Updated: November 17, 2014
One of the perks of working in a hi-tech company is that most people around you have predictable patterns. We won't really call them borgs, zombies, code monkeys, or anything untoward like that. Simply homogenous in every sense, including their taste in cars. Thus, when you have three chums, one who drives an Astra five-door hatch, another who drives an Astra Sports Tourer station, and the third bloke who transports himself in an Astra Berlina sedan, you have a triple review. W00t!
Anyhow, three generous people let me monkey about around their Astras, for the sake of this review. Plus, I ended up driving one for a whole week, which adds to what I can write in this little article. Anyhow, all of the tested vehicles had the standard trim level, a 1.4-liter turbo-charged engine, and a six-speed auto gearbox. Concordingly, this review. Ergo.
The three musketeers
The Astras we had at our disposal are actually lease cars, and these lads pay handsome money for the privilege to drive them. Astra is a classic family transporter, designed around the weird demographic concept of 2.4 children, even though most of the countries where it is marketed do not meet the government quotas. That would be Europe, where people are smart enough to spend money on cars and vacations rather than DNA.
Now, in Europe, most of the cars would be equipped with a diesel and a six-speed manual, but happy go unlucky me, I had to endure the lack of the third foot pedal and enjoy, or rather not enjoy, the joys of automatic transmission, no matter how many clutches there are and how sophisticated the control unit might be.
The setup includes simple cloth interior, hard 90s era plastic, a massively complex and buttons-rich CD player thingie, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, a basic road computer, loads of speakers and airbags, and chunky 215/50 R 17 tires with steel wells rather than alloys. What!
However, the interesting piece is the engine. It's a 1.4-liter unit, with 140 HP and 200 Nm starting at 1,850 rpm, which should give ample room for foot-down shenanigans, even if you're a responsible family driver. On paper, this translates into 201 km/h top speed, acceleration 0-100 km/h in 9.9 seconds, and an overall fuel thirst of around 6.1 liters per 100 km gentle and combined.
The price? Well, this thingie costs about USD37,000, about the same as all other family cars in this range, so you will have to decide what you need or like, from looks to gadgets to whatever else strikes your fancy. Now, since all three owners have small children and they didn't really invest too much effort in keeping their cars tidy, clean or immaculate, I felt ashamed snapping pics of their Astras and had to do with the high-quality stock photos from the official site, somewhat like I did with Peugeot 308. I do hope you will forgive me. But the essense is in all the verbiage I provide, right? Right?
Strike the pose
Opel Astra is an angle-dependent looker. Depends how you glimpse at it, you might it find it excessively beautiful, turbo ordinary or even disappointing. It's chunky and curvy, and it looks way better than any other previous model. I find the hatch version to have the most charm, even though, by laws of physics, the estate should be the winner, as stations always turn out to be the finest. Not here. We have a tie.
No matter what wheel size you have, they all look tiny, due to the massive body of the model. The front end is a little short, or at least, it feels short. From the back and the side, Astra has an aggressive look, and the tail lights have that flair, which seems to have caught with most cars recently. The exterior does not feel old despite the age of our model.
The design is fairly contemporary and mainstream, but it mostly retains its unique edge over the competitors. It's less generic than the recent Hyundai and KIA offerings, just about as sharp as Focus, and slightly more exciting than Golf or Skoda. In bad lighting, you might confuse Astra for a Jetta or Fluence.
Where your dreams go to sleep
No, I did not mean your offspring. That would be the rear seats, with their ISO fixes. I meant your private dreams of glory and greatness and cars three leagues above this one, except you compromised, multipled and now you're in a reasonably priced family hatch, station or sedan, depending which one you've picked. This isn't just true for Opel Astra, it's true for any cars that is valued by the distance between the rear doors, and its ability to carry baby strollers in the boot. Facts of life.
The interior is quite boring. Even the finest stock photos, with a navigation system that didn't exist in my three models, cannot improve on the fact that it's busy and outdated. Ford Focus suffers from the same problem. Too many buttons on the central console. It's a bloody spaceship. Not elegant, not cozy, not inviting. Black on black, hard plastic, no! The steering wheel also feels old in design. It's built with quality and boredom.
Let's go back to the central console. It looks like General Ackbar from Star Wars. No?
Now everything is within easy reach, there's ample space for a whole bunch of adults, up to the legal limit. The doors open wide for easy access. The boot spaces varies from one model to another, but there's enough for everyone. Families with lots of stuff will probably want the Sports Tourer. Aircon is very good.
I guess this is the most important bit of the review. At least for me. But many others will probably focus on the interior, the luggage space and the child carrying capabilities. That's fine. Still, in the end, the car is all about driving, and here we are. So what gives?
All right, all three cars have identical behavior on the road. Unless you know into which model you stepped in, you won't see or feel any difference. Let's begin with the experience behind the steering wheel. Ah yes, the steering wheel is not very fun. It has an entirely artificial feel, and you're in no way connected to the road. It's kind of heavy, the exact opposite of what Adam does, but there's no change in tightness or precision based on your speed.
I heard many people complaining the steering is too immediate, but that's not my observation. It's just that you can't sense the asphalt that makes you so fidgety. In fact, there's a fair amount of give before the car responds, and then it does in an abrupt manner. Hence the sense of urgency impressed upon most ordinary drivers.
