We loved Astra at its recent local launch. Read about it here (including prices and specs). Sometimes, the razzmatazz and fancy footwork of a launch doesn’t translate well to daily use. The Astra was not one of those unfortunate cars. In fact, it was even better the second time round.
We were promised the top model with the fancy schmancy matrix headlights, but it was not to be. None the less, the manual Astra RS at $26,490 (plus onroads) feels like a bargain after a week. Apart from the upholstery not being to my personal taste, the RS is spot on. The superb 147kw 1.6 engine spins smoothly, and the manual is a thorough delight. It’s an economical little thing too.
Thankfully, Astra replaces the elderly, and rather dreary Cruze. Astra is a good looker with a drive experience that makes Cruze feel so last-century. And, it has to. Holden is placing a lot hope in the pride of its small car fleet. A sedan is joining the range in a few months. I’ll always prefer the hatch but a well-rounded range will have a booted model for sedan lovers. I think the Hatch looks more handsome because the rear of the sedan looking slightly awkward. The rear wheel looks completely lost in a sea of sheetmetal. We’ll drive the sedan and let you know how if fares.
Meanwhile, the RS hatch outdid itself. Holden sees Astra as a city car which sells the humble hatch short. Its nimble habits made short work of our sports circuit in the Royal National Park. Astra was smooth and comfortable on the highway too. The boot packed a couple of decent bags with room to spare, and the cabin easily coped with 4 adults without anyone feeling cramped. A cozy couple sneaking away for a naughty weekend could pack their favourite doona and pillows too if they really wanted. The interior really does feel very spacious.
Add to that, a fabulously easy infotainment system, and a full suite of safety gear, and the package looks all but unbeatable.
Some models have active lane keeping, autonomous emergency braking and forward collision warning.
In my launch review, I said that I wasn’t sure if Astra could knock Golf off the “my-favourite-shopping-cart” podium. After living with it over a longer than usual Christmas break I can say the Golf has been pipped at the post. Once the hot model arrives, Golf will be in strife. I enjoyed the nippy willingness which the mid-range Golfs lack with either 92kw or 110kw models.
Soon to be released sedan ABOVE
Astra looks and feels more modern than Golf, and the interior is more relaxed and comfortable. Holden’s automatic is a cracker, but “manual” is my word du jour. The clutch is incredibly easy and light. Most millennials go white at the thought of having to shift a gear, which is a shame. It is one of the delights of driving. It makes you feel part of the car rather than a slightly interested bystander. The gear lever falls to hand without over reaching. A nice short throw gets you from 1st to 6th with almost no effort and more importantly, no confusion. Drivers new to manuals say not knowing what gear they’re in is their biggest fear. There is no need to sook, Astra has a gear change indicator which tells you what gear you’re in, and a little arrow to change up for best economy.
The rest of the dash is similarly thoughtful. The Apple CarPlay/Android Auto infotainment system allows you to mirror your smart phone and use Siri handsfree to perform functions without having to move your eyes from the road ahead. I managed to get instructions to an address just by using the voice button. Siri needs a data connection so only works in cell range. My new best friend is DAB radio. The first thing I do is to set my 4 favourite stations to use when my phone lists get boring.
ABOVE: The Astra parked here when I am not sure I’d have been able to.
I want to spend a few moments on the semi-auto parking because it deserves special mention. Some systems need big hugs to work, and often sulk horribly at the first sign of trouble. The first task was to press the park-aid button and follow the directions. The Holden managed to get into a tight spot with barely 30cms at each end. Even more impressive was the ability to pass a parking spot, then press the park-aid button and still have Astra park itself. I did this by accident after searching for ages for a spot. At first I thought I’d have to reverse, select Park-aid, then drive forward. Instead, with the parallel spot behind me, I hit the button and selected reverse. To my surprise, the system took control of the steering and guided me gently in. No longer is this just a gimmick, but is a useful tool to get you out of tight spots, or should I say, in, to tight spots.
The Air Conditioning is a manual affair. Select the mix of warm/cool air, and the fan speed, job done. It works well even on the hottest of days. It was nice to see a manual parking brake handle in the traditional spot instead of a wee button which makes a whining noise when you park. I don’t see the point of an electric parking brake unless it is fully automatic and activates when you shift the gearbox into park, or switch off the engine.
The ride was very good especially for a small car. The electric steering is rack mounted which removes any twisting the steering column might have. It is calibrated to simulate a bit of road feel while giving just the right amount of assistance. Some electric steering feels dead and lifeless, but Astra feels reasonably sharp. I anticipate the hot-model being even sharper. The handling might even be considered sporty, a word that is much-overused. It is well justified here though.
A full week left me in no doubt, Astra is brilliant, and there is a model for every pocket. The sound system has a comforting warmness to the tone and the cabin feels well appointed. The designers intended the passengers have a sense of being considered carefully in each and every decision. Your eye rolls easily across the gentle curves and creases and there are no hard-jutting edges to disrupt your day. The seats are comfortable, and the atmosphere feels well resolved. There is nothing pretentious, nor is Astra bland, but then I’ve always liked the nameplate.
All of the controls are self-explanatory, even those on the steering wheel, and pairing your phone takes about 8 seconds. If you use your charging cable in the centre console USB port, no pairing is needed. CarPlay takes over so all you need to do is confirm your acquiescence. From then on, the system is as familiar if you were using the phone held in your hand. One of the best features of CarPlay is its ability to read texts to you. With little practice, you’re sending and receiving without having to type a single stroke. You might feel a little less smug having to do it with passengers on board, but otherwise it is genius.
I’d like to see a single LCD screen for driver instrumentation, and the intrusive parking sensors drove me mad. They were far too sensitive. They activate when they see something you need to avoid, but the beeping is loud even on the softest setting. Someone walks within a 75kilomter radius of your front bumper and “BBBBEEEEEEEEPPPPP”. You stop at your garage door to tap yourself in and “BBBBEEEEEEEEPPPPP”. You drive into the garage and “BBBBEEEEEEEEPPPPP”. It you don’t want to be completely demented, you’ll be reaching for the off button many, many, times per trip. Although pressing the button silences the alarm, it reactivates the next time it thinks you’ve missed an object. I can see there are times when that might be handy but it will be going off so much, my fear is you’ll simply ignore it and hit the post anyway.
An all-round great package, Astra should do well and appeal to most buyers. Hatches are perfect for pet owners too. I’m not a pet lover and loathe pet hair getting into every orifice. However, if you insist on taking your animals with you, you can put the back seats down. It will confine the dander to the cargo hold rather than inflicting it everyone who opens the door. There is nothing better than the odour de dog to accompany you on your trip to the shops.
Would I buy one? Yes. I’d probably go for the top model with leather.