After struggling to find a small car that worked for it Holden struck gold with the Astra it sourced from Opel in Germany.

Holden had attempted to market rebadged Nissans and Toyotas before the Astra, but with little or no success. In the Astra Holden had a car all its own; even better it was from Europe at a time Australians were turning on to European cars.

NEW

The timing couldn't have been better. The Astra was an attractive small car and was an immediate hit with the market. There was a wide choice of models and body styles, including three and five-door hatches and a four-door sedan.

Inside, the Astra was typically Euro, with bold patterned upholstery and door trims, and the fit, finish and materials quality were of a high standard. The cabin was quite roomy for its compact dimensions and two adults could sit in the rear with reasonable legroom, while the boot was of a good size and there was a 60/40 split-fold rear seat for added flexibility.

Models ranged from the City entry through to the sporty SRi, a kind of Golf GTi clone. Most models had the power of a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine that with a decent 90 kW and 165 Nm gave it plenty of zip on the road. It was a free-revving engine, although it became a little 'tinny' as the revs rose.

Behind the engine was either a smooth-shifting four-speed auto or a five-speed manual, with the final drive directed to the front wheels. There was also the sporty Sri that came with a 2.0-litre four- cylinder engine that put out 108 kW and 203 Nm for a thrill-a-minute drive.

The Astra's ride was a little firm around town, but with a rigid body, wide track and long wheelbase and a suspension locally tuned to our roads it was agile and nimble with a stability that allowed it to be hustled along quite quickly.

NOW

Good build quality has meant the Astra has stood up quite well over time and generally hasn't developed body rattles, squeaks or other noises that can be annoying. A degree of caution is needed when buying an Astra, however, for while they are an attractive and affordable little car, and were quite well built, they are now getting on in years and that means a greater risk of trouble from wear and tear.

On top of that the TS suffered from some serious issues that could turn a dream drive into a nightmare. Most notably they break cam timing belts, and when they do the damage to the engine's internals can be severe and expensive.

The cam belt tensioner was at the root of the problem. It would fail, the belt would loosen and either break or jump teeth on the drive gears throwing the cam timing out. Either way there would be heavy contact between the valves and the pistons and it's goodnight nurse for the engine.

Holden overcame the issue by reducingthe belt change interval from 120,000 km to 60,000 km. The message is that anyone owning an Astra needs to be diligent about changing the belt, let it slip and you could be up for big bills.

When the belt is changed it's a good idea to check the water pump, as it's most likely that it will be leaking. Replace it as a precaution if there are any signs of leakage.

A Carsguide reader recently told us about the experience his daughter had when her Astra overheated on a trip, to the point the engine had to be replaced. It turned out that the cause of the problem was a pinhole in a hose at the rear of the engine and out of sight that caused a leak and eventually the engine to overheat.

SMITHY SAYS

Great looking, good driving small car, but it is blighted by cam belt breakages. Be warned.

Holden Astra TS 2001-2004

Price new: $20,840 to $25,100
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cylinder petrol, 90 kW/165 Nm; 2.0-litre 4-cylinder petrol, 108 kW/203 Nm.
Transmission: 4-speed auto, 5-speed man.
Economy: 6.4 L/100 km (1.8)
Body: 4-door sedan, 3-door hatch, 5-door hatch
Variants: City, CD, CDX, Equipe, SRi
Safety: Dual-airbags across the range, CDX had side airbags, SRi had ABS brakes.