The new European Car of the Year is the Opel Astra. We’ve been putting the fifth generation of the German machine through its paces to see if it lives up to the hype. This is the 1.6 Astra CDTi from Opel.
Our test car is the SC five-door CDTi 1.6-litre. SC is one grade up from entry-level S (S, SC, SRI & Elite) and is the version that Opel says will sell the most. When it comes to family hatchbacks (and their body variants) Irish buyers have a lot of choice. Cars like Golf, Focus, i30/Cee’d, Auris, Mazda3 and 308 all pop in to one’s mind with Astra sitting very much in the mid field. The new Astra is smaller than the car it replaces and much lighter too. Astra clearly retains its ‘look’ but during our test days we didn’t witness any necks snapping as we cruised by oblivious onlookers in the newly crowned king of Europe.
Astra has nice design touches but ultimately the Opel machine is quite conservative. While critics mightn’t drool over its proportions, the sales figures will prove us wrong. Opel is on the move up the charts again after taking its eye of the ball. Opel Ireland had huge presence back in the Jack Charlton football days, but lost its way as the national company was placed firmly under the thumb of its European boss. This allowed more aggressive and autonomous importers to grab, but mostly buy, greater market share. Our little island market is on the bounce and Opel Ireland is serious about climbing back up the charts.
Family hatch buyers don’t want to rock the boat and with Astra, they won’t. Astra’s interior seats five and the chairs are supportive. The main changes are in front of the driver. Astra has lost a lot of the buttons and switches that almost covered the entire dashboard. The cleaner look to the interior appears dull at first. But then when you think about it, it is bang on trend and similar to Golf, 308 and many other cars that are trying to de-clutter the driver’s view. The dash features layering and a combination of finishes that is nice and subtle.
SC prices start at €21,495 and the level of specification inside is pretty good, but then you touch the steering wheel. A great designer told me many years ago that the points of contact you experience with a car are vital to giving a premium feel. Handles, switches and steering wheels should be smooth and tactile. The plastic circular thing may have multifunctional features, but in the SC it is horrible to touch. Holding it is a nasty experience that cheapens the otherwise excellent driving experience. A few quid more spent on a decent leather or fake leather wheel that is soft to the touch would make all the difference (again this SC is set to be the volume selling version).
Okay so the sector is highly price-sensitive and the Astra does weigh in at a great price starting at €19,995. Also, the fleet industry is very much in Opel Ireland’s sights and will deliver an excellent value for money offers to fleet buyers… but still Opel is it too much to ask to get a soft touch wheel?!
Okay, rant over. The power in our test car comes from the brilliant 1.6-litre whisper diesel. Available with two outputs of 110hp or 136hp, our car features the higher horsepower. This unit is simply fantastic and the best in its class. 136hp through the front wheel is enough power for a bit of fun but the real bonus is the massive 320nm of torque available. If you drive gently, and you easily can with all that torque, the official fuel economy figures stated are reachable – now there’s a novelty in this day and age!
Fully loaded, the Astra can still pull like a train without any fuss. You can chat at motorway speeds and the level of refinement is truly impressive. The car lacks excitement but makes up for this by being darn good at everything else.
Under the skin there is lots of new bits and everything else has been tweaked or lightened etc. plus the car handles well too. If you are a low mileage user, the petrol 1-litre turbo model could be just the job (there a non turbo 1-litre and a 1.4-litre petrol too), but for me the 1.6-litre diesel is a perfect match – it’s quick and very frugal! OnStar, Opel’s connectivity device, is on the way too and this will let Astra sit right up there or there abouts at the top of its class.