It's no secret SUVs are now the family car of choice, outselling conventional passenger vehicles this year for the first time on record.
But why? Buyers flock to jacked-up hatchbacks and wagons promising family-friendly practicality, a better view of the road ahead thanks to a raised driving position, along with easier ingress and egress courtesy of the elevated platform.
Many, however, also buy SUVs and crossovers just for the tougher looks – such is the superficial world we live in.
Yet there's still a small part of the market that would prefer a 'conventional' wagon, and for them it's not all doom and gloom. There are still a handful of manufacturers offering such a vehicle, Holden a prime example.
The UK-made Astra Sportwagon recently launched in Australia, joining the Polish-built and mechanically-similar Astra hatchback that is the volume seller of the range, and the Korean-produced Astra sedan – which is sold in other markets as the Chevrolet Cruze.
Starting at just $25,740 plus on-road costs for the LS+ variant on test, the Astra Sportwagon sits in a similar price bracket to numerous small SUVs such as the Honda HR-V (from $24,990), Mazda CX-3 (from $20,490, though few people buy the base variant of this model), Mitsubishi ASX (from $25,000), and even Holden's own Trax (from $23,990).
Additionally, the Astra competes with more natural rivals like the Skoda Octavia wagon (from $24,990), Volkswagen Golf wagon (from $28,990) and Renault Megane wagon (from $28,490). The Hyundai i30 wagon is no longer available in Australia, discontinued here when the new-generation model launched.
The Holden is pretty well-equipped for the money, with standard kit including 16-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime-running lights, a leather-trimmed steering wheel, rear-view camera with dynamic guidelines and parking sensors, a 7.0-inch MyLink infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, along with automatic headlights and wipers.
Active safety systems like low-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB) with forward collision warning and lane keep assist are also fitted as standard, though blind-spot monitoring and an automated parking assistant are reserved for the top-spec LT grade (from $29,940). Like the hatchback, the wagon range gets a five-star ANCAP safety rating.
Our tester is optionally fitted with Phantom Black prestige paint ($550), which brings our as-tested price to $26,290 before on-road costs.
We can't really fault the base Astra wagon in terms of standard specification, though it seems odd you can have adaptive cruise control on higher grades of the closely-related hatchback but not anywhere in the Sportwagon range – a feature the Skoda offers as standard, while the Renault and Volkswagen offer it optionally.
In terms of design, the Astra Sportwagon barely differs from its hatchback counterpart from the B-pillar forward – giving it a handsome, if somewhat bland face.
As you head towards the rear, the trim around the windows extends into the D-pillar, which would give the illusion of a floating roof, if our car wasn't coloured black and the black rubber of the windows was finished in chrome.
The rear is a little generic too, and some may even mistake it for the old Cruze wagon thanks to the similar tail-light design. Meanwhile, the standard 16-inch alloys are nice enough for a base car, though don't really add anything significant.
Hopping into the cabin, you'll be very familiar with the dashboard and controls if you've spent any time in the hatchback. The overall design along with all the main buttons and displays are pretty much identical to its smaller sibling, as is the steering wheel.
A minimalist approach to buttons and dials means the dash and centre console layout is clean and attractive, though the buttons on the centre stack are quite low – so toggling the lane keep assist system or turning off idle stop/start requires taking your eyes off the road, if you're on the move.
In terms of material quality, the Astra Sportwagon feels very solid indeed. While you may not get the luxurious ambience of the Volkswagen Golf, the Astra has nice soft-touch plastics used on the upper sections of the dash and doors.
There are plenty of harder plastics from the mid-level down, though everything feels well-screwed together. Additionally, the fabric trim that adorns the seats and door inserts feels nice and of a high quality.
Up front there's plenty of adjustment for the driver, including a reach- and rake-adjustable steering wheel along with a wide range of positions for the driver's seat. The rotary tool used to adjust the backrest provides a wider range of positions than the lever-operated ones used in most Asian competitors, while the front passenger gets similar amenities.
Speaking of the steering wheel, the leather trim looks and feels nice in the hand, though the rim itself seems a little smaller in diameter than some rivals – something that might take a little getting used to.
Meanwhile, occupants in the second row get plenty of head- and legroom – even behind six-foot-two-ish me – and the standard map pockets behind both front seats means the kids' trinkets and treasures can be kept secure.
Being a small wagon, though, the width of the rear bench can be a little tight when trying to fit three adults abreast, a complaint raised when I squeezed my mum and two teenage siblings in the back for a two-hour return journey, while the lack of rear air vents means it might get a little hot and sweaty during the warmer months.
