From styling to equipment and value, Holden has take the offensive to the small-car market with its Euro-influenced Astra sedan range. An offer too good to be true? We pitch it against the evergreen, big-selling Corolla to test the measure of the Astra's goodness.
Holden has taken the offensive to the small car segment with the sedan version of its Euro-influenced Astra, offering a number of seemingly red-hot deals in the wake of the flashy four-door's arrival in local showrooms. So we went trawling to try and find the best-value catch of the day and to measure, against a key market rival, just how hot red-hot really is.
At the time of both conception and writing, you could drive away a base LS manual sedan for a tenner under $22k. Further up the food chain, though, sits the mid-spec Astra LT variant, presenting a different, if equally strong, value pitch by blending a fit equipment list, enticing pricing and an ownership ‘deal’ of five-year warranty and roadside assist. Listing at $25,790 with standard fit automatic, it can be had, at the time or writing, for $27,990 drive-away.
Listing at $23,820 before on-roads, the mid-range Corolla SX manual sedan appeared a good starting point… until we discovered Toyota Australia had none available to test. Our choice was Ascent sedan, at $21,240 (manual, list), or the top-spec ZR which, at $31,920 (auto, list), was far too rich for the task at hand.
Then we crunched the numbers on the Ascent. Add a CVT automatic transmission ($2250), the optional Safety Sense and Alloy Pack ($1500) and suddenly that sub-$22k prospect becomes a $28,782 drive-away reality. Even disregarding cost-optional paint on either car, the Toyota lands in your driveway pricier than the Holden.
This isn’t a Toyota stitch up: at the time of writing, the hatchback version of the SX trim with CVT is on offer at a compelling $26,990 drive-away. Again, our full-cost sedan version serves to gauge the value of the Astra sedan’s launch offer. Deals come and go so, as always, check suppliers’ websites for current offers before.
As tested, our entry-level, if optioned, Ascent gets automatic high-beam headlights, 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment with access to Toyota Link apps, AM/FM/MP3/CD audio facility, Bluetooth, a 4.2-inch driver’s screen, a rear-view camera, rear sensors, cruise control and electric mirrors.
The Safety Sense and Alloy pack adds 15-inch alloy wheels (steel as standard) and the PreCollision Safety System which includes autonomous emergency braking and lane-departure alert (without active assistance).
The Astra LT gets standard-fitment six-speed automatic transmission, auto high beam, 17-inch alloys, auto park assist, rain-sensing wipers, 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, proprietary sat-nav, DAB+ radio in addition to AM/FM/MP3/Flash audio, Bluetooth, cruise control, a rear-view camera, both front and rear parking sensors, and heated mirrors.
In terms of smart safety gear, the Holden Eye camera system brings with it forward collision warning and car-to-car proximity indication, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning together with active lane-keeping assistance, although even in this relatively high LT spec, the Astra does lack AEB.
Both cars come with a five-star ANCAP safety rating, though the Corolla’s seven airbags outnumber the Astra’s six.
Given the Ascent lobs in as the entry Corolla and the LT sits one peg down from the top of its range, it’s no surprise there’s some disparity in equipment though, clearly, the Holden isn’t exactly a quantum leap ahead for niceties, bells and whistles.
Still, the Astra edges ahead in the gear-for-bucks stakes, though the caveat here is how much weight of importance a buyer has in having autonomous emergency braking (Corolla) fitted versus merely providing pre-collision warning (both cars).
“Utterly inoffensive,” has been our description of the Corolla Ascent sedan in the past and this early-2017 updated version has scored a commendable 7.5 overall in single-car review. Despite the refreshed front and rear fascias and the addition of LED driving lights, the small Japanese four-door is certainly less ‘driver’ and more ‘pedestrian’.
The completely new-look Astra cuts a far more striking pose, especially parked up alongside its nemesis. More angles, more chrome and more stylised, its fetching appearance – albeit not to everyone’s taste – is anchored somewhat in that, by definition of its sloping roofline beyond the B-pillar and the impact on rear headroom this creates, this ‘sedan’ is technically more a four-door coupe. The Holden’s two-inch larger rims and upswept window certainly add some sporting intent, whether it’s delivered in the driving experience or not.
The Holden’s added fanfare continues inside, with lots of chrome trimming, fancier lighting and a generally busier and more angular design.
