The return of the Holden Astra as a big-selling, small hatch exemplifies a pivotal moment for a brand in transition.
Already well down the path of becoming a full importer once the Australian factory finally closes near the end of 2017, Holden is now hitting the re-set button on its tired range.
Key is the Poland-made Holden Astra hatch, sold in Europe as an Opel and the UK as a Vauxhall, which returns here in new-generation five-door form after a long hiatus.
This latest iteration of the Astra, awarded 2016 European Car of the Year by a jury of motoring press, is meant to have equivalent or better design (it looks sharp for a base car, right?), technology and dynamics.
Thankfully, spending about 600km behind the wheel left this writer in little doubt that the 2017 Holden Astra has what it takes to do more than just make up the numbers.
Here we test the baseline Astra R, priced at $21,990 plus on-road costs with six-speed manual gearbox. The six-speed auto adds $2200, but the majority of punters will buy this version.
Under the bonnet of the new Astra is a familiar engine, a 1.4-litre turbo-petrol making a very respectable for the class 110kW of power between 5000 and 5600rpm, and 240Nm of torque between 2000 and 4000rpm. These figures beat a 92 TSI Golf.
All the good characteristics of a small turbo engine are here: strong pulling power from low engine speeds, a muscular mid-range and a relaxed cruising nature. You can hustle the Astra off the line quickly enough to spin the wheels briefly, and take advantage of traffic gaps with alacrity. The sport mode button alters the throttle mapping, but only slightly.
Fuel consumption is also reasonable. The factory claim on the combined cycle is 5.8L/100km, though we returned 8.2L/100km over our route. But since this had plenty of stop-start traffic and aggressive dynamic driving in equal dose, this is reasonable. You can also use cheaper 91 RON fuel unlike most Euros.
The engine's power and torque on our tester is sent to the swish multi-spoke 17-inch front wheels (shod with decent quality Bridgestone Turanza tyres) via a very Euro-focused six-speed manual gearbox with a rather long throw, but a well-weighted clutch. There's an anti-rollback hill-start assist system.
The six-speed auto is a conventional unit with a torque converter, and colleague Matt rated it quite highly in terms of urban smoothness and responsiveness on inclines in his Astra launch review.
Dynamically, the Astra is right up there. The German suspension (MacPherson strut front/Watt's linkage at the rear) has been given a good makeover by Holden's engineers in Australia, and it shows.
The Astra's dampers and springs round off sharp hits to keep cabin occupants isolated, yet while the set-up is soft enough to be comfortable in the city, the body control remains good over undulations and through corners. Noise suppression is also excellent, better than a Mazda 3's and up there with the Peugeot 308.
Whether you're diddling about in town or throwing the Holden at your favourite sequence of corners, it'll do a bang-up job for an entry hatchback. It has 90 per cent of a Golf's refinement with ride comfort roughly equal to the benchmark new-generation Honda Civic sedan.
The electric-assisted steering is typically light and remote, reminiscent of the Ford Focus'. The Astra's turn-in is sharp, and the well-balanced and stiff chassis responds well to rapid directional changes, but don't expect much feedback to your hands. The positive trade-off is the ease of use around town.
So far, so good. The Astra's engine performs well — only the Focus definitely beats it — it handles like a warm hatch but rides like a proper city car, and suppresses noise better than the big-selling Mazda 3.
What about the cabin? It's certainly a big step up over the tired Cruze, at least in terms of layout and material quality. The design is contemporary, with a flush 7.0-inch touchscreen, minimal clutter and contrasting trims.
That said, the quality of the plastics and the fit-and-finish is only 80 per cent as good as a Golf or 308, and some of the switches feel cheap. As does the urethane steering wheel. Cabin storage is acceptable, though it lacks the clever touches of a Civic.
Standard features at base level are about par for the course. You get 17-inch alloys, auto headlights, daytime running lights, keyless entry (but you need to stick the key in the ignition barrel), hard-wearing cloth seats with manual adjustment, air conditioning, cruise control, a trip computer with digital speedo, a rear-view camera with rear sensors, digital radio and Bluetooth/USB connectivity.
Infotainment is displayed on a 7.0-inch touchscreen with the latest MyLink software, as well as plug-in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto phone mirroring like a Golf, which makes up for the lack of integrated sat-nav. Higher spec versions get a larger screen with nav. Standard equipment for a base car is acceptable.
One big negative is the ANCAP safety rating. The Astra R is unrated, while all other variants get five stars. Why? The R gets six airbags and the same passive protections, but lacks the RS and RSV's Holden Eye autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane-keeping assistance, forward distance indicator and forward collision alert systems.
The brand will add an optional pack to the Astra R, which will be available from March next year. That pack will cost $1000, and add AEB, lane-keeping assistance with active steering input, forward collision warning, forward distance indicator, and a heated steering wheel. That means it will push the price of the Astra R base model manual to $22,990.
The Astra's rear seats are about on par with a Golf or Mazda 3 for spec, with decent headroom. That said, there's not a heap of storage and the ambience isn't exactly high end thanks to lots of hard plastics. The back seats fold 60:40 and have ISOFIX child anchors. They're nicely scalloped for support, so the occupant space is good, even if the seat squab is a little low and short.
The 370-litre boot is fine for the class. There’s also only a space-saver spare under the boot floor. In short, there are more practical hatches, though it's the equal of the Mazda 3, Golf and Corolla. Acceptable.
From an ownership perspective, the Astra is quite good. Holden has a vast dealer network, though the three-year/100,000km warranty with complimentary roadside assist is mediocre.
Where it wins is servicing. The Holden Astra will cost $916 to service over three years or 60,000km, with maintenance due every nine months of 15,000km. This isn't too bad for a little turbo.
So you might be getting the impression that the new Holden Astra is pretty good indeed, a real contender in a segment with no shortage of quality rivals (and more to come, such as the MY17 Subaru Impreza and Honda Civic due soon).
Where it's let down is price, which Holden has miscalculated just like the Spark's. The Astra's entry of $21,990 plus on-road costs (equating to around $25,600 drive-away at current rates on the Holden website) is too high, in a market where a Golf 92 TSI can be had for $22,990 drive-away. Ditto the $24,190 Astra R auto, which is on a par with the faster and better-equipped entry Focus Trend.
In fairness, the Astra R isn't where the value really is. The Astra RS at $26,490, with more driver-assist technology, luxury features and a 147kW/280Nm warm hatch engine, seems to fill that role better. Not to mention its confirmed five-star safety, though the R still gets the same passive protections.
We'd expect some sharp drive-away deals soon, and the car needs them. But in terms of driving dynamics, engine performance and cabin features, as well as intangibles such a driveway style and 'likability', the Astra R is a step up over any Holden small car of the past decade or more.
Is it a new benchmark? No. That's still the Golf. But it's a decent effort hindered by a bad launch price. Yet Holden's rebuild is underway whether you like it or not, and products like the Astra stand it in good stead for a solid future focused on cars from Europe and the US.
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