Now, the automatic gearbox. You know I don't like them, as a rule. Few car manufacturers can pull it off successfully with their technology, and Astra's unit is not one of them. If you are driving in the D mode, and cruising on the highway, even a gentle nudge on the gas pedal will lead to a downshift into fifth, with annoying half-a-second delays plus too much engine noise. It would appear the sixth is only designed for zero-acceleration sailing in a straight line. Yes, the sixth is quite long, and you're revving at low 2,000 rpm at about 100 km/h. This is good for dB levels and fuel consumption, but not so for horizontal g forces. There's virtually no flexibility in the top gear, and the computer will try to notch one down to give you some extra juice.
You will also notice this if you try to upshift early. At 80 km/h, you'd expect the car to pull mightily and without complaints in the sixth, but no. Due to a somewhat higher turbo range, at 1,850 rpm, you're underpowered. Compare this to SEAT Leon with its 1.8-liter unit, which has no trouble with sixth at 60 km/h, or even Audi A1, which has no problems with the sixth at low 65 km/h, with a very similar 1.4-liter engine, rated at a somewhat lower 122 HP and a bit more torques.
Beyond all that, the auto is simply not smart or fast enough to make for an effortless, non-intrusive driving. If you switch into the would-be manual mode, things are so much better, so much more logical. And then, you will notice how bad the sixth is. There were places, mostly inclines, that flatout, I wouldn't so much gain a grain of extra speed, where most other cars I've tested so far did with some semblance of acceleration.
I am surprised, but it's probably the high kerb weight and the gear tuning. End result, 0-100 km/h feels strained. The engine clatters and whines, as if does not like what you're trying to do. Ten seconds is a lot for this kind of sprint. Audi A1 does it in 8.9 seconds official, 8.5 seconds tested, with fewer horses. Leon, in about 7.8 seconds. Volkswagen Jetta, 9.5 seconds, and it's a diesel. Mercedes C 220, 8.4 seconds, and it's a diesel with the same power. Maybe the manual gearbox is so much better, but I really do not know.
Now, what about the far-east offering? Hyundai Elantra? Or KIA Cee'd or Forte? Well, with naturally aspirated engines, they kind of have a hard time competing with Astra, or rather, Astra is superior in most aspects. The automatic transmission used with the competitors is even worse than the one here, by far. However, Cee'd is a fairly well designed car, and it surprised during the test when it comes to how it feels on the inside, but Forte did better in performance and handling, all parameters considered. Now, the US-tested Hyundai comes with an equally sad Storm Trooper mask for its central console, and even worse driving results.
Grip, on the other hand, is phenomenal. Wide tires, good weight distribution, and the car flies through corners with composure and confidence. You can push the same boundaries like many other, more sportily sprung cars, and even though the steering wheel is troublesome, you're in control. Furthermore, Opel Astra is also quite comfy in town, over potholes, bumps and other road pimples. You don't get any nasty jolts up your back, and there's no body roll. The seats in the basic trim level could benefit from more hugginess, but that's price for you. Still, nothing beats the French. Peugeot simply levitates above road deformities.
Fuel consumption is very reasonable. Not quite the 6.1-liter figure as reported. But if you're gentle, use the M mode, avoid too much aircon and crazy acceleration, you can average 7 liters with ease, 6.5 liters if you're skilled like me. That's quite all right for a family lugger. But turbo-diesels make far more sense. And of course, as always, I imagine the combination of CDTI engines and manual makes most sense in every regard.
There were no mechanical issues during my testing, and none in the past, it would seem. The three owners report between 31,000 and 49,500 km on their digital display, with car age between 11 months and 21 months. That is, if we ignore child vomit and odors and such.
However, I did encounter a small number of annoyances. The seats, for example, have a medieval catapult-like level for the angle adjustment, similar to Peugeot 308. It's impossible to fine-tune your position. Furthermore, there's a rubber-plastic skirt below the front bumper. Not sure what's it meant for, but it's quite low, and you'll end up scraping pavement during nose-parking maneuvers. This is ridiculous, because all other cars in the class get away with this. Now, the rubber-plastic is cheap, but it makes a solid dose of scraping, and if partially detached due to abuse, it looks hideous. Don't want! The window buttons are located too far back, and you will bang your elbow into the B pillar trying to operate them.
Finally, with the sedan version, the boot only opens from the inside. No. C'mon. What is this, 1977 Detroit? Now, it is possible that I failed to spot some genius in design that allows the same result while located outside the vehicle, but since I haven't discovered it, and I refuse to use car manuals for the same reason I refuse to read release notes and such on any Linux distro, it's a failure of equal magnitude.
Opel Astra is a decent family car, no matter which rear end you choose. But it's not perfect, and it sure is not exciting. The interior is too dark, too busy and simply not happy enough. The steering wheel is devoid of any feeling, even though there's plenty of grip. The engine isn't as mighty as you would expect, and the auto box makes an even worse call. All in all, average, you win some you lose some.
If I had to choose, say between Peugeot 308, Jetta or this car, which roughly fall into the same category, it's quite tricky. Sure, I didn't have a chance to test Astra with a diesel, but in all three cases, I had only two pedals at my disposal. DSG wins, Jetta is the most practical but also the most expensive, Peugeot has the best comfort, while Astra runs best through corners, and it's the prettiest of them all, if you ignore some of the rough spots. Oh, but Cee'd makes a lot of sense, and Forte is a decent rival, if you can ignore, and you should, the matter of pesky non-macho transmission. Hence, grade wise, Astra gets 7.5/10. Not bad. Now, you make your own decision.