All of a sudden the hot hatch genre seems to have caught alight. Volkswagen’s rejuvenated fifth-generation Golf GTI has really rekindled the love affair with this iconic machine, and Ford is doing brisk business with its racy Focus ST models. And let’s not forget about the Renault Megane RS either. But what about Opel, a brand that was once, through icons such as Superboss and GSi, synonymous with this type of car in South Africa? There was a slightly half-hearted attempt recently with a GSI-badged Astra, but hardcore Opel performance fans didn’t appreciate that particular model’s subtleties. Well, perhaps this Opel Astra OPC will be more to their liking…
If looks could killThe Opel Astra OPC wears its heart on its sleeve, that’s for sure. Based on the edgy two-door GTC body, but sporting a number of muscular aero add-ons, including a very aggressive front spoiler and rear wing, the OPC is a head-turner wherever it goes. It also gets a magnificently individualistic rear end with a large central exhaust type, and stunning 18-inch alloy wheels – you can even upgrade to 19-inch items that fill those flared wheelarches with real purpose. While it’s over-the-top looks may not suit those looking for a more subtle GTI type of machine, the Opel Astra OPC almost comes across as something more than a mere hot hatch… perhaps a junior sports car? Either way, you will certainly be noticed.
The interior has not seen as many changes, with the major differences being restricted to the seats – heavily bolstered Recaro sports items – leather steering wheel and gear knob, and a number of blue OPC badges. The standard trim is a neat cloth/leather mix, but full leather is available as an option. We’re used to the current Astra’s cabin by now, and there’s not really that much to complain about, except for the positioning of the HVAC (heating/ventilation) controls too low down on the facia. Otherwise, build quality is excellent, and the driving position really good, with a seat that drops down nice and low, and lots of adjustment on offer from the thick-rimmed steering wheel. And rear space? Does it matter? Well, being a slinky three-door hatch, access to the rear is not that easy, and it’s certainly only tailored for two, but once seated it is not unbearably uncomfortable. It will be sufficiently practical and comfortable for most likely buyers, especially as the boot is still very useful (370 L).
Priced at around R20 000 more than a Focus ST, but boasting a significant power advantage, you may expect the Opel Astra OPC to be somewhat of a stripped-out special, but it’s far from it. The features package is comprehensive and includes cruise control, radio/CD with remote audio controls, automatic air-conditioning and six airbags. This is in addition to a very comprehensive chassis support package (more on that later).
Hardcore set-upOpel was clearly stung by the criticism levelled at its other recent hot hatch attempts, because it has thrown a lot of technology at the OPC in an effort to give it class-leading dynamics and performance. The standard Astra is by no means an evil-handling car, but the fitment of a torsion beam rear suspension set-up does put it at a disadvantage compared with the more sophisticated multi-link arrangements found in the Golf and Focus. In an effort to sharpen up the Astra’s chassis, it has lowered the suspension by 15 mm, significantly revised the steering and stiffened the springs and dampers. But that’s not all. There’s also a so-called IDS (Interactive Driving System) programme that links all the various electronic driving aids (traction control, understeer logic control, ESP etc.) and which allows the driver to sharpen all the responses by pressing a “Sport” button.
Does it all work?
To a degree, yes. But there’s still the sense that this particular chassis has now reached the limit of its potential, because it is just about overpowered by the engine. With 177 kW and 320 Nm of torque, the 2,0-litre under the bonnet is seriously muscular. It is matched to a six-speed manual transmission that is not quite the slickest in the business, especially when shifting fast in the lower gears. It is worth keeping the transmission in mind because you’ll have to use it quite often, as the engine needs revs to really punch at its hardest.
The Opel Astra OPC also features an electronic throttle, and there are times when experienced drivers will miss the smoother application of a normal system, because the OPC’s electronic version can be annoyingly “on/off”, particularly so when trying to feed in power carefully upon corner exit, where too much power can result in torque steer and wheel spin.
The Opel Astra OPC may sound alarmingly unruly thus far, but in reality these deficiencies will not bother the majority of drivers. In fact, some may even enjoy the Astra’s wild streak. It is just that, compared with its more balanced rivals, the Opel Astra OPC requires a more considerate, experienced driver to extract its maximum capability. When this is done, there is almost no stopping it. The chassis is amazingly resistant to roll, lending it incredible stability upon corner entry and particularly in fast bends. And it certainly doesn’t lack grip, either. Learn to make use of the gearshift at the right moment, and you’ll even enjoy the engine noise – at full chat between 3 500 and 4 000 rpm it makes the most unearthly jet fighter noise.
Opel Astra OPC - VerdictIn many ways the Opel Astra OPC is the bad boy of the hot hatch club, and that alone will please many would-be buyers. It may lack the finesse and ultimate agility of its best rivals, but then it packs a harder punch, looks sharper and is certainly well built and decently equipped. It could very well build a loyal fan club for Opel enthusiasts once more. It’s about time…
- Stunning looks
- Ferocious power
- Build quality
- Grip and stability
- Torque steer
- On/off throttle
Engine: 2,0-litre, four-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 177 kW @ 5 600 rpm
Torque: 320 Nm @ 2 400 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Wheels: 18-inch alloy
Top speed: 244 km/h
0-100 km/h: 6,4 seconds
Fuel economy: 9,2 litres/100 km
- Ford Focus ST: Slightly cheaper and certainly beautifully balanced, the Focus ST has been a big success for Ford. The five-cylinder engine doesn’t quite have the power of the Opel Astra OPC, but it’s a characterful unit that delivers a great soundtrack. Not as unruly as the Opel.
- Volkswagen Golf GTI: In some ways the Golf remains a class benchmark. The engine delivers just enough power to exploit an undoubtedly fine chassis. The Golf’s big advantage is however how it manages to be absolutely thrilling when you want it to be, and completely comfortable and luxurious when you just want to get home.
- Renault Megane RS: When Renault does a hot hatch, the world tends to take note. The current model may have been around for a few years, but it remains a front runner, with great power and a very capable chassis. Not as balanced as the Ford and VW though.