The current range of Euro-sourced Holdens have some great strengths behind them – rigid body design, good space and practicality, attractive styling and – in the top-line Barina SRi and Vectra V6 – plenty of poke.
Well, the new top-of-the-range AH-series Holden Astra CDXi carries over all of those strengths – except for one.
Unfortunately, the top-line Astra comes with the same 1.8 litre four found in the outgoing model and it struggles with a kerb weight that’s crept up to around 1300kg. It is also let down by a few annoying design flaws, which we’ll come to.
At AUD$29,990, the Astra CDXi manual is pitched at the premium end of the hatchback market. It’s slightly dearer than the equivalent Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus and the hot-selling Mazda3. Alfa 147s and Audi A3s are deep into the 30 grand range.
In the upper end of this category, the CDXi stands out as one of the heftiest and underpowered vehicles. Sure, there are some base-model Euro hatches that have even less performance but at least you have the option of upgrading. You’re stuck with it in the CDXi.
In urban driving, the 1.8 has decent throttle response and much of the available torque is accessible – 90 percent of peak torque (165Nm) is available from 2200 to 5500 rpm. This torque spread is enough to survive in light-throttle driving, but try to pass another car in an uphill overtaking lane and you’ll fall on your face.
The all-out power of the Astra CDXi is its biggest letdown. Pop the bonnet and you’ll see the familiar ECOTEC DOHC, 16 valve, 1.8 litre four. Sure, it uses electronic throttle control and a variable intake manifold but where’s the variable cam timing? With no major engine changes over the previous model, peak power remains at 90kW at 5600 rpm. Holden claims an extra 2kW when using premium unleaded.
A shorter final drive ratio helps the 5 speed manual version get away with its extra kilograms. The gearbox uses a lift-up collar arrangement to engage reverse gear. We’re not big fans of this type of system, but the Astra’s is easier to operate than most. Unfortunately, the gearbox is reluctant to make quick high rpm up-shifts - this was most evident during our performance testing.
Note that a 4 speed auto is available for AUD$2000 extra.
Depending on your succuss with up-shifts, the Astra CDXi 5 speed accelerates to 100 km/h in around 12 seconds. It’s enough to get by but it pales when compared to the straight-line abilities of equivalent Toyotas and Mazdas.
Fuel economy was pretty much as expected – about 9.0 litres per 100km. The ADR 81/01 figure is 7.8 litres per 100km.
But enough on the driveline. The rest of the all-new Astra is quite impressive.
The high-roof cabin offers miles of head room front and rear, legroom is generous and there’s enough width for occasional 5 seater use. It’s bigger in every dimension than the previous model. Available as a 5 door hatch only, the doors open very wide and provide excellent access. The only gripe is the unusual shape of the rear door – the door frame hit one person in the chest as they tried to get in.
The top-line CDXi comes decked out with leather/fabric seats that are firm but quite comfortable. The front pews also feature 3-stage electric warmers and adjustable lumbar support. However, note that none of the seat adjustments are electrically assisted.
The standard features list is impressive.
You get four electric windows, a decent sounding 6-stack CD system with DSP and steering wheel controls, smog-sensing digital climate control, a leather-wrapped sports steering wheel and gear knob. There’s also supposed to be a sunglass holder that our test car didn’t have. Hmm...
A centrally-mounted graphic information display provides a wealth of data on audio and climate control status, trip computer, ambient temperature and more. There’s also a tricky dual-mode indicator stalk – a light touch flashes the indicators only a few times, while a firmer touch flashes the indicators until the steering wheel is straightened (as per usual). The system takes a bit of getting used to, but it does work well.
In terms of passenger safety there are a total of six airbags and a patented clutch and brake pedal release system.
We love the Asta’s clear instrumentation, the comprehensive lighting of all interior switches and the logic of the interior and exterior courtesy lighting. However, we were annoyed by the lack of accessible cup holders, the relatively few places to throw your mobile phone and the fold-down front armrest that gets in the way regardless whether it’s up or down. The centre console controls for the audio and climate control systems are also frustratingly unintuitive.
The rear cargo area is utterly conventional – it’s no stand-out. Access and the load lip are merely okay and rear cargo space is pretty typical. The split rear backrests can be folded forward to increase carrying capacity, but note that they don’t fold flat and the lower cushion doesn’t tumble forward. A full-size steel spare wheel lives beneath the false floor which, unfortunately, doesn’t have any handles to grab hold of.
The Astra has a very high quality on-road feel. Much of this can be attributed to the extremely rigid body - Holden claims a 52 percent increase in flex resistance, a 47 percent increase in lateral flex reduction and a torsional rigidity increase of 15 percent.
The front suspension is a MacPherson strut arrangement while the rear uses a twin trailing arm torsion beam axle. The ride is comfortable, except the damping is too firm at city/urban speeds – there’s a slight ride jiggle and noticeable impact harshness over large bumps.
The Astra will understeer considerably when pushed and lifting off the throttle mid-corner doesn’t cause any action from the rear-end. Note that there’s no stability control or traction control – disappointing given the CDXi’s top-line status.
The steering is appropriately weighted and provides a nicely linear feel and response. An electro-hydraulic rack and pinion steering arrangement is used.
The brakes are also up to standard. The AH Astra employs big 280mm ventilated front and 264mm solid rear discs combined with brake assist and ABS.
In CDXi guise, the Astra rides on 16 inch sports alloys wearing 205/55 Continental Premium Contact tyres. These are a step up over the base Astra’s steel 15s, but the CDXi’s fussy wheel styling isn’t particularly appealing. The use of chrome strips to emphasis the CDXi’s luxury status is also a bit gaudy. Still, the Astra is a fresh design and is quite attractive. Front and rear fog lights come as standard on this model.
Our test vehicle was built to an exceptionally high standard. Paint quality is amazing given the price, panel fitment was good and the interior is well finished. A number of galvanised panels also help ensure long body life. The only problems with our test car was a side chrome strips was loose at one end and the engine had an annoying induction resonance at light load. Oh, and then there’s the question of the missing sunglass holder - our test car had a big plastic panel inside the roof, which we imagine is where your sunglasses are supposed to go.
So does the Astra CDXi hit its high-end target?
Well, yes – but it could be easily improved.
The first step should be to upgrade to a 2.0 litre engine – it needs a powerplant to bring it up to the level of the competing models. Next, somebody needs to start again with the layout and operation of the audio and climate control systems – they need to be much more user-friendly. We’d also like to see traction control as standard.
Fix up these points, Mr Holden, and everyone will be buying an Astra. As it stands, it’s good – but not great.