Astra twin top

Mixed feelings

by Julian Edgar, pics by Holden

Click on pics to view larger images

At a glance...

  • Retractable all-steel roof gives two genuinely useable cars
  • Dull driving experience
  • Unremarkable performance and fuel economy
  • $30,000 car with $15,000 roof

There’s no need to wade through a thousand words of text. The Astra Twin Top can be summarised in just two sentences.

If you just absolutely love the looks of the Astra and the fact that its all-steel roof folds its way into the boot, giving you either a coupe or a genuinely useable convertible, the Astra is great.

However, if you figure the Astra is a well-equipped car that handles and goes well, it’s not for you.

The Astra Twin Top is very much the $30,000 car with the $15,000 roof.

So let’s start with that roof. Unlike the previous model’s soft-top, the Astra’s roof comprises only steel panels. An extraordinary mechanism folds it all away – rear glass window included - into the boot, the complex process taking only 30 seconds. But for the driver the motion isn’t complex – she just presses the button. Unusually, the three-piece roof can be operated while travelling at up to 30 km/h. With the roof up, sealing is excellent and the wind and road noise low. We could occasionally hear some odd resonant buzzes in the cabin (presumably from the mechanism) but for all intents and purposes, the Astra with the roof up is a normal coupe – with everything that implies for weatherproofness and security.

And there’s been very little trade-off in roof-down comfort. Despite a wind deflector being provided (it installs over the rear seat opening), wind turbulence in the cabin’s front seats is quite acceptable - even without the deflector in place. But the fact that the deflector installs over the rear seat space is a clue to those seats being effectively useless except for smallish children or emergency carriage of a single adult a short distance. The rear seat back is upright and the roof-closed headroom terrible. Shoulder width is also narrow.

With the roof up, the boot space is very large; with it down it is acceptable – a thin (but otherwise full-size) suitcase will fit. An 80 km/h space-saver spare wheel is located under the floor and four tie-down hooks are provided in the boot. For long loads, a small ski-hatch gives access to the cabin.

Up front there’s plenty of room in all directions. But we found the leather seats rather hard and uncomfortable, and neither seat has any electric adjustment. Control ergonomics are European Holden – not at all intuitive but owners would get used to them. The instruments and steering wheel stalks are fine, but the centre-of-dash panel is not aimed towards the driver and requires familiarisation.

The doors are very long and heavy. They also have stiff door handles, so getting in and out is not accomplished with the ease you might expect. We think that if the car was parked on a steeply cambered road, smaller people would have real difficulty in pulling a door shut.

The engine is a 2.2 litre, 4 cylinder design with a peak power of 110kW at 5600 rpm. Despite being linked in the test car to a 6-speed manual transmission, the engine finds it an onerous task lugging around the massive 1590kg body (that’s perhaps 200kg more than you might expect). Despite the engine boasting torque-boosting direct fuel injection, you need to use the gearbox frequently if you’re to gain best performance. Climbing steep open-road hills requires down-changing two or even three gears. On the fuel provided by Holden (95 RON is the brew of choice for gaining best power), the engine could be heard occasionally detonating.

Fuel consumption is listed at 9.1 litres/100 and with plenty of open road, top-up driving, we achieved 8.3 litres/100. However, we saw mid-12s in city conditions and the country road economy worsened considerably if the roof was retracted.

The steering is lacking in feel and together with the dull throttle response, the Twin Top is not a particularly rewarding car to hustle along a winding road. However, it is safe – the big tyres providing good grip and the standard stability control system intervening when required.

But what about with the standard ‘Sport’ button pressed? This changes the throttle ratio (the throttle blade opens further for a given accelerator pedal movement) and decreases power steering assistance. It also changes the damper settings and (in auto trans cars) increases the revs at which up-changes occur.

But the sports mode struck us as rather a gimmick – the ride in sports mode is hard, and when in sporty driving the throttle often needs to be mashed all the way to the floor, well, a quicker throttle ratio doesn’t compensate for a lack of power.

In fact, we thought that the Twin Top rather oddly specified. The tyre/wheel package (sticky 225/45 Continental Sport Contact II on 17 x 7 inch rims) seems way overkill with the available performance – better to fit a more modest wheel/tyre package, delete the ‘Sport’ mode... and then fit electric seats. (Or instead of the electric seats, just reduce the price.)

Only four airbags are fitted and the climate control is semi-auto. However, the car gets reversing sensors, a six stack in-dash CD and heated seats – the latter important in a convertible where the heater is much less effective with the top retracted.

Assessed in terms of a fixed roof coupe, the Astra Twin Top is not particularly notable. Assessed as a car that can in moments convert from being a coupe to one without a roof – well, then the Twin Top is most impressive. But it all comes back to one thing: buy this car only if you intend most days to go topless ...

The Astra Twin Top was supplied for this story by Holden.

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