What a Clever Little Astra. We drive the OPC and Compare to the Focus ST

Astra OPC front 3 quarter_warehouseOpel Corsa 2011Astra OPC badgeAstra OPC rear_warehouse verticleOPC button on steering wheelAstra OPC interiror_InternationalOpel Corsa 2011Opel Corsa 2011Astra OPC side_warehouse decreased scaleAstra OPC rear_ warehouseOpel Corsa 2011Opel Corsa 2011Astra OPC side_warehouseAstra OPC testingOpel Corsa 2011Astra OPC testing_side

Opel’s Astra OPC vs Ford’s Fab Focus ST

Although it’s been done to death, this comparison naturally occurs and many writers feel the need to throw in Renault’s Megane RS. Indeed it looks good, they all do. You can read our earlier drive of the Focus HERE but we took her for another spin just to refresh. It’s a terribly hard life but someone has to do it.

The Astra is extremely sexy. It’s a 2 door hatch. It has some seats, a dashboard and a steering wheel all clad in futuristic fabric and Nappa leather and the joints look like they match up on purpose. Inside and out it’s gorgeous. Yes, I am talking about an Astra, albeit a go-quick one. Opel has pushed the boat out on this stunning coupe. I say coupe deliberately as the word “hatch” conjures up images of a bloke squeezing a couple of screaming brats in back, and his missus, also screaming, up front. The OPC deserves better than that, so Coupe it is. You’ll be hearing quite a lot of the word “fabulous” along with other words like “sensational” and “magnificent. By the time we get to them I’m sure I shall have thought of another to match the sensational magnificence (did any of the you see what I did there? I went and used two of the words I said to watch out for) little Astra.

The exterior is subtle. There are elements of “hatch” DNA but there is very little to expose the beast under the bonnet, except for the OPC badge. The alloys are 19” but you can opt for a slightly sexier 20”. Who’d have thought you’d get such enormous wheels on a tiny car. Even 5 years ago that was a dream for all but the keenest of illegal modifiers.

The lines of the coupe are particularly successful. It looks to tilt forward on its feet ready to sprint, and with the powerful hind quarter, it looks capable of making that sprint a quick one. Indeed the 2.0L twin turbo packs a decent 206KW punch. If that doesn’t satisfy even the toughest track-boy then nothing will.

The OPC is based on the GTC but has more power, is lower and has bespoke modifications giving it a bit of je ne sai quoi.

If I could be boring for just a moment, there are some mechanical points well worth a mention such as:-

Mechanical LSD, HiPerStrut (hi performance strut), FlexRide, uprated springs and new dampers developed between Opel and ZF Sachs.

The multi-plate LSD was jointly developed with motorsport supplier Drexler. Drexler sounds like something from a bond film, and 20 years ago the OPC would have been considered something from fiction and worthy of a bond film. 206KW from a teensy 2.0L 4 cylinder was unheard of on a road going hot hatch.

Then we move to the sensational brakes developed between Opel and Brembo. The front discs the size of large dinner plates have four-piston callipers. The “floating discs” use a cast iron rotor on an aluminium disc bell. This gives the heat resistant cast iron some weight savings in the aluminium. This setup means a huge 7kgs have been shaved off the unsprung weight which has a huge benefit in handling. The whole shebang was given a thorough workout at the fabulous Nürburgring and Contidrom race tracks in Germany, the snow and ice in Scandinavia and the searing heat of Spain’s Idiada test track. If it doesn’t fall apart there, a bit of light dawdling around Sydney should be a doddle. I rather doubt the petrol-heads who buy this will be dawdling though.

The OPC is 10mm lower than the GTC and 30mm lower than the pov Astra, and the clever crank/Watts link rear suspension was given extra stiffness. The GTC bushes also were stiffened for the OPC, likewise the front anti-roll bar was beefed up by 5mm for the OPC. The Opel/ZF Sachs dampers use larger pistons and the suspension subframe rests on special mounts. Opel says the elastic-kinematic nature of it provides more agile steering and support but it all sounds like Swahili to me. Please don’t think I actually understand a bit of it, but it’s forcing me to believe it.

