Since the late 1990s, Holden's Euro-sourced Astra has combined convenience with appealing road manners.

The Holden Astra endured a chequered history before cementing its place in the Australian small car market. Early versions were clones of popular Japanese models (first the Nissan Pulsar then Toyota Corolla) before Holden switched its supply chain to Vauxhall in the UK and then to Opel in Belgium for the German-designed TS model.

A diverse range that eventually included convertibles, coupes and a station wagon attracted buyers of all ages and driving styles. Engines ranged from 1.8 litre sloggers to diesels and powerhouse turbos but it was the Astra’s combination of sound design and keen pricing that cemented its local success.

With 1.8 litres and 90kW the TS City sedan announced in 2002 cost $22,070. Just $18,990 bought a three-door, manual hatchback at $18,990 but even the basic cars delivered reasonable levels of equipment and safety. Fittings that were shared across the Astra TS range included dual airbags, power steering, remote central locking and a six-speaker sound system.

CD versions offered standard air-conditioning, power windows and mirrors, alloy wheels and CD sound. From 2003 a CDX version sold at $32,000 with automatic transmission as standard, leather seat trim, antilock brakes (which were optional on the CD) and a six-stack CD system.     

Buyers wanting a sporty, well-equipped car needed look no further than the 108kW SRi three-door hatch. From around $28,000 the six-speed manual SRi included bigger 16-inch alloys, a leather steering wheel, air-con and ABS as standard.

Olympic editions sold during 1999 and 2000 came with similar equipment to their base-model counterparts but show no signs of ‘collector’ interest in the used market.

The 2003 range update also included a turbocharged three-door with 147kW and priced at $37,000. These sold only with manual transmission but did include antilock braking, 17 inch alloy wheels and switchable traction control.

Australians traditionally haven’t embraced family-oriented convertibles but the TS Astra soft-top presented an attractive, albeit expensive, prospect. At launch in 2001 the convertible cost $47,000 but came with a full leather interior – the front seats heated – and a power top.

In deference to a 220kg weight increase over fixed-roof cars, basic convertibles used 103kW, 2.2-litre engines with manual or automatic transmission.  From 2003-04 the 147kW SRi Turbo engine was shared with the soft-top Astra.

Late-2004 brought a new and far more sophisticated look to the Astra line. The Belgian-built AH model shared some components from the TS but presented a fresh and exciting shape. It was longer, wider and heavier but power from the standard 1.8-litre rose by just 2kW – and then only if fed the recommended 95RON fuel.

The City disappeared; replaced by a re-positioned CD that sacrificed its alloy wheels and rear power windows for standard antilock brakes and side/front air-bags. Classic Equipe versions retained the TS shape and remained available until 2006.

New also for 2005 were station wagons in CD and CDX trim levels and a new CDX three-door coupe. It sold with automatic transmission, leather seats and a top-line sound system for an enticing $28,000. The same money would buy a CDX wagon.

In mid-2006 and after a two-year absence the SRi returned. The basic 110kW non-turbo came in at $32,490, with the 147kW version only $2500 more.

Also released during 2006 was Australia’s first turbodiesel Astra. From 1.9 litres, the CDTi produced 88kW and a solid 280Nm. With mandatory six-speed manual transmission it cost less than $32,000.

This year will see Astra relaunched Down Under with Opel badges. A new generation of Astra models will be the foundation of the standalone presence of GM's European brand.  

TS and AH versions of the Astra are very different cars in appearance and character. At around 1380kg, the AH Hatchback was typically 10 per cent heavier than a TS and that penalty translated into less satisfying performance.

In compensation, the 2004-2007 cars offered a wider stance and improved mid-bend adhesion due more effective wheel/tyre packages. It was also hard to ignore the aggressive and decidedly modernised body with its dominant headlamp clusters and prominent wheel-arches.

Used primarily as urban transport, most Astras work better with automatic transmission than the notchy five-speed manual. TS manuals will easily crack the 10 second barrier in 0-100km/h acceleration tests with the 92kW AH a second or so slower.

Throttle response was a concern pinpointed during tests of early AH cars, especially the manuals. With ‘drive by wire’ actuation the engine needed to be revved quite hard to move smoothly from rest and could be slow to respond when decelerating sharply. Cars in the used market and having been through scheduled servicing don’t  normally display this characteristic but it is worth noting when test-driving a post-2004 model.     

SRi Hatchbacks and convertibles with manual transmission will better the 1.8-litre cars’ performance but real Astra sting comes only from the quite demanding turbo cars. These deliver solid boost from 2500rpm but chassis balance isn’t in the same class as something like a Golf GTI. Power-induced understeer, where the car tries to drag itself towards the outside of a bend, torque-steer and tyre squeal manifest when the car is driven to its capabilities.

Turbo versions have a dash-mounted ‘Sport’ button that alters engine mapping and also firms the Continuous Damping Control suspension. Its use is recommended in twisty conditions put perhaps not on seriously bumpy surfaces where the combination of stiffer damping and low-profile tyres can make the car feel disconcerting.

The all-disc brakes fitted to both versions are powerful enough for cars of the Astra’s weight and should deliver reliable stopping. Some owners have reported a ‘soggy’ pedal after fast downhill runs but that could be due to poor-quality replacement disc pads.

Fuel consumption depends on where and how hard a car is being driven, but road tests generally found the TS manual capable of bettering 9.0L/100km with AH versions on more expensive 95 RON fuel using five per cent more. A diesel will cost significantly more to buy than a petrol version and slightly more at the pump but send average consumption figures to around 6.5L/100km.

AH models included an interior upgrade that closely mirrored the cars’ aggressive new body design. Replacing the drab 1990s TS layout was a cluster better-defined dials in a more sophisticated dash. Some even came with strips of fake wood veneer.

Controls for the music system were more complex than those used in earlier cars but the multi-function display screen (where fitted) was superior. New multi-function switches mounted on the steering wheel spokes were easier to use than those on the preceding CDX.

One downside of the later-series Astra’s styling revamp was reshaping of the rear aperture on Hatchbacks. Those who want to load wider objects will need to tilt them to fit through the AH’s narrow gap.  

>> Astra engines use toothed rubber belts to drive their camshafts and these must be replaced at least every 60,000km – not the 100,000 normally recommended for belt changes on most Japanese models.
>> Ensure that the electronic throttle works smoothly and responds immediately to changes in pedal position.
>> Clutch action in manual cars can be inconsistent but slip means replacement is due. With the hand-brake firmly applied, slowly engage the clutch to see how far the pedal will move before the engine stalls
>> Replacing broken roof latches on convertibles is extremely costly. Ensure that the roof releases and locks easily and the latches haven’t undergone amateur ‘repair’.
>> Electronic problems with the antilock braking system can be masked by fuse removal. On a QUIET stretch of road, check that antilock brakes do deploy when braking hard.
>> Inspect hatch sealing rubbers – especially the odd-shaped AH doorway – for loading damage.
>> Rear electric window faults are common. Check that windows, central locking and other electrical items are working.

Design & Function:
Safety: 13/20
Practicality: 15/20
Value for Money: 15/20
Wow Factor: 14/20 (AH model)
SCORE: 69/100

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Published : Friday, 10 February 2012

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