The introduction of the European Astra and Vectra models in the late-1990s represented the dawning of a new era for Holden. It was an era which the company for the first time could offer a full range of models that were competitive with anything on offer from its rivals.
Holden had a major problem almost from the very start. It was a one car company. It didn’t matter so much back in the 1950s when buyers were happy to get their hands on whatever was available, but as cars became more plentiful so their choice was greater.
It really hit home in the ’70s when the oil crises created a demand for smaller more efficient cars and all of a sudden Holden had a problem. They tried the Torana, a moderate success, and there was the Gemini, but they lacked the sort of models that would compete with the likes of Toyota, Nissan and Mazda and they didn’t have the funding needed to develop new models of their own.
The Camira was an attempt at developing a local small car, albeit based on the Opel Ascona, but poor reliability and appalling build quality ensured the Camira would be laughed off by a market by then used to Japanese quality and reliability.
Attempts at joint ventures with Nissan and Toyota produced the original Astra, a rebadged Nissan Pulsar, and later the Nova and Apollo, rebadged Corolla and Camry respectively, but these weren’t really seen as competitors to their mother models and didn’t really capture the interest of the market.
Holden had to find models that were unique to its showrooms, ones that would legitimately rival their Japanese rivals. Enter the Astra and Vectra, both rebadged Opels.
The first Opel-based Astra was launched in 1996, the Vectra a year later. Holden hasn’t looked back, for the first time it could truly claim to be a multi-model carmaker.
The first of the Opel-based Astras was already an old model when it arrived here early in 1996. It had been on sale in Europe since 1993, but was due to be replaced by an all-new model and that car arrived in local showrooms in 1998.
It has undergone a number of upgrades since its introduction, but the Astra that is now number four on the small car sales charts is little changed from the 1998 original. Its replacement is being shown at this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show, which means we can expect it here in Holden’s showrooms next year.
Available as a three or five-door hatch, or four-door sedan – there’s also the convertible but that really falls into another category – all are attractive with contemporary European styling that make them stand out on the road.
Entry to the Astra club is via the City, with the CD on offer for those who want a little more in the way of creature comforts. For a more sporty drive there’s the SRi and the Turbo, but they really appeal to a different buyer than the regular Astras on which we’ll focus for this column.
Power comes from a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine on all but the sporty SRi, which has a 108 kW 2.2-litre version of the same engine as standard.
With double overhead camshafts working four valves per cylinder, variable intake manifolding, and sequential fuel-injection the Astra’s 1.8-litre ECOTEC engine puts out a healthy 90 kW on regular unleaded. If you pay the price to run it on PULP you’ll get two kilowatts more.
A five-speed manual is the standard transmission across all models, but it isn’t the best shifting manual around. It’s typically Opel, easy enough to use, but not very precise and a little rubbery in feel, and definitely not sporty. A four-speed electronic auto is optional and maybe the best choice.
The Astra’s suspension is MacPherson Strut with gas shocks and a stabiliser bar at the front, with a compound torsion bar and trailing arms, progressive rate coil springs and gas shocks at the rear.
Power rack-and-pinion steering is standard across the board. Likewise disc brakes can be found at all four corners, the fronts featuring ventilated rotors. ABS and traction control are optional on the CD.
Wheels are 14 x 5.5-inch with full wheel covers on the City, but the CD gets attractive 15 x 6-inch alloys as standard.
Inside the City you’ll find plenty of standard features, like an adjustable steering column, power mirrors, audible headlights ‘on’ warning, breakaway brake and clutch pedals, height adjustable driver’s seat, cloth trim, airbags for the driver and front seat passenger, lap/sash seat belts for all passengers, seat belt pre-tensioners, front seat belt force limiters, seat belt height adjusters, 60/40 split-fold rear seat, immobiliser, and a sound system with CD player and six speakers.
The CD boasts even more with a leather-trimmed steering wheel, velour trim, power windows, heated rear view mirrors, and cruise. Air-conditioning is an option on all models.
ON THE LOT
Look for City three-door hatches priced from $11,000 to $17,000; add $750 for the four-door, $1000 for the five-door, a similar premium for the auto, and $500 for the optional air-con.
Expect to pay $12,500 to $21,000 for the CD four-door sedan, add $1000 for the more popular five-door hatch, and $500 for air-con.
IN THE SHOP
With its zinc-galvanised body electrostatically dip-primed the chances of corrosion becoming a problem are minimal, and only likely to surface in the long term, if at all.
Side protection from shopping centre bumps is quite good with well-designed side rub strips, while front and rear bumpers are sturdy and will withstand most of the bump and grind of day-to-day driving.
The annoying dark staining that dulls the shine of alloy wheels on many European-sourced cars is a problem on the Astra. It’s also a sign of heavy brake wear, although most owners say they’re happy with pad life which is generally in excess of 50,000 km.
Mechanically the Astra is reliable with few faults reported across the board, although it’s worth noting one owner’s problems with the five-speed after just 75,000 km.
Owners report very good fuel consumption of 7.0 litres/100 km on a trip, and just a little more around town.
Like most modern European cars the Astra remains tight and few from rattles and squeaks as mileage accumulates.
Peter Cain owns a 2001 Astra CD auto and reckons it’s fantastic after 60,000 trouble free kilometres. His only complaint, a minor one, is the firmness of the seats.
Max Blenkin also reckons the Astra is very good, despite having to replace the gearbox in his 2001 Astra City after just 75,000 km. It started as a clunk going around corners that got worse until it stopped dead one day. Gearbox problem aside, Max rates the Astra as the best car he’s ever owned with effortless performance, good handling, economy and comfort, his only complaint being the “clunky” gearshift.
Doug Stockwell is another satisfied Astra owner. Doug owns a 2001 CD auto sedan which he says performs extremely well, is quiet and tight as a drum with no squeaks or rattles of any sort. His only problem has been with the instrument panel, which shut down completely and took two weeks to replace, which was excessive in Max’s view. Apart from that he’s more than happy.
Jennifer Cass bought a new Astra CD in August 2002 and she says all was fine until about October that year when she became aware of a rubbing noise that appeared when the car had been warmed up and she was taking off from a rest. The noise ceased once the speed rose, but it became progressively worse, almost unbearable every time she reversed. The car went back to the dealership under warranty five times, and they fitted a damper to pull the calliper back, machined the discs, fitted new discs and callipers and in August 2003 fitted a new part released overseas to fix the problem. The noise reappeared a few weeks later and once again has become progressively worse. The dealer has told me that it’s the ABS self-checking protocol, but I am not convinced, and I have heard others have the same issue.
• smart European styling
• tight, rattle free body
• good corrosion protection
• zippy four cylinder motor
• clunky gearshift
• miserly fuel consumption
• Ford Laser – 1998-2002 – $10,700-$25,000
• Toyota Corolla – 1998-2002 – $9000-$20,000
• Nissan Pulsar – 19989-2002 – $9500-$22,000