Apparently this is a big deal – it’s the 2017 Holden Astra, the seventh-generation model bearing that nameplate to be sold in Australia.
From its early roots as a badge-engineered offshoot of the Nissan Pulsar to the glory days of the late 1990s and early 2000s when the Holden Astra ran second only to the Toyota Corolla in the small car segment with 28,500 sales (in 2001), the new model is, the brand claims, vital.
Described by Peter Keley, Holden executive director of sales, as “one of the pillars of the Holden range going forward”, this new-generation Astra replaces the Cruze in the line-up as the brand’s small hatch offering; its fighter in the ring alongside the aforementioned Corolla, Hyundai i30, Mazda 3 and a dozen other small cars on the market.
The new Astra is on sale December 1, with the range encompassing three variants: the entry-level R, the mid-spec RS, and the top-spec RS-V. All three have downsized turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engines – the R with a 1.4-litre, the RS and RS-V with a punchier 1.6-litre.
On all versions, there’s the choice of six-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearboxes, but the auto models are still a few months away from arriving - the brand estimates auto models will roll off the boats and into showrooms by March or April. Holden couldn’t wait for the media to get through some of the cars in order to drum up some much needed interest, so it arranged for us to drive a bunch of Astras in various trim levels this week, in and around Canberra.
The entry-level R was first on our list, with the manual version kicking off more expensive than many rivals at $21,990 plus on-road costs, while the auto is a $24,190 offering. According to Holden’s site, that makes prospective drive-away pricing for the manual of $25,312, and approximately $27,500 for the auto.
Consider this: a Hyundai i30 Active auto hatch has been on sale for almost half of this year at $19,990 drive-away. It makes the Astra look expensive, but it certainly doesn't feel expensive when you slide inside, in spite of the brand’s reckoning that this is a “premium sports hatch”.
The base model R, for instance, misses out on a leather-wrapped steering wheel – you get a gross polyurethane one instead – and no Astra has a leather-wrapped gear knob, either. The Astra R misses out on climate control – there are manual knobs instead – has a single USB input where competitors offer up to three, and it lacks LED tail-lights. There’s no autonomous emergency braking system like you’ll find in a base model Mazda 3, either.
You do get a 7.0-inch touchscreen media unit with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (neither of those in a Mazda 3, but you get Apple connectivity in a base i30), and it has DAB+ digital radio standard, and a digital speedometer as part of the driver information screen. But the interior – while reasonably smart – doesn’t feel especially premium or overly sporty.
The 7.0-inch media screen looks a few years old already, and the 8.0-inch version in the higher-spec models gets a different graphics pack, and has satellite navigation - and it looks even older, with pixelated menus and mismatched fonts. At least the connectivity was faultless on test.
Sure, the cloth seats are nice and they offer good support and adjustment, and the plastics quality is by no means offensive – there is a soft padded section on the dash top and the tops of the front doors (not the rears – they have hard plastics) and there is a bit of shiny piano black around the cabin, but that marks easily with fingerprints.
There are other things it doesn’t do great: there’s a lack of centre console storage – in the base model there are two cup holders between the front seats without a cover (you get a roll-top in the more expensive variants), and there’s a small covered bin, but that’s it – and under the A/C controls there’s a weird little slot that you could maybe fit a small phone in, but really it’s a waste of space. At least the door pockets are big up front, and they're large enough in the rear for a bottle on either side, too.
The space in the back seat is good for adults, with enough room for a taller occupant to sit behind a six-foot driver quite comfortably, with good leg, head and toe room. The rear seat is nicely scalloped for support, too, so the occupant space is good, even if the seat squab is a little low and short for those of us with longer legs. It is a pretty bland space in the rear seat, and its 370-litre boot is fine for the class, but short of the VW Golf (380L) and shallow in terms of depth - big suitcases mightn't fit on their sides. There's a space-saver spare under the boot floor.
It has some other nice bits to it, mainly on the outside. There is a rear-view camera (you don’t get that in a Mazda 3 Neo) and rear sensors, and the car rolls on 17-inch alloys as standard. It has LED daytime running lights, and the headlights will automatically turn on or off, too.
But even if you opt for the leather-clad seats of the RS-V, you still miss out on electric seat adjustment (there is electric lumbar only), and no Astra comes with auto-up windows for all four doors – huh, just like a Mazda 3! – and nor can you get paddle-shifters, even in the hottest Astra.
