MOTORING: Opel Astra 1.6T Sport: Where’s the sparkle?
Opel has a proud hot hatch heritage, linked to a string of successes in production car racing – even if those glory days were many years ago. Can the current Astra Sport rekindle at least some of that motoring verve?
The Opel brand logo features a circle intersected by a lightning bolt, suggesting a certain energy and dynamism. But in the performance hatchback context, the marque hasn’t had a real contender since the unruly, previous-generation Astra OPC. The current, so-called K-Series Astra has had to do without a hot hatch flagship, focusing on more pragmatic virtues such as efficiency, refinement, safety and comfort instead. Admittedly, that’s where the interest of most hatchback buyers is probably focused. However, it leaves the Astra range without a much-needed halo model – a performance flagship able to earn the brand in general, and the Astra nameplate in particular, some valuable bragging rights in a crowded, cut-throat market. It’s a strategy that Volkswagen has used to great effect with its iconic GTI and R models. Ford has adopted a similar approach with its Focus STI and RS derivatives. For now, the most athletic member of the Opel Astra clan is the 1.6T Sport. Yes, it’s only lukewarm by hot hatch standards, but don’t judge the German too hastily: there’s more to this five-door than meets the eye. The Astra boasts clean, trim lines that are unassuming at first glance, but tend to grow on you over time. There’s enough brand identity to save it from the anonymity of generic design, but it’s not exactly a head-turner, either. Instead, it’s handsome in a crafted, chiselled kind of way, with smooth contours and well-balanced proportions that suggest wind-cheating aerodynamics. A case of form following function then – and that’s always a more enduring foundation for design than fast-fading fashion. The interior continues that unassuming theme. Nothing stands out as immediately impressive, but the execution does exude a strong overall sense of cohesion and ergonomic continuity. The primarily charcoal colour scheme is smart, rather than overtly luxurious or aspirational, with ease of use taking centre stage. But the Astra’s occupants aren’t left wanting for anything, either. Fine leather seats ensure comfort and support, the instrumentation is tidy and clear, and there’s an integrated touchscreen for the infotainment system that delivers everything from foot-tapping multispeaker sound to Bluetooth, satnav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There’s also a plethora of active and safety systems, including a variety of driver assistance systems and parking aids. However, I found the latter to often border on the intrusive. It’s fine to have an electronic nanny that keeps you on the straight and narrow, but the Astra’s systems operate so pre-emptively that you often wonder what the fuss is about. The temptation is to switch them off, which defeats the whole object. The line between constructive assistance and spurious warning is a fine one, and the Astra oversteps that line too often. [caption id="attachment_112397" align="alignnone" width="5306"] Interplay of light and shadow: A horizontal crossbar above the brand logo links the rear lights of the new Opel Astra.[/caption] While the engine specs suggest a fair amount of brio, the actual get up and go of the Astra Sport still comes as a surprise. At 147kW, the four-cylinder turbo mill can’t match the current-generation VW Golf GTi’s 169kW, but it delivers good low-down torque and a broad power band. Also contributing is a slick, six-speed manual gearbox with nicely stacked ratios that make the most of the urge. So yes, the Astra shows off ample gusto, in both straight-line and midrange acceleration terms. You can opt to short-shift and make use of the fat torque band for an effortlessly brisk motoring experience, or run the engine through the revs to extract the maximum potential. Either way, the result is satisfying and competent. The Astra is a willing commuter, always offering enough urge to get you out of sticky situations, or to make use of a gap that wouldn’t be possible in something less agile. The steering is light and precise for easy parking, and there’s a useful balance between tautness and refinement. Tackle longer distances, and the suspension’s compliance is further underlined by a ride that’s smooth without becoming wafty, and an ability to soak up bumps and dips whilst easily retaining composure. As is so often the case with modern cars, the electric power steering places the emphasis on assistance rather than feedback. The result is a certain remoteness to the steering feel which compromises driver engagement. For many Astra owners, that will hardly be an issue: after all, the hatchback turns in obediently enough, and the steering action is both positive and accurate. But those who enjoy the emotive element of piloting an eager machine down a twisty country road will demand more interaction. The lack of communication is a pity, because the Astra tracks the chosen line with confident tenacity, showing off an inherent balance and poise that allows rapid and confident cross-county motoring. It’s certainly athletic enough to vindicate the Sport badge, and progress is always swifter than you think. There’s also value to consider. There’s not much else at the Astra Sport’s price point that will rival its combination of brio, standard spec and overall capability. It’s not a GTI slayer, but it’s not meant to be. That would be the task of an OPC version, if we ever get one. Indeed, it’s easy to understand why the Astra was crowned Europe’s 2016 Car Of The Year – and also took the South African Car of the Year award in 2017. But those awards have not translated into sales success, at least not in SA. In 1.6 Sport guise, the Opel Astra is fast and fluid when you need it to be, while providing a pleasing package of comfort, convenience and safety. But ultimately, the driving experience is competent, rather than entertaining. To some extent, it might be the victim of a marque that’s lost the sparkle it once enjoyed. However, with Opel now under new management, both globally and in SA, rebuilding the brand will be a clear priority – and that may well allow the Astra light to shine brightly again. DM PROS Contemporary design, good spec, responsive drive. CONS Lacks aspirational sparkle. VITAL STATS
|Opel Astra 1.6T Sport|
|Engine||In-line four-cylinder, 1,598cc, turbo|
|Power||147kW @ 4,700 - 5,500rpm|
|Torque||280Nm @ 1,650 – 5,000rpm|
|Power-to-weight ratio||105.53 kW/ton|
|Gearbox||Six-speed manual, FWD|
|Wheels/tyres||18-inch alloy, 225/40 R18 tyres|
|Fuel tank capacity||48 litres|
|Fuel consumption (claimed/tested)||6.1 / 7.9 litres/100km|
|Operating range (claimed/tested)||787/ 608km|
|CO2 emissions||141 g/km|