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Holden’s Astra: snubbed for no good reason?


Sometimes it is hard to fathom a motor market where imagery is more important than form or function and where emotions run roughshod over practicalities.

Sometimes it is hard to fathom a motor market where imagery is more important than form or function and where emotions run roughshod over practicalities. When a car has a high profile, consumers often overlook its deficiencies and guarantee its sales success while other seemingly good models struggle to entice buyers.

Holden’s lower medium Astra is a good case in point. While its European sales are solid and the reputation of the current fifth generation version strong, the car is far from a major player in New Zealand. You’d think the car’s international reputation and the added impetus of the Holden badge would be enough to make Astra a challenger for high sales rankings in the busy compact class, but the competent Euro is a straggler. Last year’s sales of 390, down on 437 in 2006, are proof enough of the scarcity of Astras on local roads.

Ford sold almost six times as many Focus hatches, Toyota Corolla scooped a class-leading 5079 and for every new Astra, Volkswagen sold two Golfs. Examine and drive the Astra, check out the highly competitive pricing and wonder why. It looks smart, is the right size for our times, and is backed by a rock solid brand name. The car has had a somewhat irregular past in New Zealand but, trite as it might seem, this latest offering is by far the best.

Introduced in Europe in 1980 as the Kadett, the Astra’s heritage can be traced to the 1975 Vauxhall Chevette, a car that for its time was a lot better than many people gave credit. Unlike the current offering, Chevette was rear wheel driven and an early small GM hatchback after the three-box Vauxhall Viva sedans that were assembled in New Zealand.

The second generation Astra arrived in 1984, followed by model changes in 1991, 1997, and the current generation in 2004. It became something of an international model wearing Opel, Vauxhall and Chev Saturn brand names. Using these tags in Australasia would only dilute the make, so logically the Astra is sold here as a Holden.

Consumers in this part of the world can be excused for being somewhat befuddled by the model. Across the Tasman in 1984 the Astra appeared as a rebadged Nissan Pulsar, as was the next model in 1987. That car was not sold in New Zealand. When the current Astra launched in 2004 it represented a huge step forward in terms of quality, design and refinement.

The strong styling, with sharp lines, a wedgy profile, bold front end, flared wheel arches and teardrop rear lights made the new car visually appealing, too. Assembled in either Belgium or Britain, the build quality is excellent, and the cabin finish right up with the best in class. Competitors include a formidable bunch comprising Focus, Civic, Mazda3, Golf, Peugeot 308, and even the much more costly BMW 1-Series and Audi A3.

However, the wide price differential means that typical BMW or Audi buyer is unlikely to even include the Holden on the shopping list. Image rears its ugly head once again, and the heart rules the head. While the Astra’s simple torsion beam semi-independent rear suspension is not as sophisticated as some multi-link suspended rivals, the dynamics are still good. MacPherson strut front suspension is used and the chassis is entertaining, with surefooted handling, a high level of responsiveness and good composure.

The ride is surprisingly good on the lower grade 1.8-litre CD, although if you are seeking more sharpness in roadholding the more expensive models need to be tried. Quick-acting electro-hydraulic steering is geared to 2.5 turns of the steering wheel from lock to lock and the weighting is heavy enough to confirm its European origins. Better turn-in than a Golf or an Audi A3 and the satisfying feel of the chassis confirm this GM hatchback is somewhat better than run of the mill.

Minor Holden input into the AH Astra’s suspension settings have tuned the car to local conditions and there are no complaints about roadability. The New Zealand’s Astra line-up comprises the entry-level 1.8 CD representing good value at a shade under $29,000; a more powerful 2.2 SRi is $35,990, while the 1.9-litre CDTi diesel weighs in at $37,990, a cool $12,000 cheaper than the exotic Twin Top.

For my Queensland drive, Holden provided a CDX hatch, which uses the same 1796cc, Z18XER, 103kW DOHC, 16-valve petrol power plant as the CD but has a higher spec, including leather upholstery. In manual form, the 1.8 sweeps to 100kph in just over nine seconds, and an ambitious top speed of 204kph.

A 700km run of mainly open road motoring produced a thrifty 7.6 litres/100 km (37 miles per gallon), giving a touring range of more than 600km from the 52-litre tank. The five-speed gearbox is reluctant when hurried, with a notchy action and a sticky clutch action on the test car making smooth changes a test of skill. Work the motor hard and things become a little thrashy; a sixth speed would not go amiss.

The lower spec CD for New Zealand comes with 15-inch alloys (compared with 16-inch alloys on CDX), ABS, four wheel discs, four airbags, seven-speaker Blaupunkt CD stereo, climate air conditioning and steering wheel controls for the audio. Standard cruise control is fiddly to use, accessed by awkward controls on the right hand steering column stalk. Interior space is generous, with large rear side doors affording easy entry to the back seat, although access to the boot is not easy. The cabin exudes an air of quality, with a well-planned dashboard, sturdy plastics and high level of finish. Then there are the good-supporting seats and fine driving position, with reasonable all round vision. A large on-board computer screen in the centre of the facia is bold and easy to read in all but sunny conditions.

Funny how the very feel of a car determines where it has been sourced. I usually don’t have a problem with indicators sometimes being on the left of right of the steering column. Those cars with left side indicator stalks, of course, are inevitably European and EEC compliant. Yet the Astra caught me out for several days simply because I expected the indicator to be on the left side of the column when its actually on the right. An absence of fixed electrical connections, allowed Holden the easy task of tweaking the multiplexed electronics and switching indicator control to the right.

With excellent crash safety and good dynamics, this is a rather better car than the entry-level CD pricing suggests; it’s a thoroughly competent vehicle that should be selling better than it is. Is this a market snub for no good reason?

Auto Trader New Zealand