Executives from Holden Australia are under no illusions as to the importance of the 2017 Holden Astra Sedan. To a person, they are keenly aware of just how vital the small hatch/sedan and soon to be Sportwagon will be in attracting and retaining customers in a post-Commodore world.
To simply call this Astra sedan a ‘rebadged Holden Cruze’ as some have, is to largely miss the point of a significantly refined global platform.
One lasting legacy of our local manufacturing history is the engineering expertise, local understanding and technical knowledge retained by the team of expert developers and engineers within the Holden hierarchy.
As such, there’s a story to be told in regard to the thousands of hours spent refining and honing the suspension, steering, and components making up those systems to deliver what the local engineers call, ‘that Holden feel’.
Rob Trubiani might be a humble man but his genius in developing a chassis and reworking suspension is unquestioned. During a drive loop where he was stuck with me – yeah I know, the guy has a Nurburgring lap record on his resume and has to be driven around by me – I asked him what happens if a global car were to arrive for testing with tyres that didn’t meet his team’s expectations.
“Well, we can specify tyres that we want for Australia,” he says. “We didn’t have to with this car though, because we’ve been involved from the beginning, so we had input on the tyres we wanted in the first place.”
That short explanation goes some way to explaining just how involved the Australian engineering team was from day one, and also illuminates some of the aspects where the Astra sedan shines – ride, handling and steering response. More than 100,000km of local testing on both private tracks and public roads has had an immediately tangible impact, but more on that later.
You’ve seen our pricing and specification story, so you’d be aware of how keenly the Astra is priced and how sharply specified it is for that price too, even in the face of increased competition.
You can get into a base LS manual sedan for $21,990 drive-away, and there’s no doubt that’s a genuinely enticing proposition in the crowded small car segment. At the other end of the scale, the range-topping LTZ auto starts from $29,790 before on-road costs.
The Astra sedan looks like it’s related to the hatch and that’s no accident. It’s supposed to.
Where the hatch needs to appeal to younger buyers, city dwellers, and those with slightly more sporting pretensions, the sedan is focused on longer touring, regional owners, and older buyers downsizing from a large sedan or SUV. As such, driveability is one element that must be catered to, but the sedan must also be roomy, comfortable and versatile.
Under the bonnet, there’s the same 1.4-litre turbocharged engine that powers the hatch, with 110kW at 6500rpm and 245Nm (240Nm for the manual) between 2000-4000rpm on offer.
The base model (LS) is available with a six-speed manual transmission, while all other grades (LS, LS+, LT and LTZ) come standard with a six-speed automatic. The ADR fuel consumption is 6.1L/100km for the automatic and 5.8L/100km for the manual. At launch during torrential rain and what we’d call conservative driving on country roads, one stretch in an Astra sedan auto netted an indicated average of 7.1L/100km.
The cabin is cleverly executed and laid out, which is the most vital early touch point for buyers. On the subject of roominess and versatility, the sedan has a solid 445 litres of boot space, and plenty of room for four adults. In fact, second row leg- and shoulder-room is comparable to large sedans. Families with children will appreciate the amount of space on offer in what is a compact external package.
We liked the layout of the cabin, the arrangement of the switchgear, the 7.0-inch touchscreen, and the functionality of Apple CarPlay, which we tested briefly during our drive. The steering wheel mounted controls are well executed too, and easy to work out straight away.
A larger storage pocket for smartphones would be ideal ahead of the shifter, but other than that, there’s really nothing to gripe about inside the cabin. The door pockets are deep and large enough for bottles, while the centre console bin has more than enough storage space for smaller items, too.
While the base models don’t have the soft-touch finishes and more upmarket feel of those grades higher up the range, there’s nothing about the cabin execution that feels cheap. It’s particularly well insulated even slogging along a coarse chip country road in heavy rain at 100km/h. There’s very little wind noise that enters the cabin, and road noise/tyre roar is kept to a minimum.
A noteworthy mention should go to the seats, different from the hatch, which are sculpted just enough and were comfortable after a few hours behind the wheel. Even in the second row, the execution of the seating is excellent.
Time spent with numerous grades gave us a solid opportunity to assess the cabin ambience across the range, and a crucial drive in a base manual sedan also allowed us to feel the variations between the two transmissions and how they work with the small turbocharged four-cylinder.
It sounds trite to make the comment, but small engines just get better and better. Not so long ago, a sub-1.5-litre engine powering a sedan of this size would have been called all manner of things, none of them complimentary.
Not anymore – the little four-cylinder is enthusiastic, refined and eager to spin right up to redline. Importantly, it never feels underpowered at any time.
We loved the base manual, with a short, sharp shift action, precise throw and beautiful clutch balance. It makes relaxed cruising less of a challenge and it is one of the better manual gearboxes I’ve tested recently from any manufacturer.
The way the engine delivers its power and torque and the distinct lack of a torque hole at low revs, means you don’t have to redline the engine before each shift, even though it will gladly allow that kind of silliness if you want. A set of flowing corners highlighted its mid-range punch too, where you can leave the transmission in third gear and just roll from corner to corner effortlessly.
When you step up to any of the other grades with the automatic, you’ll find a similarly smooth all-round drive experience. The refined nature of the engine means it never intrudes into the cabin either, even when you have to roll on to highway speed from an on-ramp.
There’s plenty in reserve at all times for overtaking too, crucial for rural buyers. The auto will undoubtedly be the choice for anyone who lives in the city confines.
Holden is understandably hanging its hat on the local engineering smarts, and there’s good news here for buyers too. The suspension tune for the sedan is perfect for the segment, and illustrates a deep knowledge of Australia’s appalling (okay, I’ll reduce that under duress to bloody awful) road surfaces.
Torrential rain before and during the launch in northern NSW and over the border meant we had the chance to experience the gamut – and by that I mean road debris, standing water, washouts, gigantic potholes, and patched coarse chip. Rob Trubiani and his team know all about Aussie road surfacing, and they have tuned the sedan to take it all in its stride.
While there are numerous elements of the suspension and steering tune worthy of mention (the balance and weight of the steering at all speeds, the bump absorption and ride quality, and the way the suspension can iron out rubbish surfaces without the cabin being affected), one element stands above all else for me. The Astra sedan soaks up the worst the road can throw at it, but settles remarkably rapidly and it is that sense of composure which truly shines.
There’s no bouncing, and no springy, pogo sensation to the secondary phase of the damping control and rebound. The suspension simply settles and goes straight back to work. When you're traversing a rutted, bumpy country road, this feature alone is worth its weight in gold and it’s a real example of an engineering team that understands local conditions. Crucially it makes for a relaxed and comfortable passenger experience.
At launch, CarAdvice spent plenty of time talking to PR representatives, executives and engineering gurus while driving the new Astra sedan. I made no bones about the fact the Astra will be taking the fight up to a tough segment and it won’t be easy. The real story though, is the fact that the Astra sedan is an excellent vehicle across its broad portfolio of expectations.
It’s easy to get misty eyed about the closure of local manufacturing and the end of Commodore production, but there’s plenty to like about Holden’s future with one caveat – the product needs to be strong. With the Astra sedan, Holden absolutely has a quality product to take to market.
Now it's over to the consumers. We're looking forward to pitting the Astra sedan against its rivals in a CarAdvice comparison.