Sports hatches have always found a devoted audience in Australia. Performance enthusiasts, as well as drivers who look for a little more excitement from their daily commute have turned to the hot hatch as a way to get their thrills without blowing the budget on a luxury sportscar.
The new Holden Astra fits the bill, coming back to Australia as a performance model, with a fresh new look and a new attitude.
We test-drove the first of Holden’s new European-flavoured models to see what the Germans have brought to the table.
The Astra was one of Holden’s first experiments with importing European models, starting in the 1990s with a model from General Motors British brand, Vauxhall, before finding it’s biggest success with models from the German wing of GM, Opel.
This is where the new models come to us from. These Astra’s may be familiar, as they last came to Australia in 2012 as native Opel’s as the Germans attempted to strike out on their own down under.
Prior to that brief stint, the last Holden Astra came in 2009 when it was phased out to make way for the Australian-built Holden Cruze, which proved successful enough that the Astra’s overseas holiday was extended.
It returns with a lion badge, as a strictly performance model slotted above the Cruze in Holden’s lineup. We took the mid-level Astra GTC Sport to check out how Australia’s first brand has tuned the European hatch for down under.
The Astra has always been a stylish looking car, usually sitting somewhere on the right side of fashionable with just a hint of a conservative streak to create a car that is on trend, that will last years into its ownership.
The new model is no different, all flowing lines and big tyres. Our Astra GTC Sport was finished in Summit White, a no-cost option, and it makes for a chic statement on the road.
Inside, the cabin is modern enough, with a well thought out dark trim. The audio system can seem a little intimidating, but is simple enough to use. Pairing a device over Bluetooth is simple enough, and the navigation is easy to use but if you’re coming from using a simpler entertainment system, getting used to the dial selector (another knob that isn’t the volume dial) takes a little time to learn all the shortcuts.
Remember to bring your left hand down to indicate, as its continental heritage means the indicator stalk sits on the opposite to where Australians are used to. It’s easy enough to pick up, but you will end up putting the wipers on more than once when you’re looking to turn.
Overall, the Astra brings a European flair to a segment populated by fairly uniform style choices and actual credible sports handling where competitors may feel that a sports badge and bigger wheels is sufficient.
Out on the road, the Astra proves that it’s no slouch when opened up.
The Astra comes standard with 18” alloys, increasing an inch for every grade above the entry model. The GTC Sport’s 19-inch radial tyres strike the perfect balance between road holding and performance, while providing an adaptable driving experience that is never as harsh as some sports-focused models.
On the open highway, the Astra shines; the GTC Sport’s 1.6L engine runs without ever asking for more power, the 6-speed automatic transmission on our Astra moved smoothly between the upper gears there was never any problem overtaking or moving at high speed.
Around town, the Astra feels caged by the lower speed limits and the automatic’s lower gears could use some tightening to create the same inspiring performance at highway speeds, but as long as you don’t use it solely in the inner-city or for the school run, you’ll be able to make up for it on the weekends down to the highway to the coast or somewhere else glamorous to match the Astra’s style. The manual mode on the automatic helps, but the standard manual would be the best option for those who want the same performance in tight city streets as they do on the track and highway.
Despite the well-tuned engine spitting out respectable performance numbers, the GTC Sport never feels out of control thanks to stability and traction control that never intrudes on your drive unless you’ve pushed a little too far.
The Astra largely balances its sports-focused underpinnings with a controlled drive for those who don’t want a crazy performance car when they’re just trying to get to the shops and who want something more than a hatchback when they actually open up the taps in their free time.
Europe is famous for developing cars that look stylish, but are generally made for the quirks of their ancient cities. An Italian car may accommodate for the narrow, rustic streets built in the times of the Romans, while a French car feels at home parked in front of a chic Parisian café.
The Germans, however, have always had open roads to experiment with their cars; they famously developed the Autobahn to let drivers down the highway without strict speed limits.
Thanks to this, the Astra comes to Australia with a sports-tuned chassis that the Holden engineers then took and tuned for roads over here, resulting in a sports hatch that can ride over our generally harsher road conditions while still maintaining a sharp drive.
Because Australian’s have, on average, longer distances to drive than Europeans, Holden has made sure to bolster comfort features in the car, so that you’re never rattled in the way some performance models compromise their rides.
The GTC Sports’ heated front seats are spacious and hold you well if you throw your Astra around curves, and it’s easy to get in and out of for a low vehicle. Large doors help back seat passengers especially, and the shoulder-mounted seat-fold is painless to use. It looks small back there, but there is actually a reasonable amount of space for what it is.
Putting very tall people in the back seat, however, will wipe out the already small back windows visibility; unfortunately there is no reverse camera across the entire range to be found. The Astra relies on parking sensors, which are admittedly very sensitive to surrounding objects, but could use a camera to make sure no scrapes occur.
Utilising Holden’s MyLink system, the audio entertainment system comes with built in apps including Pandora and Stitcher internet radio stations (these require a smartphone and use mobile data, however.) Navigation is clear and easy to use, and you never have to take your eyes off the road to use it, thanks to the enhanced voice recognition that you can turn on with the steering wheel audio controls.
The electric park brake seems a little too discreet; the Astra holds itself well when parked, but the only alert you’ll get that the switch-operated parking brake is on is from a light in the instrument cluster. When starting the car, you don’t need to switch the park brake off, putting it into drive or reverse and accelerating will switch it off; which is excellent for grade and hill starts, but feels like it should have some more warnings attached to it.
Dual zone climate control is standard on the GTC Sport and VXR models, and works extremely well given the size of the cabin to create two distinct climate zones.
Safety is taken care of with front, side and side curtain airbags, electronic stability control with traction control and electronic braking assistance which will adjust the force depending on how fast you press the brake.
Fuel is very good for a sports hatch, coming in officially at 7.5L/100km for the automatic tested, in a mix of city and highway driving. In the real world, we were able to get the GTC Sport down to 7.9L/100km on the trip computer.
Speaking of the trip computer, it can produce some alarming figures when you accelerate in the Astra, as it projects how much fuel you’ll use if you keep the same pace of acceleration. If you suffer from a lead foot, this can give you figures in the high 30s when you set off, coming down as you reach an average speed. Smooth acceleration in any car will give you the most fuel economy, but particularly in the Astra, seamless power delivery will provide you with the most accurate figure.
The Astra GTC starts at $30,551 ending at $43,941 for the flagship Astra VXR.
As tested, the GTC Sports with optional 6-speed automatic transmission is priced at $35,907 driveaway.
An automatic transmission is optional on the GTC and GTC Sports models, while dedicated performance-tuned VXR comes with a manual gearbox only - to match it’s 2.0L turbo engine. Prestige paint is available at additional cost, but Summit White, Sunny Melon (yellow) and Power Red are all no-cost options across the Astra range.
People were worried when Holden announced it was pulling the plug on Australian production, despite only two models actually coming out of Holden’s South Australian factory (the Commodore and the Cruze.)
The Astra makes a strong business case for imported Holdens, with a strong balance between performance and comfort and convenience. Small issues with the Astra can be improved by a greater localisation program, which Holden will surely implement moving forward.
Compared to other sports-focused at this price point on the market, the Astra shines thanks to an actual performance pedigree working down from the VXR to the entry-level GTC. The Astra name returns as a fully formed sports hatch that will fit in any driveway from performance enthusiasts to those just wanting a more engaging driving experience everyday.