Different shades of grey are used to varying success where most of the dark grey plastics and rubberised surfaces feel convincingly quality while the lighter-shade garnish trim sections let the team down a little.
The fabric inlays on the dash and door trims, though, provide a nice visual lift. One conspicuous downside to opting for lots of shiny surfaces is that the sun glare off the centre console can, at times, be utterly blinding.
The Toyota favours almost-blacks and dark charcoal, though there’s been a defter touch with the chrome and gloss black highlights. To touch, the Toyota feels a little more solid and sturdy in build quality, though the cheapy-looking silver frost doesn’t exactly scream “premium”.
The single most down-market aspect of the Corolla’s design, though, is the low-rent plastic steering wheel, which isn’t a patch on the Astra’s far nicer, more modern and vastly more tactile ‘tiller’.
Better news for the Ascent are the nice fabric touchpoints and seat trim that’s hardy without impacting tactility. It also features what’s emphatically the superior seat design for general comfort and support in the right places, anchored by a genuinely fine driving position.
The Astra's seats don’t raise the bar any for trim feel and, by contrast, aren’t nearly as shapely and cosseting – frankly, it’s a downright chore trying to find an acceptably comfortable adjustment from behind the wheel.
The lowest point, though, are the pedals with an awkwardly exaggerated stagger between the left-foot ‘dead pedal’, the brake and the accelerator making under-thigh support difficult (at least for this reviewer’s 175-centimetre frame).
Above: Holden Astra
True to form, the Astra has techier and fussier driver’s instrumentation than the clear and simple Corolla design, though it certainly doesn’t lack for clarity. Better still, its driver’s screen is more detailed, more informative and – hooray – has a licence-saving digital speedometer that the comparatively dour Toyota unit lacks.
Neither car’s infotainment system will give a premium carmaker cause for concern, but the Holden’s larger unit does sing and dance harder for its keep, featuring flavour-of-the-moment Apple/Android smartphone mirroring (versus the Toyota’s less-slick proprietary app system) while also offering in-built sat-nav, and a pretty decent one at that.
That said, the Toyota unit, and its ability to combine function on the homescreen, is a handy, fast-acting system given user acclimatisation.
Above: Toyota Corolla
Both get large rear-view camera views – if at times stuttery and grainy – though the Holden is the only one of the pair with adaptive guidelines. And its front sensors are handy for those of us who are spatially challenged. Neither, though, gets temperature-regulating climate control, instead making do with regular air-conditioning.
Where the Corolla delivers superior front row occupant comfort, it (ahem) backs it up with rear seating as well. It’s easier to climb into or out of, mostly because the Astra’s sloping door line means adults must crouch more during entry and egress to prevent knocking their heads on the roof sill.
Once inside, the Corolla’s lower-set seating provides roominess and airiness in every measure, whereas the higher-set Astra rear bench is perhaps only a boon for smaller kids’ visibility of the outside world – it’s a tighter space, more restrictive in headroom and, again, the seats are less form-fitting and comfortable.
Top: Holden Astra
Below: Toyota Corolla
Both are quite cheerless in back, with token cupholders in fold-down arm rests but no air vents or USB ports and only the Holden gets a single 12V outlet. The Corolla doesn’t even have logical interior door grab-handles.
Both get handy split-fold rear seating, but it’s the Corolla’s boot topping the volume charts with 470 litres, if by a measure of 25L, or about only five per cent. In fact, it’s the Holden which has the slightly more practical space thanks to its deep, square and more useable proportions, though the trade-off is that it makes do with temporary space-saver spare under the floor where the Toyota gets a full-sized (albeit steel) 15-inch spare.
A win in accommodation? Depends on the buyer. Where the Holden stacks on the creature comforts thicker, it’s the Corolla that wins for core ergonomic friendliness and is, perhaps, the less tasking on occupants for longer trips. However, we haven't factored the driving experience into the equation yet, have we…?
The pair couldn’t be more different under their respective bonnets. The Corolla favours the tried, true and familiar, a 1.8-litre naturally aspirated four with a wash of character and impressive flexibility thanks to its proven Dual VVT-I variable valve timing trickery. It produces a reasonable 103kW way up at 6000rpm and needs a high 4000rpm for its hardly earth-shattering 173Nm to clock on for work.
While its stats mightn’t make for great pub discussion fodder, the Corolla is amply energetic and quite the satisfying drive, thanks in part to the engine’s impressive response and also in part to the CVT that puts on a Logie-winning attempt at enacting fake gearshifts.
