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
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.
Astra SRi Turbo was provided for this test by Holden Australia.
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