Our other car had just suddenly and completely died, which put pressure on both our budget and time. The brief was to get a car with a practical boot size and we could only stump up about $15,000. I love to drive, but with just $15K to play with and living in a 'remote' area, I didn't fancy my chances.
Imagine my delight when on the first day of searching, an AH Astra Turbo shows up with just 60,000km on the clock for $16K. It was so much car for so little money and it loves to be driven, but it can also do the day to day stuff with no problems. Since buying it, I've almost never looked back, but more on that later.
Eight years on and it still looks great from all angles. It's a cohesive design styled with purpose and restraint, with the bonnet and roof lines swooping back to meet the top of the tail-lights. Flared/pumped wheel arches and a lower side bodykit provide some extra aggression to the overall design.
Mind you, after getting excited by the exterior, make sure you have had, at a minimum, a double hit of caffeine when you hop inside the insomnia-inducing interior. It's charcoal on light grey with less flair than Sunday mass. Make it more exciting by pretending that, with the Lamborghini-like side mirrors and rear visibility worse than Ned Kelly's helmet, you're in a Lambo.
And while the interior is comfortable and well laid out, with excellent adjustability of the steering and seats, there's almost no storage. One cupholder sits behind the handbrake, while the door cup holders are utterly useless for anything larger than a small flat white.
Technology was good for the time and still holds up reasonably well in 2018: climate and cruise control, six-stack CD player (not MP3 CDs though, so very 2000s), heated seats, Sports mode that alters throttle and suspension settings, and something I've never seen in any other car – a sunglasses holder situated where the utterly useless driver's side grab handle is normally found. Seriously, it's awesome.
What's not so awesome, however, is having to turn on the air recirculation every time. Is this the only car in the world ever that does this?
Connectivity is non-existent, so get a Bluetooth adapter or install a new HD dash unit with that nifty Apple and Android mirrored function thing. One massive bugbear, however, is that the 12V power socket is always on. Your battery will find it not so great when you forget to (regularly) unplug your Bluetooth adapter. I still listen to the radio a lot because of it.
Survive the dreary interior assault and you'll be rewarded with a feisty hot-hatch drive. On first impressions, the car is a little underwhelming with the engine feeling a little laggy and a tad lethargic below 3000rpm. Press the Sport button and things really liven up. It's not just a gimmick. In Sport the throttle is much more responsive and the turbo kicks in a bit earlier, turning the car into the lively hot hatch that is conveyed by its exterior styling.
The manual ’box is smooth, the engine's power delivery is what I'd call chubby, and that turbo gives a very real and addictive shove – you'll find you're always looking for an excuse to boot it in second gear. The engine also plays a nice, rorty four-cylinder note that stays cultured almost to redline. It's a surprise from GM's usually droll and thrashy Ecotec engines. Maybe this 2.0-litre gets some special fettling and attention over the rest of the Ecotec engine range?
Then throw a corner at this little unit and, whoops, did you press the Sport button like I said? That'll be why it turned in a little late and got a bit understeery sooner than you'd expected, and sent you a little straighter through that corner. Sport mode on, now watch it bite that corner hard and hang onto it. There's definitely a little torque steer in it, which gives this car a bit of a rough, slightly unrefined personality. It's welcome and adds to the SRi Turbo's overall charm.
After a few corners you'll be giggling and won't ever drive this car in normal mode again. I seriously don't know why Sport isn't the normal setting in this thing. The ride quality barely suffers and fuel consumption stays at 11L/100km. Probably marketing's idea.
Ride quality is very livable, but can get a little jiggly and tiresome after about 200km, or lots of stop-start driving. This isn't a real GT, or the Lambo you were pretending it was.
I've had the car from 60,000km to 110,000km and so far I've only replaced a couple of gasket seals, a small plastic one-way crankcase pressure valve and one of the turbo charge air pipes. About $400 in repairs so far really, most of which I've been able to do myself.
Practicality is excellent with a good boot that's about 320L and seats that fold down to handle those Bunnings trips. However, the doors – I absolutely hate the doors on this thing. They're heavy and longer than usual, meaning you can't open them to a reasonable angle, which makes the car a frustrating squeeze to get in and out of in every carpark. You look a right goose and your shoes will bear the brunt of this – it's scuff mark city. Best you learn how to reverse parallel park.
That's probably the biggest thing Holden/GM should change in future Astra coupes – shorten those dang doors. They should also have it retain settings like air recirculation. And what's with no numbering for the volume? Is the music playing? Turn it up to check, yeah it is playing, and now your ears are bleeding and you're deaf.
In all, I do love this car. It can go for a fast blast on a quiet Sunday along your favourite roads, but you can live with it every day as well. And yet, because of those stupid long doors, I look forward to replacing the Astra with a car with normal-length doors. My shoes, shins and head can only take so much abuse.
Actually, the new Astra RS looks to fit the bill perfectly.