Re-en­try hatch has a hot mis­sion

Holden comes back with a small five-door spec­i­fied to shake up the seg­ment — it may not, at the price

Herald Sun - Motoring - - COVER STORY - JOSHUA DOWLING NA­TIONAL MOTORING ED­I­TOR joshua.dowling@news.com.au

HOLDEN show­rooms got a fash­ion boost this week.

The first all-new As­tra in more than a decade has landed — but those ea­ger for the re­turn of the sleek Euro­pean hatch may be in for a shock.

Its pre­de­ces­sor, the lo­cally made Holden Cruze au­to­matic, sold for as low as $19,990 drive­away in its fi­nal year on sale.

The new As­tra in au­to­matic guise starts at more than $28,000 drive-away — an in­crease of 40 per cent over the Cruze.

That’s also at least $2000 dearer than the Volk­swa­gen Golf, and $3000 to $4000 dearer than the top-sell­ing Toy­ota Corolla and Mazda3.

Holden has de­fended the price rise, say­ing the As­tra is de­signed to “shake-up the small-car seg­ment and re­de­fine what a Holden small car can be”.

The new As­tra has some tech­nol­ogy not avail­able on most ri­vals — but that too comes at a cost.

Fully loaded, a top of the range As­tra now costs more than $40,000 drive-away — more than a sta­ble­mate Com­modore.

There are three mod­els in the range — R, RS, and RS-V — and a choice of 1.4 or 1.6-litre turbo four-cylin­der en­gines, both with six-speed man­ual or six-speed auto trans­mis­sions.

For now, only the cheap­est model is avail­able with an auto — the two bet­ter equipped mod­els won’t have an au­to­matic op­tion un­til March next year.

Head­line tech­nol­ogy such as au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing — which slams on the brakes be­low 30km/h if the driver isn’t pay­ing at­ten­tion — as well as lane-keep­ing as­sis­tance and blind-zone warn­ing are stan­dard on the two dear­est As­tra mod­els, and bun­dled as a $1000 op­tion pack on the base model from April.

The brak­ing tech be­came stan­dard on the en­tire Mazda3 range two months ago, will be avail­able on the Toy­ota Corolla from April and is a $1500 op­tion on the VW Golf Trend­line.

The As­tra’s hi-tech high­beams don’t daz­zle on­com­ing traf­fic — eight in­di­vid­ual LEDs in each head­light switch on and off in mil­lisec­onds so they don’t blind other driv­ers, while still il­lu­mi­nat­ing the road be­hind and be­side them. They are part of a $3990 op­tion pack that in­cludes radar cruise con­trol and a sun­roof.

It is with these op­tions that a top-of-the-range As­tra be­comes dearer than not only a Com­modore but also more than a Mercedes A-Class or Audi A3.

The new As­tra is part of Holden’s bold plan to trans­form its im­age from main­stream to up­mar­ket.

Holden sales di­rec­tor Peter Ke­ley is un­apolo­getic about the As­tra’s price rise and says the com­pany is not chas­ing out­right sales lead­er­ship with the new model — even though small cars have topped the an­nual sales charts for the past five years.

It may seem hard to be­lieve to­day but three gen­er­a­tions ago, in 2001, the Holden As­tra gave the Toy­ota Corolla a run for its money and was the na­tion’s sec­ond best-sell­ing small car (28,300 ver­sus 30,800). At the time the As­tra spanked the Mazda small car (10,000 sales) and VW Golf (5600). How times have changed. Even the Holden Cruze did bet­ter on the sales charts than the new As­tra is ex­pected to per­form, hit­ting a peak of 33,700 de­liv­er­ies in 2011 be­fore sales went into freefall — and halved by 2015.

Need­less to say the As­tra has a lot rid­ing on its creased flanks.

“The new As­tra is de­signed to ap­peal to peo­ple who may have never con­sid­ered our brand be­fore,” says gen­eral man­ager of prod­uct mar­ket­ing Ben Lasry.

“These cus­tomers love travel and love Euro­pean so­phis­ti­ca­tion. They have a white col­lar job with a com­fort­able house­hold in­come,” he says.

At least the As­tra’s ser­vic­ing costs are rea­son­able ($229 a ser­vice for the first four vis­its — ev­ery nine months or 15,000km). Only the Toy­ota Corolla and Hyundai i30 are cheaper; the Mazda3 and VW Golf are dearer for rou­tine main­te­nance.

The other good news, for those who can af­ford to buy the new As­tra: it’s a wor­thy car.

De­signed and en­gi­neered in Ger­many — and made in Poland — the new As­tra has the ad­van­tage of lo­cally tuned steer­ing and transmission cal­i­bra­tions.

Holden en­gi­neers didn’t feel the need to over­haul the Euro­pean sus­pen­sion but they tweaked the steer­ing to suit Aus­tralian roads and ad­justed the shift pat­terns of the auto transmission to match lo­cal driv­ing con­di­tions.

These may seem like odd tech­ni­cal de­tails to men­tion but such at­ten­tion to de­tail helps set the As­tra apart from the com­pe­ti­tion.

ON THE ROAD

We got to sam­ple all four driv­e­line com­bi­na­tions — the 1.4-litre turbo petrol man­ual and auto, and the 1.6-litre turbo petrol man­ual and auto — on a

Fully loaded, a topof-the-range As­tra costs more than $40,000 drive-away — dearer than a Com­modore, a Mercedes A-Class or an Audi A3

300km loop be­tween Yass and Can­berra.

First im­pres­sions are good. The new As­tra feels like an amal­gam of the sharp­ness of a Mazda3 and the comfort of a VW Golf.

On coarse roads the tyres are qui­eter than a Mazda but slightly nois­ier than a Golf. That’s the trade-off for agility. Tyre grip equals noise.

Most im­pres­sive is how well the sus­pen­sion soaks up the worst bumps and thumps Aussie back roads can of­fer.

The elec­tric power steer­ing felt re­laxed on the open road, too. Holden says the steer­ing soft­ware “reads” the road sur­face ev­ery five to 10 sec­onds and ad­justs ac­cord­ingly to com­pen­sate for the cam­ber .

The 1.4 en­gine has enough grunt for the daily grind but those who want a bit more oomph would be well ad­vised to up­grade to the 1.6.

The only catch: the more pow­er­ful en­gine de­mands pre­mium un­leaded (as with most other Euro­pean cars). The 1.4 drinks reg­u­lar un­leaded.

Inside, the new As­tra has a lux­ury feel, with soft touch ma­te­rial on the dash, doors and arm rests. A touch­screen with Ap­ple CarPlay and An­droid Auto phone pro­jec­tion also dis­plays a clear im­age of the rear-view cam­era. A dig­i­tal speedo dis­play splits the ana­log in­stru­ments.

There are am­ple cub­bies and size­able door pock­ets and there is gen­er­ous leg and head­room in the rear. The driver’s seat can slide back — and be low­ered — more so than in other cars, to ac­com­mo­date the tallest of driv­ers.

Down­sides? There aren’t many: only the driver gets an “auto up” pow­ered win­dow switch (the Golf has all four win­dows) and there is only one USB port in the cabin (the Mazda3 has two).

There is a space-saver spare rather than a full-size tyre but at least this is bet­ter than an in­fla­tion kit.

VER­DICT

The new As­tra is wor­thy ve­hi­cle and a wel­come re­turn to form — but the price is steep by any mea­sure. Be sure to hag­gle, or wait for deals to emerge.

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