The Astra is back. But don't go looking at your Holden dealer for the long-time small-car favourite. This time around, everything but the name has changed as the Astra spearheads a downunder drive by Opel of Germany.
Opel always did the Astra, but now it's reclaimed its prize child and is using an impressive new GTC coupe - and a reasonable $23,990 starting price for a five-door hatch - to headline for a three-model lineup that is intended to grow rapidly in a planned challenge to Volkswagen for European bragging rights in Australia.
Explore the 2012 Opel Astra Range
The Astra is joined by the baby Corsa - once the Holden Barina - and the family-sized Insignia, previewed already by Carsguide and available as both a sedan and a wagon called the Sports Tourer.
So this is not a just a showroom launch for the Astra, even though it's the key, but a brand launch for Opel. To put the new Opels into focus, they are not pitched back against Holden but up against Volkswagen and Peugeot and some of the upscale Japanese brands. At least, that's the thinking by the Opel planners who have set up 17 dealers around Australia for the start of sales on September 1.
The key message from Opel is that the brand is German, led by design, and has similar strengths to Volkswagen. How buyers will react, especially as there are more than 50 different brands in Australia in 2012, is a very big question, but Opel Australia's boss, Bill Mott, is - as you'd expect - confident.
"The countdown is over. "Customer choices are changing. We believe we have a product and a brand suited to this changing market," says Mott. He promises a growing range and an expanding dealer network, but says Astra is the key. "We're entering in segments which are ... headed for further growth. I think it would be considerably tougher without Astra," he says.
"This Astra is both a real help to us but, as a new brand, an issue that we've got to address. We have to tell the truth and tell the truth well. The truth is that Astra was here and it was always an Opel."
Holden dumped the Astra because it could get cheaper baby cars from Daewoo in Korea, but Opel is doing all it can to build good value into its cars. "I'm confident we have done our homework," says Mott. It's been helped massively by the strength of the Australia dollar, which means the bottom line for an Astra is reasonable but not outstanding.
So it runs from $23,990 for the five-door 1.4-litre petrol turbo. That's not great when you can get a similarly-sized Toyota Corolla for less than $20,000, but it's right in the heartland for European small cars and looks good enough against the cheapest Golf at $21,990 with less power and - Opel says - less standard equipment. The mainstream bodies are the five-door hatch and Sports Tourer wagon, while the run up the range goes to the 2-litre turbo diesel from $27,990 and the 1.6-litre turbo petrol from $28,990.
An automatic gearbox is a predictable $2000 extra and there are a variety of trim levels and option packs. But the headliner is the GTC coupe, priced from $28,990 with a 1.4 turbo or $34,90 with the punchier GTC. "We really believe the Astra GTC is a unique animal. It's an attainable dream car."
Opel has always done great engineering work, getting the basics right on the chassis and moving up from there. There is nothing revolutionary about the Astra package, but the various engines make solid power and torque, there are six-speed manual and automatic gearboxes - auto only in the Sports Tourer - Watts-link rear suspension and things like bi-Xenon lamps, alloys wheels and even an electric boot release and a system that flips the back seat flat in the wagon.
Extra equipment includes a premium centre console and even special ergonomic sports seats, as well as an adaptive lighting system with cornering lights and auto dipping. And the GTC?
The chassis is tweaked with the usual sports settings, but there is also a HiPerStrut front suspension for better grip and feedback, optional magnetically-controlled Flexride dampers - similar to those used on some HSV Commodores - and 18-inch alloys, electric power steering and more. All Astras come with Bluetooth connectivity.
This is a key for Opel, which wants its cars to stand out in traffic. Australian-born Nils Loeb, who heads exterior design at Opel, is special guest at the press preview of the cars and talks passionately about the company's philosophy. "We are the emotional German brand," he says. The cars definitely look good, and the GTC really stands out even against good lookers like the Renault Megane, but it's the attention to detail that is most impressive.
The dashboards are more than just flat plastic panels, the switches look and feel good, and Loeb admits Opel chooses bigger wheels for its cars "Because they look good".
Six airbags in all models. All cars have five-star EuroNCAP scores. Enough said.
Good, but not great. That's the bottom line. Starting at the bottom, the basic Astra hatch feels rock-solid and responsive. The 1.4-litre engine is nothing special but the 1.6 has more than enough go for the job and promises fuel economy better than 8 litres/100km.
Looking around, both the hatch and Sports Tourer have impressive design and finishing - way better than the Corsa, which is like an old-generation Korean in the cabin - from the dash layout to the seat comfort. Thankfully, Opel is staying old-school with push-button switches, not a fancy iDrive-style controller, and everything you need is included from solid aircon to the Bluetooth connectivity.
The wagon is slightly more impressive than the hatch, thanks to good space in both the back seat and luggage area, and gives nothing away for driving enjoyment. But ... there is wind noise, the tyres rumble a lot on nasty surfaces in regional NSW, and the general feel of the car is not as plush or refined as a Golf. It's nice, for sure, but not any sort of a breakthrough.
Which brings us to the GTC. The headliner coupe is seriously cool, and a real looker, yet somehow there seems to have more space in the back seat than in the hatch. The basic car gets along reasonably, not that it will matter to fashion-conscious buyers, but it's the 1.6 with FlexRide suspension that's the one to love.
The switchable FlexRide also adjusts the steering and throttle response, taking the car from OK to keen and sharp in milliseconds. It has great grip and can easily cope with more power - as we'll eventually confirm once Opel Australia gets a go-ahead for the hotrod OPC model. The first impression of the Astra is much as expected, particularly after so many years on the books at Holden.
The major change is more flair in the design, and a promise that fixed-price servicing will give buyers the confidence they need to commit to the cars.
So good, and good enough, but we'll know more once we line the Astra up against the Golf and our current small-car favourite, the Toyota Corolla.