar features a black ‘floating roof’ section not unlike the Range Rover Evoque or Mazda CX-3.

It’s a modern looking hatch, and a huge leap forward from the look of the now ageing Cruze. All models receive LED running lamps, and high-end cars are fitted with intelligent LED matrix headlights.

Inside the cabin is smart and uncluttered, a total departure from the button-a-geddon that greets you in the current Australian market Astra GTC, VXR and Cascada models.

The leather steering wheel with its familiar audio and cruise control functions is nice to hold, and the instruments, with their subtle white-blue glow, are smart and clear. The central LCD display is still pretty basic, but the trip information, digital speed reading and tyre-pressure monitoring data is all easy to read and accessed from the buttons on the stalk.

Central to the dash is a seven-inch colour touch screen that offers standard Bluetooth and mobile device ‘projections’ through Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. These negate the need for navigation packages on low-end models and it is seamless to use.

Even the native media-playing capability is clean and simple, offering such niceties as album cover artwork when a USB device is connected.

The buttons below the screen control track selection and core menu functions, but the hazard switch is all the way to the right, making it a bit of a reach from the driver’s seat (in a left-hand drive car). We expect the local car not to mirror the layout, so for once this seems to be better suited to right rather than left drive cars.

While our car had basic air conditioning rather than climate control, the functions were easy to use and the dials easy to adjust on the move.

So sparse is the cabin, that I spent a few seconds yanking on the kitchen-drawer style handle below the HVAC before realising it wasn’t a storage cubby, but a mounting bracket. Called the Powerflex bar (must have been a biiiig lunch for Opel marketing that day…), the bracket is designed to connect a range of clip-on accessories to further enhance your ‘Astra experience’.

Currently an air fragrance diffuser and smartphone holder are the only two items available. They clip onto the bar, giving you the freedom to add or remove the accessories as you need. It’s an interesting idea, particularly the universal phone holder when considering the power it gives the infotainment screen… but we’ll see how things go in Australian specification cars before passing final judgement.

For mine, it still just looks like a drawer handle to a cubby that doesn't open…

You also score twin cup holders and a 12-volt outlet on the console, and there is a USB connection in the central storage bin.

The cloth seats are comfortable but not massive stand outs. They are the most basic in adjustment (back-angle rake only) in the range but did handle 600-odd kilometres of touring without causing any issues.

In the back, room is decent enough for adults and fine for children. There are ISOFIX points but no vents, map pockets or even an arm rest in our low-end car. That said, Miss Seven spent a whole day comfortably hanging out back there with just a variety of soft-toys and an iPad to keep her company. There were no complaints about the seat padding and the bottle holders in the doors are a good size.

The boot is a reasonable 370-litres (down 10-litres on a Golf) but is shallower than some so would not take a large suitcase standing on its side (as the Peugeot 308 will). The seats split 60:40 and there is no under-floor storage.

Other materials around the cabin are also pretty good. There are plenty of shared GM buttons and interfaces, but gone are the hollow sounding plastics of some of the 'Holden' products we know.

In general, the Astra feels very ‘European’ where ever you touch. It’s no Audi, but for a car in this segment the Astra is as good, if not better than most. As a package, even in our basic car, the new Astra is a much more up-market cabin than what we are used to with the Cruze.

One thing that did impress more than most was the lack of sun reflection from the soft-touch dash-top. It’s something that can become very distracting when driving, particularly in Australia, so to see the material selection take this into account is a welcome addition.

On the road, the 1.6-diesel pulls well and the six-speed manual is light and easy to use. The shifter has a neat trigger to engage reverse, doing away with any complex ‘lift or push before shoving’ movements we have seen over the years.

Power comes on smoothly in all gears and the Astra is as easy to potter around town as it is to tour on the highway. Noise was not intrusive and the little diesel was happy to stay in sixth-gear for acceleration above 100km/h. We spent much of the day on cruise control at over 130km/h and the car didn’t miss a beat.

Opel and Vauxhall both claim a greenhouse-friendly 3.6L/100km for the 100kW 1.6 on a combined cycle and we saw a little higher at 4.5L/100km. Considering that was a lot of high-speed touring (which isn’t as economical as a flat 100km/h stint) over about 500km, it is an impressive figure.

It was a very easy car to drive and at no time felt 'lesser' to any of the other higher-end Euro hatchbacks in their base trim.

Where the Astra does need work is that local suspension tuning. The ride on our 16-inch wheels was a bit light and floaty, particularly when under undulating load conditions. Rolling around a right-to-left bend at around 70km/h, the car ‘dropped’ off an expansion joint and wafted into the direction change like the shocks were filled with jelly.

This was an extreme situation however, and not something easily nor regularly repeatable. For the most part the Astra cruised along quite happily.

The ride is not uncomfortable by any means, in fact the Astra very much errs toward the softer side. It just isn’t as direct and connected to the drive experience as cars like the Mazda 3.

It isn’t quite an Achilles heel, it’s more like Opel sending an unfinished jigsaw puzzle to the Holden engineers to finish off. Probably the hard bits, big patches of sky – the stuff only fanatics enjoy…

Overall, the 2016 Opel Astra is a very accomplished car. It is what it needs to be to compete in this crowded segment. And from the look of the brochures, the up-spec cars might make some of the main players lift their game somewhat.

As a Holden, I dare say it will be even better, and that’s a good thing.

For the lion to have a vehicle in its range that can be spoken of in the same sentence as ‘Volkswagen’ is something that hasn’t happened for a while. It’s the first real step towards the new ‘Holden’ we’ve all been waiting for.

The success of the Astra though lies firmly in Holden’s camp. It’s a great product that we are sure the local crew will make even better. As long as head office doesn’t mess up with specification or pricing, the 2017 Holden Astra (as it will likely be) should be a welcome addition to Australian roads.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by James Ward.