While it’s not what you’d call a fun powertrain, it is quiet, refined and rarely breaks into a sweat if driven without lead-footed excess. There’s also a Sport mode which, as much as can be discerned by the seat of the pants, hangs into those (fake) ratios longer to keep the engine spinning in its sweet 4000-6000rpm operating band more often.
The Astra adopts turbocharged 1.4-litre four-cylinder motivation, with a superior 110kW at a lofty 6500rpm but needs just 2000rpm onboard to generate a commanding 240Nm (though the manual versions get 245Nm). Impressive, for a smaller boosted engine, it’ll do so, like the Corolla, on 91RON fuel.
Its tied to an unfussed, intuitive-shifting, if largely unremarkable, six-speed conventional automatic and, as a union, does a quite handy job around town. It doesn’t offer a Sport mode though, on test, it didn’t seem to need one. If anything, neither car felt wanting for output and, despite the Holden’s advantage on paper, the Astra didn’t feel particularly more energetic by the seat of the pants.
Equally, both returned decent, if unremarkable, fuel economy, with low sixes during extended cruising and touching double figures during the stop-start cut and thrust around town. If anything, the naturally aspired Corolla engine – by nature of its design – is a little more stable with its thirst across varied driving styles.
The Holden – and turbo-petrol engines in general – tend to fluctuate in fuel consumption somewhat more in tandem with driving style. But on average, on test, there was little difference between the two cars.
Ride and Handling
Each offers solidity and quiet on-road refinement – nothing exceptional in outright terms though neither impart anything like a low-rent driving experience. There are pros and cons in details: Holden’s efforts in localizing the Astra’s suspension tune yields a more pliant and resolved ride quality on the move and across imperfect surfaces despite the larger 17-inch wheels a wider, lower-profile 225/45 rubber.
The Corolla also plays second fiddle in low-speed ride, where ride can be terse and abrupt over sharp bumps despite the much larger 65-series tyre sidewall (195/65) on smaller 15-inch rims.
While the Toyota might have more genuine steering feel, a great many buyers shopping in this segment might find its sheer heft and lack of assistance tiresome. The Astra, for its part, has markedly lighter steering weight for a generally friendlier experience around town and when parking and manoeuvring.
Another bugbear with the Corolla is that it beeps once reverse is engaged: useful, perhaps, in a silent-running electric or hybrid vehicle, or as a pedestrian warning system in a truck, but it’s an unnecessary annoyance in a small, petrol-powered sedan.
Neither are pillars of athletic prowess, though a notably larger rubber footprint of the Holden does offer a road-holding advantage once you push on. And thanks to the disciplined tune of the Astra’s suspension, the Holden does a finer job of making optimum use of grip over lumpy surfaces when cornering.
The Corolla’s tyres are a little quieter on coarse surfaces, though not my much, which does make around town driving slightly more pleasant, thumping over sharp edges notwithstanding.
The Astra’s five-year/130,000-kilometre warranty offered with its current driveaway deal is superior to Corolla’s rudimentary three-year/100,000km surety.
Over a sample three-year/60,000km duration, Holden’s capped-priced servicing schedule costs $229 per nine-month/15,000km interval, or a total of $916.
The Toyota demands more frequent six-month/10,000km intervals, though each visit costs just $140, with a cheaper $840 total over our sample 36-month/60,000km period.
While the Astra’s more ostentatious styling and flash makes for fancier window dressing, it’s only one – and a minor one – factor in Holden winning this test. It also feels a little more special, something of a no-brainer given LT is a higher trim in Astra-land than Ascent is in Corolla-ville when put through the drive-away filter.
But it’s the nicer creature comforts inside and a generally more pleasant on-road character that does the Holden many favours. Whether you’re combating the urban crawl or taking a leisurely trip across the countryside, the Astra is – seats notwithstanding – a nicer, less tasking and more enjoyable method of transit. The lack of AEB, though, may well be Astra's deal-breaker for buyers who consider such systems mandatory fitment.
That said, it’s holistic value that seals the Astra victory. Of course, pricing sensitivity is such that should Holden’s current Astra LT sedan offer runs its course – or should Toyota apply its current and sharp $26,900 SX with CVT drive-away deal to the four-door Corolla – then there may well be a very different verdict indeed.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.