New Opel Astra is definitely worth the wait

The new Astra is a car that a lot of people have been waiting a very long time for. Opel itself has been craving this car for years; so too the company’s dealers; and, most of all, Astra fans Europe-wide, have been waiting yonks for a car actually deserving of their long-term support.

For far too long now what Opel has been serving up with its’ Astra models has been a lukewarm competitor for the giants of the small family car segment, Ford’s Focus and Volkswagen’s Golf. Opel’s efforts have been at best moderate and at worst derisory and, in short, completely unworthy of the continued support of its’ loyal customer base.

To be fair GM’s European arm — which also, of course, includes the Vauxhall brand and which, amazingly, still lures UK customers under the illusion it is a British car — has been starved of investment cash from the American parent company and the slow financial strangulation of Opel through much of the ‘noughties’ very nearly caused corporate asphyxiation.

Thankfully for all involved, the money tap has been fully opened again in recent years and while we have seen slow but sure signs Opel was breathing normally again with models such as the Adam and the Karl, the new Astra is the first real sign that not only has the company regained its’ health, but that it is also clearly intent on becoming a major player again.

The past 12 months have been very good for the Russelsheim outfit and figures released just this week showed Opel had achieved its best sales result in four years despite a strategic retreat from the Russian market.

The company delivered more than 1.1 million vehicles in 2015, an increase of over 35,000 units or 3.3% compared to 2014 and Opel’s share of the total European vehicle market increased to around 5.8%, its’ best result since 2011.

Hope of continuing those successes into this year is driven by the arrival of the Astra which had only really been on sale across Europe since last November. More than 80,000 Astra orders have already been logged and Opel hopes the figures will be further boosted by the arrival of the Sports Tourer variant which will be seen this Spring.

The level of optimism at Opel is easily justified as the new Astra is the best thing the company has done in a long time. Unsurprisingly, pretty much everything about the car is new, although the powers-that-be decided to largely leave the look of the car alone — this on the basis that it was the only really good thing about the last one.

There is a new platform, a weight saving of nearly 200 kg, a completely new interior, larger dimensions, a host of new technologies, new suspension tuning and a choice of new petrol and diesel engines. The combination of all these factors has lifted Astra from the slough of mediocrity in which it has been domiciled for so long now.

For far too long Opel tried to woo customers to the Astra on the simple basis that it was a cheaper option than many rivals; but, when the product itself is basically naff such an approach is not going to work forever. Now though the company has made a car which is able enough to challenge its’ direct competitors not only on price, but on the overall quality of the product.

We recently tried the Astra Elite model fitted with the new — and very impressive, it has to be said — turbocharged 1.4 litre petrol engine which, alongside the excellent one litre three cylinder petrol unit (underlining the industry-wide trend towards small capacity petrol engines) and the 1.6 litre ‘Whisper’ turbodiesel, will form the backbone of engine choice for the range.

It is my firm belief that any one of these powerplants will satisfy the varying needs of modern buyers and will help propel Opel back to the sales levels it used to enjoy. It is salutary to note that Opel does not have any model in the top ten sellers list here in Ireland, but I confidently expect the new Astra to rectify that embarrassing fact.

Recent versions of the car were hardly notable for any level of driver engagement, but Opel has obviously done a good deal of work here to rectify matters. In times past the Astra was hardly a car you could hustle around the place, but the strength of the new engine and the new found tautness of the suspension has changed all that very satisfactorily.

Ride might be a tad on the firm side for some tastes, but it has sharpened up the handling no end and this, combined with direct and responsive steering has transformed the driving experience from something which was resolutely unengaging to something which will actually put a smile on your face.

Having been through that era in the mid-1980’s when manufacturers regularly strapped a turbo onto a variety of powerplants with little regard for what effect it would have on the handling, I did fear somewhat about a relatively small engine with a 150 bhp output. I’m glad to say, however, such fears were misplaced.

In times past such as monstrous torque steer and terminal understeer were the net effects of turbocharging, but Opel has delivered here a car with largely impeccable handling manners as well as impressive levels of grunt — as illustrated by the 8.3 second 0-100 kph time and the 215 kph top speed. That it will also return 5.5 l/100 km (50.9 mpg) is an added bonus.

Add in a cabin which has been shorn of the muddle of switchgear which characterised previous models and the new design is a lot more driver-friendly.

On top of that the overall quality feel of the interior, the new-found spaciousness and the optional OnStar concierge and Wi-Fi hot spot system not only bring the car to a level of attractiveness it should have had years ago, but also gives it a technological edge over many rivals.

This is not quite a tour de force from Opel, but it is a very big leap forward indeed and one for which the company deserves great credit. It has transformed a workaday machine which pleased only for its’ practicality and cost-effectiveness into something any driver can get their teeth into without getting bitten.

The new Astra, which is in line for the European Car of the Year award which will be announced next month, has shed the clogs it previously wore for a pair of sports shoes and the dramatic effect is very much worth exploring. The old Astra was full of surprises, few of them pleasant; the new one, on the other hand, is now a very genuine contender in a segment which is not short of good cars.

That, believe me, is a big achievement.

COLLEY’S VERDICT

The Cost: From €25,995 to €30,695 as tested.

The Engine: an impressive turbo petrol unit which is not unruly, but still quick and economic too.

The Specification: Elite model has bags of kit and technologies which put it in the vanguard in the class.

The Overall Verdict: Back from the dead — with a bang.


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