The Euro Holden Astra R+ hatch is steadily becoming one of the market's true bargain buys, if you know where to look. The fact that it happens to be genuinely quite good is something of a bonus.
Even in its final year on sale, the Australia-made Holden Commodore, plus its Ute and Caprice derivatives, accounted for almost one-third of Holden's sales here in 2017.
With the new made-in-Germany Commodore almost certain to fall well short of these numbers, Holden has to find a heap of additional volume from other core cars to address the shortfall.
The Colorado ute and brand-new Equinox SUV are vital. But so too is the familiar Astra, most notably in the top-selling hatch body style, which competes against Australia's three most popular passenger vehicles: the Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3 and Hyundai i30.
That's to say nothing about other competitors such as the Kia Cerato (best-in-class warranty), Honda Civic (most spacious cabin in class), Ford Focus (consummate all-rounder), Renault Megane (très chic) and perhaps most obviously, the Volkswagen Golf benchmark.
There's no real occasion behind us revisiting the Poland-made and Opel-based Astra, other than a sense that its role within the Holden family is only going to get more and more important.
With incentives galore, its sales will also only go in one direction: up. This is evidenced by the staggering 3532 units Holden sold/registered as demos in December 2017, often creating remarkable bargains.
Here we're looking at the Astra R+, technically priced at $23,740 before on-road costs with the six-speed automatic transmission option. We say 'technically' because at the time of writing, there were a heap of demos priced below $20K drive-away in the classifieds. In other words, the days of the Astra being overpriced – as it was when it launched – are well and truly over.
The Astra R+ is essentially a base Astra R with an options pack, as evidenced by its very reasonable $1000 premium.
In return, you get a leather steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, electro-chromatic mirrors and the HoldenEye safety system, which comprises: autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane departure warning and assist, and a forward collision alert chime that flashes red if you're approaching something too quickly.
As such, unlike the unrated Astra R, the R+ gets the maximum five-star ANCAP crash rating.
This is alongside the Astra R's standard features such as 17-inch alloy wheels (with a temporary spare), reversing camera with rear sensors, a spoiler, cloth 'sports' seats, auto headlights with LED DRLs, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and DAB+ digital radio.
That's a very good list of equipment for a low-grade model, though the multi-spoke alloys and $550 blue paint hue, plus the angular and edgy sheetmetal, mean the Astra on test certainly doesn't resemble a budget offering.
The cabin is solid rather than spectacular by class standards. On the down side, there’s too much dust-prone glossy black trim along the dash and hard, scratchy plastic along the transmission tunnel. The lack of button start (the ignition barrel is also a bit flimsy) feels old hat too. It doesn’t feel nearly as upmarket as a base Golf.
On the plus side, the design is clean and simple, the screen has the latest phone mirroring, the cloth seats are good quality and well bolstered, and the leather-trimmed steering wheel is infinitely nicer than the Hyundai i30 Active’s. There are also four one-touch-down windows.
Cabin storage options include a big glovebox and a decent console (with a solitary USB point), cup holders and big-door cubbies. The little phone holder on the fascia is too small for today’s oversized ‘plus’ smartphones.
The back seats offer room for two adults provided those up front are willing to scoot forwards a touch, and the seats have good pitch and support. You also get door pockets and reading lights, though there’s no folding armrest, cup holders or rear air vents for hot days.
Parents note: there are two ISOFIX points, three for top tether, and rear side airbags.
The boot is a decent 360L, more than a Mazda 3 but less than a Civic hatch. Under the floor is the customary space-saving temporary spare wheel with a limited top speed of 80km/h.
Under the Astra R+'s bonnet is a Euro 6, 1.4-litre turbocharged engine making a Golf-matching 110kW at 5000rpm and a muscular 240Nm of torque from 2400 through to 4800rpm (that's only 10Nm less than the 2.5-litre non-turbo Mazda 3 engine).
It's smooth and refined, and typical of this powertrain type has an ample mid-range/rolling response. That makes it feel simultaneously more relaxed and muscular than the naturally aspirated engines in the Corolla, i30 and Mazda 3.
Holden claims combined-cycle fuel economy of 5.8 litres per 100km, though our loop returned 7.6L/100km. Unlike many rival Euro cars, the Astra also runs on 91 RON fuel. The tank is 48L.
The engine is matched to a six-speed automatic transmission with torque converter, an increasingly rare commodity in this age of DSGs and CVTs. It's not particularly rapid at shifting between ratios, but it's smooth and generally intuitive. It's also only $1000 more than the manual, which is much less than the usual premiums.
While this engine is excellent, we'd note that for only $3500 more you can get the Astra RS with its Golf GTI Mk5-matching 147kW of power from a 1.6-litre turbo. That's borderline hot-hatch territory.
Like other Holdens, the Astra has its own Australia-specific suspension and electric-assisted steering set-up calibrated by the engineers at its Lang Lang proving ground, in Victoria, different to its Opel-origin car.
The suspension comprises familiar MacPherson struts up the front and a compound crank arrangement (easier to package than a multi-link set-up) with Watt's linkage at the rear.
The car has the typical Holden road-feel. A colleague called its ride character "ball-bearing smoothness", and they're not wrong. It's soft enough to iron out or lope over bad surfaces, but the body control against cornering loads is also excellent, as is the turn-in and overall feeling of agility.
The steering is also responsive from centre, while in Sport mode the system adds a little extra resistance for a more dynamic feel.
Holden has also fitted premium Michelin Primacy tyres, which are grippy and fairly quiet.
On a long and variable drive through regional Victoria, it became increasingly apparent that the Astra is one of the best-balanced yet comfortable offerings in the class. Right up there with the i30, Civic and Golf.
From an ownership perspective, Holden's seven-year warranty specially offered last year has ended, meaning it's once again back to three years cover. You get roadside assistance for the term if you use Holden for servicing.
Those services must happen at nine-month or 15,000km intervals (whichever comes first), and the first five visits are presently capped at $249, $249, $249, $249 and $309. That's very cheap by anyone's measure. Holden also regularly offers three years free servicing, so ask your dealer about that.
If there's one thing that our reminder-drive of the Astra R+ made clear, it's that Holden has a genuinely excellent small hatch in its ranks. And right now there are deals to be had, because as we said earlier, Holden simply has to sell more.