There's also no fold-down centre armrest for rear passengers, nor a USB or 12V outlet to charge a phone or iPad. The small rear door pockets also may prove to be challenging for families needing somewhere to store bottles and sippy cups.
Up front storage is average, too, with the centre storage cubby not of a noteworthy size and there's an odd slot underneath the infotainment screen that doesn't appear to fit anything other than coins. At least you can fit a bottle or two in the front door pockets, though.
It's a more positive story behind that second row of seating, though, where the Sportwagon reveals its trump card – the boot. There's a 540-litre luggage area with the rear seats in place, which expands to a massive 1630 litres with the second row folded, which is 25 per cent more than the hatchback and 98L/288L more than the Mazda CX-5, Australia's most popular medium SUV.
Additionally, it's competitive with the rival Golf wagon – particularly in terms of maximum capacity – which claims volumes of 605L and 1620L for the second row up/down respectively.
The square shape and low loading height also mean you shouldn't have any issues fitting large or heavy items. A trip to IKEA proved the Astra wagon can swallow almost anything – though a 190cm-plus shelf wall had to extend all the way to the gap between the front seats to fit.
Driving the Astra is a rather pleasant experience, too. While its 110kW/240Nm 1.4-litre turbo four may sound meek on paper, the little turbo does a great job at shifting the Sportwagon's 1337kg kerb weight, even when there are five adults and light luggage on board.
Even under load, the engine never gets loud or thrashy, helped by the fact peak torque is available from 2400-4800rpm. The six-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and intuitively, while also being quick to kick down when you need to make a quick dash on the go.
Acceleration off the line is willing and linear (no real turbo lag here), making it very easy to live with around town. The 1.4-litre turbo is perfectly suited to extended stints on the freeway, too, settling into a near-silent hum at around 2000rpm in sixth gear. Getting to 100km/h on your typical freeway on-ramp is also completed with ease.
Being a run-of-the-mill, entry-level station wagon, the Astra doesn't need to put the 'sport' in 'Sportwagon' – particularly considering its chubby 205/55 R16 wheel and tyre package – but the light steering is still direct enough to inspire confidence in the bends.
The suspension feels a little on the firmer side, which makes for very composed handling, though it's also beautifully damped – meaning even the nastiest of potholes barely send more than a little 'thud' into the cabin.
It's quite the mature and refined tourer indeed, with wind and road noise kept to a minimum in most situations, however, a stint on rougher sections of the Hume Highway north of Melbourne did send some noticeable tyre roar into the cabin.
Fuel use, meanwhile, is very respectable. We drove over 460 kilometres in a mix of highway and urban conditions, managing an indicated 7.6L/100km. It may not be as good as Holden's official claim of 5.9L/100km, though it's still a decent figure nonetheless.
In terms of ownership, the Astra Sportwagon is being advertised with the company's promotional seven-year, 175,000km warranty like the hatch and sedan range at the time of writing – available until 31 December 2017.
Once the offer expires, the vehicle will likely be covered by Holden's standard three-year/100,000km program, with lifetime capped-price servicing. Maintenance is required every nine months or 15,000km, whichever comes first.
While service pricing is yet to be officially announced at the time of writing, expect it to mirror that of the hatchback with the same engine – with the first three visits costing $249 each, though the first three years' requires a fourth service also at $249.
That means the Astra should set you back a relatively affordable $996 in scheduled maintenance for the first three years or 36,000 kilometres, which compares favourably to the $1207 required to service a Volkswagen Golf 110TSI wagon for the first 36 months of ownership – despite requiring one less visit to your dealer.
As a package, the 2018 Astra Sportwagon offers a very convincing deal. It's affordable, great value for money, easy on the eyes, and it isn't just another SUV. While its understated looks may not appeal to those who want to stand out from the pack, the Astra Sportwagon is everything a family car should be without screaming "look at me".
The refined powertrain and decent fuel economy are additional pluses, though the lack of rear air vents and mediocre storage cubbies dull what is otherwise a very capable family vehicle. It's not quite as premium-feeling as the Golf, but it doesn't cost as much as one either, especially once you specify the German offering equivalently. On top of that, you'll spend less maintaining the Holden.
Those looking at an affordable vehicle with maximum space – be it for the family or for your surfing gear – definitely should give the Astra Sportwagon a look. You maybe drawn to the idea of an SUV, but a vehicle like this could actually be a better bet in several key ways.
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