Despite its 18 inch wheels, turbo’d engine and two door styling, buy an Astra SRi Turbo thinking that you’re getting a sporting car and you’ll surely be disappointed.
Instead, the Astra is far more a personal, sporty luxurious coupe in the mould of the Ford Probe, or, thinking back much further, the Mazda MX6 Turbo. The Mazda was a car with a lot of equipment (sunroof, luxury interior), lots of technical gizmos (four wheel steering, turbo) and plenty of style (two doors, blistered guards). Trouble is, out of the showroom and on the road, the MX6 never gelled into a cohesive package, not with its torque-steering handling and foot-in-two-camps stance. In the same way, the Astra has the luxury (leather, sound system, climate control), the technical gizmos (adaptive damping, turbo) and the style (swooping rear roofline and big wheels). But the wooden handling, the variable ride quality and the complex controls make for a car that is less than the sum of its parts.
It’s hard to be hugely enthusiastic about any aspect of the Astra. The engine – which we loved in the previous model – never revved in the test car cleanly and without flat spots. In cool weather the uneven-ness could just be detected; in hot weather the car felt like the boost control or ignition timing was always trying to catch up. (The car was run with the petrol supplied in the car from Holden.) Developing 147kW at 5400 rpm and 262Nm at 4200 rpm (the latter an oddly changed rpm from the previous model), the 2-litre has more bottom-end torque than that 4200 rpm peak torque figure would suggest - but the performance is never startling. The lack of variable valve timing is also a clue to the engine’s age.
The only transmission available is a 6-speed manual; it has a long travel gear-knob but the shift feel is good.
Fuel economy was far worse than we recorded with the previous model, with an around-town figure (air con running continuously – more on this in a minute) that at times was a startlingly-high 13 litres/100km. Over the full week of driving, which included plenty of country as well as city kilometres, the average came in at 10.5 litres/100km. The official figure is 9.4 litres/100km.
On paper the suspension looks trick. The design is much the same as other Astras – although with lower ride height - but Continuously Controlled Dampers (available only on the Turbo) are trumpeted as a major advance. In addition to self-adjusting to the conditions, a driver over-ride Sport button is provided on the dash. Pressing it alters the electronic throttle gain, changes the steering assist and stiffens-up the dampers. But whatever the damping firmness selected, the ride jiggles and crashes over typically rough Australian urban roads manhole covers and filler strips – it feels as if the 40 series tyres are simply too low in profile for the rest of the suspension tune.
In fact, we think that the engineers have got the ride seriously wrong: over long wavelength bumps, the ride can wallow, while with the Sports button pressed, harshness is high. At the time we had the Astra we also had a Mitsubishi Colt Ralliart – despite having stiffer suspension (and vastly better handling!), the exemplary damping of the Colt made its ride consistently more acceptable than the Astra.
Brakes on the turbo model are big, with 28mm larger-than-standard 308mm front discs and 264mm rears. Brake assist is provided along with ABS.
The controls are also a case of ‘look good’ rather than ‘work well’. An owner of the car would get used to the idiosyncrasies that include it being impossible to turn off the air-con without first getting into a specific menu on the central LCD, and non-intuitive labelling of most of the controls. However, the central orange/black LCD is able to be easily read - even when wearing polarising sunglasses – and once the labelling is sorted, the steering wheel controls work well.
The seats – both front and back – are comfortable, although headroom is restricted in the back. In fact, with the low roofline, high waistline, non-opening rear windows (and black interior of the test car), many adults will find the rear claustrophobic. But there’s plenty of room for a baby seat and access to it is acceptable. The front seats lack electrics but include passenger’s seat height and lumbar adjust, and driver’s seat has height, tilt and lumbar. Storage spaces around the cabin are unusually sparse - front cup-holders and a lidded central console bin are absent.
Lift the hatch and you’ll find a large boot. However, the width of the opening is restricted and the shape of the lower corners lends themselves to being scratched, eg by loading and unloading suitcases. The rear seat 60/40 split-folds but the resulting floor is stepped rather than being flat. The 16-inch spare wheel is not a space-saver but it still wears a sticker limiting it to 80 km/h.
Handling is grippy but uncommunicative. Stability control is fitted and the Astra is a car that can be quickly hustled along a winding road. But the steering is wooden and the front tyres are clearly doing a lot of the work – this isn’t a well-balanced car that can be driven by the fingertips and the throttle.
We think that there is a group of buyers that will love the Astra SRi Turbo. The car is well built and with its six airbags, stability control and grippy handling, it’s safe. Noise, vibration and harshness are very low. The Astra attracts plenty of attention on the road and is well equipped. And at AUD$34,990, it’s even cheaper than the previous model.
But for us it’s a try-hard car, with controls lacking cohesion and simplicity, an engine that now feels off the class pace, and a ride/handling compromise that could have been better with less technology and more engineering development.