- Published: Sunday, 19 June 2016 23:48
Opel is a low-key brand here, but in its home market it’s nearly as big as Volkswagen. Could the new Astra kick off a period of growth for Germany’s forgotten carmaker?
SINGAPORE — Quick, name all the German car brands. Did you leave out Opel? We won’t judge you if you did. The General Motors-owned carmaker has slipped into relative anonymity here. But maybe the launch of the new Opel Astra will change the brand’s fortunes in Singapore.
Here’s what we think of the Astra 1.4A Turbo.
What’s an Opel Astra?
It says something that you need to ask, but maybe you should be forgiven, given Opel’s rarity here. For every car Opel sells in Singapore, Volkswagen sells nearly 50. Why compare the two? Because they’re rivals back home, and the easiest way to understand the Astra is to think of it as Opel’s direct answer to the VW Golf.
Ah, that’s easy, then! So, it’s a hatchback driven by small turbo engines?
Spot on. Like the car you see in these pics, the basic Astra is a five-door hatch. You can have it with a 105hp, 1.0-litre turbo with three cylinders, or you can opt for this, the 1.4-litre, four-cylinder model with 150hp.
Both engines are also available in the Astra Sports Tourer — think Golf Variant equivalent.
So what’s new about it?
In a word, everything. There’s a new platform made with advanced techniques to keep weight down while increasing strength and rigidity. Some versions are as much as 200kg lighter than before, which saves fuel and improves agility. Interestingly, if you look at the roof, you’ll see it’s been laser-welded to the rest of the body. That’s expensive to do and highly precise.
How does it drive?
150hp is quite a lot of power, but the turbo engine doesn’t really endow the Astra with a GTI-like personality. Smoothly slurred shifts from the six-speed auto contribute to that feeling, and help the Astra seem more like a quietly quick car than a rapid hell-raiser. It’ll gather pace with urgency, of course, and the way it gains speed may not be thrilling, but it’s satisfying.
And the handling?
It’s similar to the power delivery, in that it’s also almost laid-back. That doesn’t mean the Astra feels dull and sluggardly around bends, because the steering is light and responsive, and if you have the chance to push hard it’s quite game to indulge you.
But the chassis has obviously been tuned for safety, and once you reach the limit of grip it’s very forgiving in the way it just scrubs off speed gently. There’s probably a tiny bit more precision in a Golf and a marginally plusher ride, but really, there’s little choosing between the two. Besides, there are other things to focus on.
The Astra is probably the best-equipped car in its class, in terms of safety kit. Six airbags are standard, but so are systems designed to make sure you never see them. There’s a lane departure warning to tell you if you’re in danger of straying across the lines, and Lane Keep Assist, which gently nudges the steering wheel to guide you back onto the straight and narrow.
Haven’t I seen these before?
If so, it’ll have been in something more expensive, like a BMW or Mercedes. The same applies to the forward collision warning system (something the Merc A-Class brought into the mainstream here), which erupts with audio and visual warnings if it looks like you’re about to bang into something. The brakes come on automatically if you do nothing, for some reason. The system won’t stop the Astra completely, but at least you’ll have a smaller crash.
What is this, a German car or a Swedish one?
Well, it’s not like the Swedish have a monopoly on safety. And anyway in terms of how the Astra stacks up to a specific rival from there, it’s a better car than the Volvo V40. The cabin is roomier and more comfy in the back, and the boot is bigger. It’s also deep, and easily expanded.
Pay attention to the boot area if you’re poking around a new Astra, though. In terms of finishing, it’s the one part of the package that feels, well, ordinary.
What do you mean?
The rest of the Astra feels expensive. When you climb aboard you’re surrounded by soft-touch plastics that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Audi. There’s a general air of solidity to the cabin, too, and an enviable tidiness to it all.
The dash certainly looks neat.
It is. There are only a handful of buttons for the sound system and the climate control settings. Otherwise there’s a touchscreen that takes care of the main settings. That’s a double-edged sword sometimes, sacrificing ease of use on the altar of neatness, but in this case the Astra’s menu systems are logical and easy to get to terms with. And if you want things even simpler, there’s Apple CarPlay.
Oooh, I’ve heard of that. Plug your iPhone in and you control it through the Astra’s screen, right?
Right! Not everything on your home screen pops up there — for safety’s sake you can’t open Safari and start looking at football results — but essential apps work seamlessly.
The system puts your music collection at your fingertips. “Maps” becomes your GPS navigation system, too. If only WhatsApp would join the list of Carplay-compatible apps.
Guess you can’t have everything.
True, but the Astra delivers a heck of a lot in the end. It’s a good looking car that’s well-built as well as being practical and roomy. The engine has muscles and the handling is safe and secure. It’s stuffed to the gills with safety equipment, and the cabin delights with its quality. Those are pretty much all the things you want from a German car, aren’t they?
Yes, but… what if I still want a more well-known badge?
You’re certainly entitled, and there’s no shame in going along with the crowd. But the Astra’s strengths ought to open your eyes to Opel, so if you’re shopping for a Euro hatch you should put it on your shortlist. It’s one thing to follow the herd, but quite another to do so blindly.
NEED TO KNOW Opel Astra 1.4A Turbo
Engine 1,399cc, 16V, turbo inline 4
Power 150hp at 5000 to 5600rpm
Torque 245Nm at 2000 to 4000rpm
Gearbox 6-speed automatic
Top Speed 210km/h
0-100km/h 9 seconds
Fuel efficiency 5.5L/100km
Price $114,888 with COE