Vauxhall Astra GSE
Vauxhall’s new hybrid-powered Astra range-topper looks the part. Don’t be deceived…
‘THIS IS PEAK HOT HATCH.’ THE message from John Barker arrived after he had just returned from pitting Honda’s new Civic Type R against its key rivals (see page 54). I won’t ‘do a Barker’ and give the result away here, but suffice to say that Honda, Hyundai and Audi are working overtime to create memorable final flings for those who worship the tripod cornering technique. So where does Vauxhall’s new Astra GSE sit within the heights of (nearly) affordable hot hatches? Er, some way back from the summit, pretty much back at base camp.
There are some good elements to the Astra GSE (Grand Sport Electric, in case someone asks), such as the Mark Adams design that brings the strongest visual identity to the brand since, well, quite some time ago. Possibly ever. Distinctive, sharp and confident, it gives the Astra a four-square stance that draws you in. And imagine how much better it would look if it wasn’t painted Avis rental white. However, Adams has stated that Opel/vauxhall wanted to avoid ‘a boy racer looking car’ and once the good first impression starts to subside you can’t help but long for a little more drama. Not FK8 Civic Type R levels of brashness, but elements that would mark the GSE out from a regular Mk8 Astra. Although there’s a good reason for the clean, fuss-free design: efficiency.
While the GSE isn’t a fully electric Astra (that’s a couple of years away) it is a hybrid and one that chases tax benefits as much as driver appeal, so its design efficiency extends to 18-inch wheels that pay homage to the Monza GSE but worship at the altar of low drag and minimal turbulence. It’s all in a bid to maximise the range of the powertrain, which consists of the Stellantis group’s 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, 12.4kwh battery and single electric motor.
It’s the same powertrain that Peugeot fits to its 308 GT (the two cars share the same platform, too), which means 178bhp from the petrol motor and 108bhp of electrically generated power. As is the way when electric meets petrol, you can’t simply add both power figures together to reach a juicy 286bhp. Rather, the GSE peaks at 222bhp, with 265lb ft of torque. In a car weighing a hefty 1703kg, that means a power-to-weight figure on a par with a 2005 Fiesta ST…
You can probably deduce from those numbers that the GSE is more SEAT FR than Cupra, or Volkswagen GTI with the ‘I’ prized from its tailgate. Not a great deal happens after applying the throttle. There’s some noise from the 1.6-litre motor and some whirring from the eight-speed Aisin automatic gearbox (of course there’s no manual) but not much in the way of forward momentum,
which can be a bit of an issue if you commit to overtaking something.
The fact that there’s no option to keep the gearbox in manual mode when you use the steering wheel-mounted paddles (the gearbox reverting back to auto as quickly as possible, which is about the only thing the GSE does do quickly) adds to the frustration. And you are frustrated because the Astra is equipped with a decent chassis.
Lower by 15mm compared with a regular model and with a set of Koni’s Frequency Selective Dampers fitted, there’s a high level of body control and a fluidity to how it works the road. You sense some serious chassis tuning has been undertaken, which makes the fitment of a set of Michelin Primacy 4 tyres another source of frustration.
Selected to help the GSE travel 40 miles on electric power and therefore make it eligible for eight per cent benefit-in-kind tax, those tyres trip it up at the first decent corner. There’s nothing to work with via the steering, which despite claims of a nine per cent increase in responsiveness feels incredibly slow, and what you do ‘feel’ are the front tyres waving the white flag as soon as a few degrees of steering angle have been applied. Combined with rather feelfree brakes, you quickly wind everything back and settle for enjoying the refinement rather than hunting for the thrills.
As a hot hatch, the GSE doesn’t so much miss the mark as tumble by unnoticed. Which is a disappointment, because the Astra is a good car on many levels. It’s smart looking, the interior works well with a blend of screens and physical buttons, and the AGR seats are an ergonomic delight. However, at £40,550 it’s also not cheap (that money buys you a good, used BMW M340i xdrive Touring if you don’t need a new car).
Above: interior looks good, feels good and works well, while the chassis flows along nicely over a mix of roads. Unfortunately, along with the powertrain, it’s been optimised for efficiency rather than driving thrills
The biggest frustration is that it feels like a car no one was prepared to push to find its peak, which is a missed opportunity when there’s a 300bhp dual-motor hybrid powertrain in the family that could have been fitted. Unfortunately the management view was that the work required to install it wasn’t worth the rewards. On this evidence, that was the wrong call.