I don’t usually go into such detail because most of us have no idea what it means. Had I not read the bumph given to me by the nice folk at Opel I’d have been none the wiser either. But what you will feel is the differences in the FlexRide settings. They are a couple of innocuous buttons on the dash which when pressed unleash various measures of dark arts under the bonnet. Thankfully the traction control isn’t affected by them and is a separate control which also has 3 modes. My advice is to leave traction control alone. You’ll go sideways into a bush otherwise, which is neither fabulous nor sensational. The FlexRide adjusts the dampers and steering from the already brilliant standard settings through a harder “sports” setting and on to the OPC setting which will brake bones on Sydney roads. I personally required dental work and the services of a chiropractor after only a short stint in this mode. It’s as comfortable as sitting on a piece of clay pipe dropped from a 3rd floor balcony onto a cushion made of compressed car bodies and blocks of concrete. Obviously it is only to be used on tracks days, and even then only if you care not for your old age.

Speaking of track days, a little birdie told me the test car had been on 2 track days in its 5,000km life. It is now on its 6th set of tyres and 3rd clutch. I’ve long wondered why a sensible person would take their car to the track and this confirms why a sensible person wouldn’t. People say that’s why they buy them, but rarely does a hot hatch make it through the pits and out onto a track anywhere in the world. Keep in mind the OPC was only released a few months ago and it gives you some idea of how hard a track can be on a car. It is a shame that most of us will never know the joys of the unbridled pleasure of twin scrolls forcing air into chamber that’s had petrol breathed gently into it by an angel, then detonated by Satan! The acceleration comes close to that other star of stage and screen, Mitsubishi’s glorious EVO X.

Here is another excerpt from the company propaganda dept:-

“Further important features to this compact turbo-charger include the pneumatic over-run valve and an efficiency-optimised turbine wheel. At a defined vacuum, a valve is opened which leads air back to the compressor inlet. This keeps the speed of the charger at a high level. When the accelerator is pressed again, charge pressure is then immediately available. To increase volumetric efficiency in the combustion chambers, the pre-compressed air is cooled by around 100°c in an intercooler before entering the chamber.”

Sir Humphrey couldn’t have said it any better. Can’t you just imagine Jim Hacker then saying “You mean it goes fast”?

The sound is impressive too. In Europe there is a thing called the Lex Ferrari test. Ever heard of it? No neither had I. Brussels says cars can’t be too noisy. The engineers got 75db for the OPC and the test is as follows: the car must accelerate from 50 to 61 KPH (how Brussels is that?) on a bit of road measuring 15 metres. This is a challenge for most cars but the OPC romped home. Forget the fact that the test is the daftest thing a civil servant could invent, the sound is glorious both inside and out. In fact, our secret storage bunker has the acoustics a cave. The booming from the Astra frequently set off car alarms which was fun. Interestingly you couldn’t do it intentionally, I tried. The GTC’s 3 silencers have been removed for this performance, and glad I am about it too. It sounds like a jet when fully wound up! To cap it all off, there are a couple of smart parallelogram-shaped holes in the rear bumper as tailpipes, which look sensational.

I won’t go on about the counter rotating balance shafts, the low maintenance chain driven OHCs (easily accessible from above meaning oil changes are via a cartridge signalled by the service indicator) or the sodium-filled outlet valves with low friction roller valve levers. If I did I’m sure you’d lapse into a merciful coma by the end of the second line.

We’ll spend a minute on the interior then on to the drive, the bit you’ve all been waiting for. Once again, the literature is awash with incomprehensible gobbledygook, but the bit about the steering wheel is genius. “The centre-piece of the OPC’s cabin is Opel’s flat bottomed steering wheel. Its diameter has been reduced from 370 to 360mm making it more precise and direct. The steering wheel’s grip has been enhanced by packing supple sponge rubber around a magnesium/steel hybrid ring then covering the entire wheel in premium, soft cross stitched leather” All of which could have been said as “it’s 10mm smaller than the others, has a flat bum and is covered in soft leather”, but hey ho, that’s the Germans for you!

The dash is a triumph. Its simple easy to read dials are not cluttered but a plethora of fussy buttons. Although the premium OPC has Satnav and a big LCD screen (non-touch I might add), there is no reverse camera which for 42K plus onroads is a bit steep and is an oversight that needs correcting forthwith. The air vents are effective and easy to use. There is a comforting ambience which feels familiar even if you’ve never been in an Astra before. The only thing that took a few moments was pairing the phone and I never got the Bluetooth streaming to work. It’s better than the competition. A cabin of this standard would lift Holden’s Cruze out of the dreary cheapness which has gripped it with an icy touch that GM doesn’t seem to be able to shake off.

The sound system is first class. There is a fabulous depth to the tone with a feeling like the live performance is actually a live performance. Importantly, Kylie sounds brilliant! The Audio controls can be used sans manual and the driver doesn’t need a degree from Oxford to understand it.