The RS and RS-V models get extra safety kit, including forward collision warning and AEB, lane-keeping assistance, blind-spot warning, and rain-sensing wipers. All Astra models come with six airbags (dual front, front side and full-length curtain), and there's a five-star ANCAP score for the top two models.
As for the drive experience – well, it's pretty darn good. Our stint in both the manual and automatic versions of the 1.4-litre R model impressed us.
The little engine churns out 110kW of power and either 245Nm (manual) or 240Nm (auto), and no matter whether you’re changing gears yourself or allowing the job to be done for you, there’s good response, even with four adults on board.
The manual model has a good clutch action and the shift is light, but the throw is a bit long. The automatic offered good shifts, keeping up with the terrain nicely and also holding gears impressively up steeper inclines.
The Astra R steered and handled bumps well, too – Holden’s local engineers did the steering tune to suit Aussie inclinations, and with good results. It is quick in corners, nicely responsive at high and low speeds, and there’s even a decent amount of feel through the wheel over country back roads.
The suspension wasn’t tuned to Australian roads (the Hyundai i30 and Kia Cerato are), but the Euro tune offers very good compliance. Hit a big enough pothole that you grit your teeth in preparation for the crunch, and you’ll be surprised that there isn’t a crash – it rides over these sorts of bumps very well. Smaller inconsistencies in the road surface can jiggle the cabin a bit, but it’s never uncomfortably firm – it is assured.
The refinement is good, too: the drivetrain is pretty quiet, with minimal engine noise intrusion or vibration (and a stop-start system that works seamlessly in the auto model), while the wind noise and road noise are at reasonably good levels for the class, too.
The high-spec RS-V offers warm-hatch levels of grunt – 147kW of power and 300Nm of torque on overboost – and it rewards with rapid acceleration and strong performance (as well as a thirst for premium 95RON fuel, unlike the 1.4 which can run on regular).
Wring out the engine in first, then second, and you’re already at the speed limit, and only about seven seconds will have elapsed by the time you get there. It’s quite rewarding. And if you’re in the auto (which was a special request from Holden, because Opel wasn't going to offer the 1.6 with an automatic ‘box initially), you are again rewarded with smart shifts.
There’s a different steering wheel for the high-spec version when equipped with the radar cruise control, and there’s a bigger driver information screen in colour (rather than monochrome on the R). That’s handy, because you’ll have to watch your speed.
The leather-lined seats remain nicely supportive and not slippery, and the handling in the high-spec model is further enhanced by a larger 18-inch wheel package with Bridgestone Turanza rubber (not that the Michelin Primacy 3 tyres on the 17s were lacking much).
As an RS-V the chuckability of the Astra remains good, with nice accuracy and pointiness that is made better by engaging the Sport mode, which changes the steering weight and response speeds. It also adjusts the throttle response and gearbox calibration, and makes for a fairly cracking drive experience, let down only by a mere hint of torque-steer under hard throttle.
There is some software helping out: the electronic stability control features a torque-vectoring system that helps pull you around corners by braking the inside wheels. You can hear it nipping at the brakes if you listen closely, too.
We drove the RS-V equipped with the IntelliLux adaptive LED matrix headlights, which can block out oncoming cars or cars ahead when the automatic high-beam lights are on. They worked well on a dark country road at night, and we had an identically equipped car behind us that didn’t dazzle us with its high-beams.
Those lights are only available on the RS-V, and even then you have to fork out $3990 for the option pack in which they’re bundled – it includes a sunroof (not a full glass panoramic roof like you see in the i30) and adaptive cruise control. If you don’t want the lights, you can just get the other two items for $1990.
And for buyers concerned about the cost of servicing a turbocharged European-sourced hatch, Holden has moved to allay your fears. The Holden Astra will cost just $916 to service over three years or 60,000km, with maintenance due every nine months of 15,000km.
On the whole, the 2017 Holden Astra comes across as a good small car, but maybe not a great one.
It is competent and confidence-inspiring in the way it drives, with willing drivetrains and great levels of driver involvement – which could be enough to get some buyers through the door. Based on our first impressions, it is the best small car Holden has had for a long time.
But we can’t see it step up into a class-leading role. If Holden adds some attractive drive-away deals to pull the price down, particularly at the entry level, it could push towards a great purchase. Perhaps we’ll have to see how it stacks up against its competitors soon, then...