So your trusty 92 Corolla just bit the dust. You only have about 15 grand to spend and you're a car nut so it'd be nice to upgrade to something substantially sportier. But you've been told by your better half it also needs to be reasonably practical and you absolutely cannot get a WRX, they're too ugly. Surely there'd be an overlooked, underrated secondhand gem on the market that would suit my needs.
Hello then Holden Astra SRi Turbo. Four cylinder, 2.0L Turbo, attractive styling, 300L boot, climate/cruise control, leather interior and manual. This is it, this has to be the one. Three trouble free years later I still love it and it's proved to be an absolute hoot to drive.
The styling is the first thing that grabs you and seven years later it hasn't dated. Clean lines along with a sloping glass house meet up at the tail lights to give it a sporty coupe look. A wide, muscular stance give it some restrained aggression. This isn't just some three door Astra.
Step inside and the sloping roof line along with a letterbox sized rear window make it feel like a little Lamborghini. Intimate but not claustrophobic. Then there's the nice aluminium foot pedals and.... and. Yeah, that's about as sporty as it gets. It's otherwise just austere, grey on grey minimalist European in there. An insomniac's best friend. But the quality is nice and it's all very comfortable in there. The front seats don't look much but they sure hold you in through the corners. Then there's the sunglasses holder above your head on the right where often a useless grab handle can be found in other cars, brilliant use of space. Just make sure when ordering more than one takeaway Latte that you get a cup tray. One cup holder in the front gives you an idea of the otherwise limited storage space.
This car also backs up its looks with some reasonable talent. Chubby is a word that best describes the engine. 147kW and 262Nm doesn't sound like much but you wouldn't know driving it. That turbo serves up its torque in a thick dollop. It thrusts you back into your seat and keeps on until the last 500rpm where it dies off only very slightly. And unlike many of GM's thrashy Ectotec fours, think TK Barina, this engine has a cultured mid-tone growl to it that makes it all very enticing and quickly addictive.
Thankfully the chassis can mostly keep up with the engine. It combines confident and sure-footed handling with a chuckable attitude. Turn in and let the inside front wheel settle and bite. It's then light throttle until you're nearly out of the corner then floor it. It does push into understeer more easily than a Golf GTi or Renault Megan 225 but it's so well composed you can just back off and readjust.
It also struggles a bit with getting its power down to the ground. Get on the throttle too early and the lifeless steering wheel will buck and kick as the front wheels fight torque steer and scrabble for traction. It's all easy enough to wrestle it through and it's ultimately part of the Astra's charm. It'll leave you smiling, it's never scary and doesn't suddenly steer you across lanes like a Mazda 3 MPS can.
Press the 'sport' button and the whole experience becomes more lively and urgent. Steering, throttle and chassis response are sharpened thanks to fancy electronic wizardry. It means that turbo comes on harder and sooner. A dab of the right foot finds that all that torque is now right there at the ready. You'll be instantly whipped through the corners and onto the next. Adaptive dampers means the ride quality remains composed and livable, only becoming tiresome and crashy over long distances. Thankfully it's never stiff and jarring as often is the case with these buttons. With fuel economy at an acceptable 11.3L/100km you really can have your cake and eat it too. This is how this car's meant to be, that sport button stays on.
What it all adds up to is a car that loves to be driven and encourages you to do it. Its handling may lack that last touch of sophistication but that just adds to the driving giggles. Fun, controllable drama. I've really bonded with this car and I think that's because we're both alike. Some minor flaws but ones that add up to some real character. Best secondhand find. Ever.