Opel Astra (2016) First Drive


Buoyed by the European Car of the Year title, the new, feature-packed Astra has its sights set on restoring Opel as a force in the compact hatchback market. Moreover, General Motors SA hopes it will attract a fair share of premium hatchback buyers too.

When GM shifted the focus of its passenger vehicle product line-up to Chevrolet the best part of a decade ago (there were several reasons for that, including uncertainty about Opel's future at the time), the Astra, which had joined its old rival, the Volkswagen Golf, in a push up the market, suffered more than most of the Russelsheim-based brand's products.

In light of developments in the compact hatchback market, where downsized, turbocharged engines feature at the entry level and premium brands' offerings encroach on the top of the range models, the new Astra needs to be well-designed, efficient and technologically advanced, yet retain a level of driver involvement over and above the brand's pursuit of refinement.

Kerb appeal

The trend towards downsizing does not only pertain to the 1.0-litre EcoFlex engine in the entry-level Astra derivatives. The newcomer is 49 mm shorter and 26 mm lower than its predecessor, which has resulted in improved aerodynamic efficiency, but through innovative packaging, Opel has freed up 35 mm more rear legroom and 22 mm more front headroom.

The new Astra (left) is markedly lower and more distinctive than the model it replaces.

As this graphic illustrates, the comparatively low-slung new Astra is far more distinctive from the front than its predecessor — and compared with its Corsa sibling’s posterior, the newcomer’s rear is positively chic. Adding to the Astra aesthetic appeal is the fact that all models bar the entry-level 1,0T Essentia are shod with 17-inch wheels (with the Sport/Plus models riding on 18-inch alloys) and have LED daytime running lights/indicators. If any element of the exterior design may divide opinions, it’s probably the narrow strips of black plastic trim on the C-pillars that create the “floating roof effect”; we think they add nifty detail to the Astra's rear three-quarter aspect, but some observers have described them as fussy.  

The Sport-specification Astras benefit from leather trim, piano-black inserts and handsome steering wheel.

Handsome, well-appointed interior

General Motors took a strategic decision a few years ago to prioritise the development of infotainment systems (and their respective smartphone interfaces) and the result is immediately evident in the Astra. The IntelliLink 4.0 7-inch touchscreen (for the 6-speaker Bluetooth/USB/MP3/AUX audio system) that's located near the top of the soft-touch dashboard has effectively decluttered the fascia and is very intuitive to use.

Repackaged Astra interior offers more headroom at the front, and extra legroom at the back.

Speaking of which, the fascia of the Enjoy models look a little grey and plain without the Sport-spec’s piano black trim (and not least the electronic climate control console with its metallic accents). What's more, the generic GM polyurethane multifunction steering wheel can’t quite hold a candle to the Sport’s handsome, leather-trimmed tiller either, but where Opel has stolen the march on everyone, however, is by sporting the smartest-looking instrument clusters!

But that does not mean that there is much amiss with the build quality of the Astra’s interior; quite the contrary, in fact. Whereas the previous version of Opel’s compact hatchback lagged behind the opposition in terms of the quality of its cabin plastics and the way that panels fit together, our biggest criticism of the newcomer is just a lack of storage space above the gear lever (the storage compartment in the centre console is not particularly large either). And in terms of general accommodation, the rear legroom is quite suitable for a pair of adult passengers and the luggage bay is capacious.

Luggage capacity does not suffer for the improvement in rear legroom.

Impressive on-road refinement

Although the appeal of the Astra’s interior will probably have a number of potential buyers convinced well before they’ve departed the showrooms on a test drive, the Astra’s accomplished, multi-faceted driving experience is worth savouring.

None of the models, from the 1.0- to the 1.6-litre, will leave you astounded by their outright pace (even if their performance figures are more than fair) and their ride qualities are pliant and predictable, as opposed to cossetting, but one of the most impressive aspects of the newcomer is the way it melds good noise, vibration and harshness suppression (at least as far as the driver and passengers are concerned) with smooth and willing powertrains and a level of suspension tuning that is comfort-oriented for everyday use, yet responsive and dynamic enough to reward enthusiastic inputs to the Opel’s steering.

The 1.0 litre proved impressively willing and smooth and should offer more than adequate performance if you need a town runabout and the 1.6 only leaves the 1.4 in its wake when you’re trying to execute hurried overtaking manoeuvres and in conditions where its uprated rear suspension can show its mettle, which, to be fair, probably won’t be that often in an Astra.  

The 1.6T Sport and Plus models feature compound crank with additional Watt’s linkage rear suspension.

Unobtrusive, but effective safety systems

While it’s a moot whether the number of airbags and safety-related acronyms fitted to vehicle will generate much showroom traffic, the integration/operation of the safety systems ought to have an impact on purchasing decisions, because in the case of the Opel Eye camera sensor array, its functions make active, worthwhile impacts on the driving experience.

It underpins a number of driver assistance systems that are offered as standard from the 1.4T model and up, such as forward collision alert, following distance indicator and collision avoidance/mitigation systems (through a brake preparation system  up to a speed of 80 kph, Emergency Automatic Braking — up to a speed of 60 kph, with full braking below 40 kph, and forward-looking brake assist.

The Astra's collision alert system has three sensitivity settings.

The lane keeping assist system isn’t as intrusive as similar systems I have encountered, but very effective, plus the traffic sign recognition, which reads traffic signs, then displays and stores their values on the instrument cluster, is especially helpful if you’re travelling in an unfamiliar area and hope to remain in the local enforcement’s good books…

Its sheer “Astraness”...

A quick glance at our recent specs and prices story will probably prompt interested buyers to reach for their calculators to see if they can afford the 1.4T Sport automatic, which has leather, front sports seats with electrically adjustable lumbar support and a front/rear seat heating function. That, or its slightly lower-specced manual sibling, is likely to interest consumers the most. The phenomenal LED IntelliLux Matrix Lighting System (with automatic headlamp levelling, dynamic control and adaptive forward lighting) and LED tail lights is only available on the top-of-range 1.6T Plus, unfortunately.

Considering how well equipped the 1.6T Plus is, it does represent good value compared with premium hatchback rivals such as the BMW 120i, but the Plus is a harder sell in a snobbish, image-obsessed marketplace. Any of the 1.4T models (depending on your budget) are well worth a look, but the model that most impressed us was the 1.0T Enjoy. Despite its relatively sober specification (compared with the Sport versions), it rides well, performs ably and its overall refinement is very satisfying given its R284 300 pricetag, which includes a 5-year/120 000 km warranty and a 5-year/90 000 km service and roadside assistance plan.

The 1.0-litre motor is not overwhelmed by the bulk of the Astra's body; it proves surprisingly perky.

And that’s the “Astraness” to which we referred before. From the user-friendliness of the Apple Carplay and Andriod Auto-friendly IntelliLink 4.0 7-inch touchscreen interface, to the way that the model's respective engines and transmission go about their business in a unflustered manner, to the comfort of the cabin and the solidity of its minor fixtures and, lastly, the relaxing, yet still engaging, driving experience means this Opel product should not be overlooked. It has been instrumental in the brand’s recent sales success in Europe… and we believe it deserves to succeed on local soil as well! 

Opel Astra pricing in South Africa

1.0 T Essentia R254 000 
1.0 T Enjoy R284 300          
1.4T Enjoy R328 000       
1.4T Enjoy automatic R338 000
1.4T Sport R354 000       
1.4T Sport automatic R374 000
1.6T Sport R387 000
1.6T Sport Plus R407 000

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