There’s something old and something new in the just-launched Holden Astra range. We take a look at the first steps towards the Australian brand’s European future.
Holden New Zealand says the launch of a range of European-sourced Astra models is a signal of its intent for the future. In the next five years the Australian brand will roll out 24 major new models, with 36 different powertrain combinations. Thirty percent of the model range will be sourced from Europe.
The odd thing about this impending renewal is that Holden has looked backwards rather than forwards to get it rolling. The generation of Astra GTC and VXR models being launched in New Zealand dates back to 2009. In fact, Opel is about to reveal the next-generation model in Europe.
Although they’re new for New Zealand, these cars were also previously sold in Australia from 2012 under the Opel brand, in an attempt to launch the European brand as a premium arm of Holden. It was unsuccessful and was withdrawn in 2013.
So it’s easy to be cynical about Astra. Especially as this is the second launch of the model in New Zealand. We had three generations of the model from 1995-2009, before it was dropped in favour of the Korean-sourced Cruze.
Astra is back as a niche model only: there are warmed-over GTC and GTC Sport versions, a VXR hot-hatch and a convertible version called Cascada. The hatches are available as three-door models only, while the top VXR is restricted to a six-speed manual transmission.
Holden New Zealand managing director Kristian Aquilina acknowledges that these are limiting factors, but argues that it’s not the job of Astra to generate big volume: “We had an opportunity to cherry-pick models, so we’re bringing performance models to start with, to challenge perception of the brand.
“They are niche vehicles and they are not Holden’s volume plan. But they do demonstrate performance credentials and will look outstanding on the road, even though they’re been out in Europe for some time.”
The GTC and Cascada models are powered by the same 1.6-litre turbo engine as the Australian-built Cruze (which shares many powertrain and platform elements with the European Astra), albeit in different states of tune.
The GTC ranges from $38,490 to $42,990 and is available with six-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission. In automatic form it delivers 125kW/260Nm, but opt for the manual and there’s more power and torque: 147kW/280Nm.
Cascada is $43,990 and comes only in automatic form. Holden is also offering a special launch-edition model for $47,990 with extra equipment.
The $49,990 VXR is a much more focused proposition – a genuine hot-hatch, with a searing 206kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo engine, revised steering, adjustable suspension, limited-slip differential, Brembo brakes and a selectable race-style ‘VXR’ drive mode.
Holden reckons rivals for GTC and GTC Sport are diverse – everything from the Toyota 86 sports car to the Hyundai Veloster hatch-cum-coupe to the Mazda3 SP25.
The VXR’s hunting ground is more traditional: iconic high-performance hot hatches such as the Renault Megane RS and Ford Focus ST.
There are areas in which Astra and Cascada betray their age. There are none of the advanced camera-based driver-assistance features available on some rival models for example, and while they have the MyLink information and entertainment system, it’s operated by buttons rather than the touch-screen that you get in the more humble Barina or Cruze.
However, the design and driving experience across the Astra range is still impressive. Exterior styling is striking and the interior architecture looks and feels like a real step up from the mainstream Cruze. The GTC models have strong performance and an assertive dynamic character, while the VXR is something special: the electro-hydraulic steering is far more communicative than the electric system on the GTC and the performance is explosive.
Holden argues Cascada’s selling propositions are style and a genuine four-seat cabin. Both are justified – the rear seats in particular are far more commodious than rival drop-tops such as the Volkswagen Golf convertible.
But there is opportunity cost in choosing the convertible in terms of driving dynamics. While Holden claims that Cascada is strong because it was developed right from the start alongside the Astra hatchbacks, theirs is still noticeable scuttle-shake on bumpy roads and the handling simply isn’t as precise as the three-door models.
Refinement is impressive, though. The fabric top is triple-insulated and ensures a quiet cabin when it’s raised. The roof takes 17 seconds to lower or raise – not fast by modern standards, but it can be operated while the car is moving at up to 50km/h.
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