HOLDEN AS­TRA

THE BEST SMALL HOLDEN IN DECADES, BUT IF IT CAN’T MATCH THE SLICKNESS OF A GOLF, CAN IT RE­ALLY BE COTY?

Wheels (Australia) - - 2017 Car Of The Year - TOBY HAGON

IT’S been a long time in the COTY wilder­ness for im­ported Hold­ens. Not since 2001 has a non-com­modore Holden taken the COTY gong – and there’s been noth­ing re­motely close to chal­leng­ing for a fi­nals berth in that decade-and-a-half stretch.

En­ter the BK As­tra, the fifth gen­er­a­tion of the Opel-sourced small car to be sold here and a ve­hi­cle tasked with re­plac­ing the Aus­tralian-made Cruze that has en­joyed big sales but not nec­es­sar­ily big ac­co­lades. While As­tra coupes have been avail­able more re­cently, this is the first five­door As­tra to wear a Holden lion since 2009.

To say the new As­tra ar­rives with big ex­pec­ta­tions is un­der­call­ing it. Holden is des­per­ate to move on from the last decade of un­der­whelm­ing Korean im­ports and in­stead look to a new breed of cars closer to the val­ues the brand once stood for.

Key to As­tra’s ar­tillery is its new D2XX plat­form that is lighter (by up to 140kg) and stiffer than the one it re­places. In a Volk­swa­gen-es­que move, the en­gine line-up is all-turbo, start­ing with a 1.4-litre in the R and round­ing out with a rous­ing 1.6 in RS and RS-V.

It was those 1.6s that im­me­di­ately gained COTY at­ten­tion. Of­fer­ing 147kw from as lit­tle as $26,490 rep­re­sents near-hot-hatch per­for­mance for $10K less than pun­ters are used to pay­ing. Throw in a slick six-speed man­ual ’box and few cars will de­liver as much driver sat­is­fac­tion for the money.

The RS-V ups that with 18-inch tyres and a raft of avail­able fea­tures that re­in­force its up­mar­ket as­pi­ra­tions. As with the RS, it gets for­ward col­li­sion alert, auto emer­gency brak­ing, lane-keep as­sist and blind-spot warn­ing.

That all As­tras man­age that fun fac­tor while still de­liv­er­ing on driv­e­train re­fine­ment – in­clud­ing an ex­cel­lent stop-start sys­tem and beau­ti­fully cal­i­brated ESC sys­tem – and fuel ef­fi­ciency (as lit­tle as 5.8L/100km) is tes­ta­ment to the core engi­neer­ing be­neath.

But judges soon turned their at­ten­tion to the en­try-level R, the As­tra that quickly be­came the star of COTY. With 110kw it lacks the out­right fire of the RS, but with a thor­oughly ac­ces­si­ble 240Nm, the slick six-speed auto makes it a ter­rific de­vice in daily driv­ing; suave and re­fined, with eight-sec­ond 0-100km/h tal­ent that trounces any­thing for the money. It’s a supremely easy car to punt along briskly, yet at the same time it’s re­laxed and com­fort­able.

It’s a shame that driv­e­train isn’t avail­able in other As­tras, be­cause the R is un­der­nour­ished in other ar­eas. De­spite com­pet­i­tive rear seat space and a great driv­ing po­si­tion, the plas­tic steer­ing wheel screams cheap. Speak­ing of which, the in­te­rior ex­cels in some ar­eas but is let down with some av­er­age-feel­ing switchgear and too much shiny chrome. Carey likened As­tra’s in­te­rior to “sit­ting in a coal mine”.

In a mar­ket where some com­peti­tors fit AEB across the range, the most af­ford­able As­tra needs a $1000 op­tion pack to gain full driveras­sist tech. But it does in­clude a leather wheel rim and rain-sens­ing wipers...

While there’s gen­uine poise to the As­tra’s en­ter­tain­ing chas­sis, cracks started to ap­pear the more it was driven on typ­i­cally Aussie back­roads. One of our As­tras had dis­con­cert­ing wind noise near the left B-pil­lar, which we put down to a one-off glitch. Tyre roar on coarse sur­faces was a no­tice­able prob­lem in the 18-inch-wheeled RS-V (less so the base R). And As­tra’s fo­cus on frisk­i­ness has taken its toll on the low-speed ride.

For a brand in need of a win, the all-new As­tra went tan­ta­lis­ingly close to COTY glory, but fell short of the all-round praise heaped on Com­modores be­fore it. It’s a gen­uinely good car, de­liv­er­ing on so­phis­ti­ca­tion and value in the heav­ily con­tested small-car field that is bur­geon­ing with no­table stars, in­clud­ing Volk­swa­gen’s 2013 Coty-win­ning Mk7 Golf.

Ul­ti­mately, As­tra stum­bled partly be­cause of the in­tense com­pe­ti­tion at the very pointy end of 2017’s COTY field. But it was also hurt by the still-un­matched slickness of the Golf.

In short, judges ques­tioned how much the new As­tra moved the small-car game along. It’s a big step for Holden, but only an in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ment for the small-car elite.

HOLDEN ASTRA BODY Type 5- door hatch, 5 seats L/W/ H 4386/ 1809/ 1485mm Wheel­base 2662mm Track 1530-1548mm (f), 1537-1565mm ( r) Boot ca­pac­ity 360 litres Weight 1283 – 1363kg DRIVETRAIN Lay­out front en­gine ( east-west), FWD Engines 1399cc 4cyl turbo...

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