Another piece of genius are the seats, a bone of contention on most hot hatches. In the others, you be greeted by unwelcoming excuse for accommodations carved from a solid block of marble. It has then been smeared the thinnest of foam cushions and covered an impossibly expensive fabric spun from soured yaks milk and filtered moon dust. The whole thing is made in a hermetically sealed prison cell by labourers specially imported from outer Mongolia. They have all the comfort of being hit on the head by Venus.

But the Astra is different. Yes they are firm but the material is all lightweight and special. The seats are 30mm lower than the standard model with shells made from polyamide and fibreglass. The injection moulding gives this extra-strong material a thickness of a mere 2mm which is then cushioned and wrapped in Nappa leather not some awful man made creation from a laboratory. But that’s not the clever bit, no no no. It’s this: front section of the cushion pulls out like a draw and the side bolsters of the seat and back are power adjusted with buttons. The lumbar support is also powered and adjusts for height and depth. What this means is no longer with your back contort into unnatural positions and nor will your love handles feel as if they have been inserted into the seat with a shoe-horn. Everything except for seat height (only the front section will raise) can be changed. Even on a longer drive the seats were supremely comfy.

The drive was spectacular. The acceleration was smooth and delivered with a steady burst from the twinscroll. Despite the clever engineering the front wheels often scrambled for grip because 206kw is an awful lot of power to push through the front wheels. None the less the Astra copes well with a manageable amount of torque steer. Under hard acceleration the engine gets to somewhere over 4000rpm, then screams as if an after-burner has been lit. At first I thought I’d broken it, but no, it’s just the Opel demanding “GO FASTER. Show papa what you’re made of”. If there is one thing Germans know how to do is go fast while staying firmly on the road.

With the seat adjusted to a gentle hug, corners, no matter how enthusiastic, are gobbled up with gusto with neither the car nor the driver sliding sideways. The grip from the fat tyres is almost unworldly as if its somehow tethered directly to the earth’s core. The steering feels weighted in “normal” mode just enough to allow simulated road feel without being too light, or so heavy that you feel like you’re turning the QM II. The only drawback is unsecured items tend to be minced if left in the back for too long, but it’s worth every moment for just a single second of pleasure of this magnitude.

The power is instantly available. Despite Opel’s claims otherwise, I needed to use the gears often. 1st seemed very long indeed but 2nd frequently laboured the engine in traffic. Such is life with turbos which are only any good if they are spinning like a demented disco-dancer. If the engine is particularly torquey (like the VW Tiguan) you can get away with low rev motoring but 1st is best for the OPC when in dribble mode.

It’s comfy and looks fabulous and for a change the fuel figures are pretty much what the manufacturer says they are. After a good thrashing around Sydney for a week the dial still read 11L/100k which is remarkable given the scintillating performance.

In short, the OPC was sublime and I’d happily have one at my place.

WRAP: ASTRA VS FOCUS

When seeing them side by side it’s hard to pick a winner. That is why motoring writers have rushed to do comparisons. Even then it isn’t as simple as you might think.

The Astra wins on looks, the Focus on practicality. The drive is similar in both but the Focus has a nicer feel to the steering until pushed where it develops an extreme psychosis, and goes off like a demented marshmallow on springs. The dash of the Opel is clearer and easy to use. The Focus has way too many buttons over the console and even more over the steering wheel. It’s confusing until you get used to it. The ride is considerably better in the OPC, whichhas adjustable damping and in normal mode is almost limo-like. The Focus is firm but comfy but the Astra wins.

The Astra also has better fuel consumption. Both cars are German.

Because of the better ride, more controlled steering, and more thoughtful cabin layout, for me, it’s the Astra OPC. The adjustable seat bolsters are the icing on the cake. In truth I’d have either as a gift!

feature

Astra OPC

Focus ST

Engine/cyl

2.0L/4

2.0L/4

Transmission

6sp man

6sp man

Power/torque

206/400

184/340

Fuel econ L/100k

urb/ex urb/comb

10.8 / 6.5 / 8.1

7.1 (comb only)

Co2

189

172

Charger system

Twin scroll turbo, waste gate and bypass valve

Single turbo, Di Ti-VCT

Emissions rating

Euro V

Euro V

Fuel tank capacity

56

62

doors

3

5

Max cargo

1165L

 

length

4466

 

width

2020

 

height

1489

 

price

$42,990 PLUS onroads

$42,384 DRIVE AWAY

VERDICT:

Astra by a nose

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