WHEN the assembled masses of Europe’s motoring journalists announced the new Opel Astra as the European Car of the Year, there might have been consternation in Wolfsburg, headquarters of the German behemoth, Volkswagen (VW).
It won’t have been at the lack of a VW winner. People in the car industry would never admit it, but they do all know that their competitors make good cars, and there were some genuinely fine offerings in the mix for the 2016 European Car of the Year — including the SA Car of the Year winner the Volvo XC90, the new Audi A4, Jaguar XE, and BMW 7-Series. Not too many jalopies there.
But the Astra plays in a market segment that VW, not without good reason, believes is rightfully its own, sown up, and finish and klaar. The court is well-populated, but there is only one king, and the king’s name is Golf. It’s been a long time since I drove one, but my recollection is of a seriously class act.
The other players, jesters, and general hangers-on count among them the Ford Focus, the Astra, the Mazda 3, the Hyundai i30, a related Kia of some sort, the Toyota Auris, Honda Civic, and — heavens, this list does go on — the Renault Megane and the Peugeot 308.
They’re a mixed bag in terms of desirability, but the reality is that there isn’t a bad car among them.
If you want a car to bequeath to your grandchildren, you have the Auris. If you want an alternative, chic, and stylish car, you can go for the 308. If you are fond of long warranties, you go for the i30. If you like a bit of blue collar and frolicsome cornering, you buy the Focus. And so on.
South Africans consider all of this good stuff and then go shopping. Sales figures for April 2016 are instructive. South Africans bought 78 Peugeot 308s, two Meganes, nine Civics, 202 Astras, 325 Focuses, and 260 Mazda 3s. But they also bought 366 VW Golfs. The king is the king.
The new Astra is possibly the most realistic pretender yet. Mine arrived in metallic red, and I thought it handsome enough and yet not too zany for what is quite a conservative market.
I liked the interior. It’s a German car, so I found a comfortable driving position, and was pleased to see that the driver’s seat cushion could be extended and raised to support the longer-legged among us, a facility that cars with much more expensive badges on their noses tend sometimes to eschew.
There’s also a fairly extensive set of satellite controls on the steering wheel, controlling cruise control, stereo setting, and volume.
MY CAR came with a reversing camera, which on one occasion appeared to freeze, or crash, upsetting the entire touchscreen system, which then dimmed itself as though it was dark outside, rendering the satnav invisible in the bright sunlight, and turned the automatic headlights on. It took about five minutes to sort itself out. The touchscreen interface is otherwise pretty good for this kind of a car, seemingly easy to use and uncomplicated.
It doesn’t try to do too much, but does enough to reduce the clutter of buttons the last car was infamous for, making for a cleaner, altogether less intimidating cabin for the operator.
The rest of the interior of the Astra is good. It’s well laid-out, cleverly packaged, and simple, but there cannot be any avoiding the truth that, in terms of quality of materials, the Astra isn’t on a par with the Golf, which is a beautifully solid and well-designed affair.
Rear headroom and legroom is excellent — better than the Golf’s, the numbers say — and so is boot space. But beware: the Astra comes only with a space-saver “Marie Biscuit” spare wheel — something to consider if you’re contemplating a trip to the back of beyond.
Like most modern hatchbacks, the Astra has a small turbocharged engine, a 1.4-litre four-cylinder, which would in theory, put it directly in competition with VW’s acclaimed 1.4 TSi motor, but outperforms it by some margin, offering a sprightly 110kW to the Golf’s 92kW.
In relatively light cars such as these, that’s a huge difference — almost 20% — and the result is appreciably improved performance on the part of the Astra, which is very nearly two full seconds quicker to 100km/h than the Golf.
The Astra comes with a really good chassis. Ride and handling are genuinely good, and noise abatement is excellent. Its steering is a little overly assisted, offering an odd sense of dislocation when not in sport mode, but is quick and accurate nonetheless.
However, when you start to push it a bit, the Golf’s effortless class holds out, most likely because the VW engineers insisted on expensive and complicated independent rear suspension, whereas the Opel has to manage with an old-fashioned torsion-beam set-up that can become unsettled, crashy, and twitchy when cornering on imperfect surfaces. In my memory, the Golf’s ride is still unmatched.
A final thing worth noting is that the Astra came with some pretty high-end safety technology, such as lane-keeping assist, and collision warning systems, which, while oversensitive at times, are another potential deal-maker for the family-orientated owner.
It’s hard to come to a conclusion. That in itself speaks of the distance Opel has come with this car.
It does, however, ultimately lack the sophistication and class of the Golf, the astonishing residuals, the excellent ride, the brilliant materials, the effortless poise, and the general sense of excellence.
THIS is a brand-new Astra and the Golf is a year or two away from complete replacement.
The king will no doubt reign supreme once more, but right now, the Astra is a genuine contender.
It offers significantly better performance, good torque for towing a trailer if you want, excellent space, and good safety specification — all of which, for me, give it the edge over the Golf as a small family car.
In 1.4T spec, it’s also a couple of grand cheaper, at R338,000.
I can see why the Europeans loved it so much. It has a little zing, a dash of character, a twinkle in its eye. The Golf, in every other way, remains the more sensible buy. It is almost certainly the better car.
But, as a family man who likes a bit of shunt, I would probably take the Astra.
I didn’t expect to write that!