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1598cc, turbocharged, plus 81kw electric motor Power 225bhp Torque 265lb ft Weight 1703kg (132bhp/ ton) Top speed 146mph 0-62mph 7.5sec Basic price £40,550 + Polished dynamics, neat looks, quality materials throughout - Let down by lacklustre drivetrain and lack of performance evo rating
PORSCHE’S MACAN REMAINS A BENCHMARK small SUV. It’s not a car to flutter the hearts of evo readers, nor will it be the first choice for one of those drives we all lock away to be resurfaced when someone asks why driving matters. But like Alfa Romeo’s Stelvio it is a vehicle that’s clearly been engineered and developed by those prepared to go the extra mile and create a car worthy of the heritage its badge carries.
Even in its twilight years – the Macan was launched nine years ago and has nearly 12 months to go before its all-electric replacement arrives – it still sets the benchmark for ride and handling, body control and feedback, and feeling like a Porsche hot hatch rather than a flat-footed crossover. As a daily to accompany something more exciting in the garage, a Macan is a wise choice.
Although, it does depend on which Macan we’re discussing. Anything with a six-cylinder turbo engine will see you right; they’re all seven-speed PDK equipped but the mix works well and the pace and performance match the expectations. We’d go for a GTS but an S is just fine, too. We wouldn’t walk on by a used diesel either. Which leaves the four-cylinder petrol models.
When launched in 2014 the four-cylinder Macan
was rarer than an order slot on a GT3 RS. You could have one, but wouldn’t you prefer a six-cylinder Porsche to one powered by a VW Golf GTI engine? It turns out that a great many customers did. In recent years that’s changed, with the Ea888engined Macan’s entry-level attractiveness being pushed by Porsche. To the extent that another trim has been added, the T.
Its 2-litre four-cylinder single-turbo engine remains unchanged from the base Macan’s, with 261bhp and 295lb ft available to haul 1865kg around with the aid of a seven-speed double-clutch gearbox and four-wheel drive. However, the T does have the Sport Chrono Package as standard, adding drive modes, Sport Response (which, at the push of a button, heightens the engine and transmission’s responses for 20 seconds) and launch control. Adaptive damping is also standard and the car sits 15mm lower and gains a selection of exterior trim finished in Agate Grey. For all of these extras, Porsche charges a premium of £5000.
So far so good. The less good bit is that, like the regular four-cylinder Macan, the T could be politely described as lacking the performance befitting of a Porsche. Regardless of the drive mode selected the throttle response is a little glacial to say the least, the seven ratios working overtime to shuffle around the power and fill in the torque shortfalls. It is, frankly, a little breathless, and even when up to speed it’s quite slow to respond to any requests for some more get up and go. With the power-toweight ratio of a well-endowed supermini but none of the lightweight pep, it’s not hard to understand the performance challenges the T faces.
Which is a shame because all the other strong attributes of the Macan are there in abundance. It steers with a directness no rival can touch, its body control feels more Golf GTI than jacked-up crossover and it exudes the damping quality and polish that Porsche’s engineers tirelessly slave over to perfect.
Compared with today’s £50,000-plus hatchbacks (the Macan T is £55,800) there’s a quality about its interior that a Golf R can’t get close to and a sense that you are in something a cut above the volume sellers – even though the Macan accounted for more than a third of all Porsche sales last year with over 88,000 examples sold. However, compared with the Macan S, the T doesn’t get out of the starting blocks.
For an additional one-thousand pounds you can buy a six-cylinder Macan S, and you get far more for your money than an extra pair of cylinders. It’s more powerful by a sizable 114bhp, has 88lb ft more torque, and despite weighing an additional 65kg is considerably quicker, too. Not just against the stopwatch but in every situation that’s relevant to road driving. And while it may be thirstier than the four-pot T by a margin of 2mpg, the S’s larger reserves of performance result in you driving it in a calmer, more efficient manner, but no slower.
It’s incredibly rare for Porsche to drop the ball but the Macan T feels like a model conceived in a creative ideas session by people who haven’t grasped what makes a Porsche a Porsche. After the scintillating brilliance of the 911 Carrera T, the Macan T feels like an opportunity missed to have some fun with the petrol models before they are replaced with battery-powered equivalents. Because even if you only buy it for the kudos of owning a Porsche, the Macan T isn’t going to provide you with the experience you are expecting.
‘Compared with the Macan S, the T doesn’t get out of the starting blocks’
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1984cc, turbocharged
Power 261bhp @ 5000-6500rpm Torque 295lb ft @ 18004500rpm Weight 1865kg (142bhp/ton) 0-62mph 6.2sec Top speed 144mph Basic price £55,800
+ All the usual Porsche dynamic qualities
- With none of the performance evo rating ★★★☆☆