It’s not so long ago that small cars like the Astra meant little to Holden as Australians eagerly swooped on every full-sized car the company could produce.

Holden’s main game was selling big cars, smaller ones were simply a handy sideline.

Boy, how things changed when the bottom fell out of the big car market. Holden was ultimately forced to quit local production and get into the imported small car caper.

The stylish European-sourced front-wheel drive Astra was a rip-roaring success for the ‘General’, none more so than the TS introduced in 1998.

Models

The TS arrived here in 1998 when it replaced the TR, which was an old model when it arrived here two years earlier.

It was an all-new model available as a three or five-door hatch, a four-door sedan and a convertible.

With contemporary European style it was not only attractive but also stood out from the mostly Asian crowd.

The City was at the entry-point of the range, but there was plenty on offer for anyone who wanted more. They were catered for with the CD, while anyone looking for a sporty drive had the SRi or the Turbo.

There was good room given its small size, and most found it comfortable. There was good room given its small size, and most found it comfortable.

Although it was the entry model, the City wasn’t a bare bones offering. It was quite well equipped with a radio-cassette sound system with six speakers, the steering column was adjustable for tilt and reach, there was remote keyless central locking, variable intermittent wipers, an immobiliser, and remote releases for the boot/hatch and fuel filler.

Anyone cashed up enough could have dipped into the options list for air conditioning or metallic paint.

For more of the things that made life on the road more pleasant there was the CD grade.

In addition to the City’s features the CD also came with CD sound, cruise control, a multi-function leather steering wheel, power mirrors, power windows, velour trim, and 15-inch alloy wheels.

The CDX came with a host of standard features, like climate control air conditioning, and 16-inch alloy wheels. The CDX came with a host of standard features, like climate control air conditioning, and 16-inch alloy wheels.

If that wasn’t enough, the options list offered 16-inch alloy wheels, metallic paint, air conditioning, and a rear spoiler.

The list of standard features for the sporty SRi three-door was considerably longer than those of the City and CD.

It came with the added standard features of 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, fog lamps, white-faced gauges, sports suspension, sports seats, and front and rear spoilers.

The options list was correspondingly shorter, with metallic paint the only extra offered.

A number of special City and CD models were released in 2000 to celebrate the Sydney Olympics held that year.

An update in 2001 witnessed the arrival of the limited edition Equipe with standard cruise, air-conditioning, fog lamps, alloy wheels, remote keyless central locking, as well as power windows and mirrors.

Fresh air fiends had cause for celebration in 2002 when Holden released a convertible Astra.

In addition to the power folding roof, the convertible got a CD sound system with six speakers, leather seats, and a wind deflector. In addition to the power folding roof, the convertible got a CD sound system with six speakers, leather seats, and a wind deflector.

In addition to the power folding roof it had all the bells and whistles with 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, CD sound with six speakers, remote keyless central locking, adjustable headlights, leather seats, leather steering wheel, power windows and mirrors, sports seats and suspension, trip computer and a wind deflector.

The same year also saw the entry of the CDX, which came with a host of standard features, like climate control air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, heated seats, leather seats and steering wheel, speed dependent sound volume, woodgrain trim elements, and a multi-function control screen.

In 2003 Holden added the sizzling Turbo version of the SRi to the range.

The TS preceded the digital era that saw cars being fitted with Bluetooth, there was facility for connecting an iPhone or Android device, and no sat-nav to find your way around, or a touch screen to keep you informed.

And you won’t find a reversing camera, parking sensors, or park assist.

Cabin

The Astra’s cabin was typically European, functional and well laid-out with all controls readily falling to hand.

The seats, front buckets and rear split-bench were firm, but comfortable, and offered decent support.

Like all European cars the ride was on the firm side, but that was the compromise for handling.

There was good room given its small size, and most found it comfortable. The only exception was the centre rear seat passenger, which would have found it a tad squeezy.

Cupholders were fitted.

Engine

All but the convertible, SRi and Turbo models had a 1.8-litre double-overhead camshaft four-cylinder petrol engine.

At its launch it boasted power and torque peaks of 85kW and 165Nm, but in 2001 peak horsepower was boosted to 90kW for a little extra zip.

In addition to double overhead camshafts, the 1.8-litre engine had four valves per cylinder, variable intake manifolding, and sequential fuel injection.

It ran on 91-octane regular unleaded petrol, but if you ran it on the more expensive PULP you could have a couple of kilowatts more.

The convertible and SRi had a 2.2-litre double overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine with power and torque peaks of 108kW and 203Nm respectively.

When it arrived in 2003 the Turbo produced 147kW and 250Nm. When it arrived in 2003 the Turbo produced 147kW and 250Nm.

When it arrived in 2003 the Turbo came with a turbocharged double overhead camshaft 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that put out 147kW and 250Nm at its respective power and torque peaks.

The TS was front-wheel drive, and a five-speed manual gearbox was standard across all models. It wasn’t the best shifting manual around; it was easy enough to use, but imprecise and rubbery in feel.

A four-speed electronic automatic transmission was optional and the best choice for a pleasant drive.

When pressed the 1.8-litre models would do the 0-100 km/h dash in just under 10 seconds from rest; performance of the 2.2-litre cars was better and they would do it in under seven seconds.

Driving

The Astra was a revelation after most small cars that had been served up to Australians. Being European it was a good driving car, agile, responsive, and fun.

It went where it was pointed, held on well, and was balanced.

The base 1.8-litre engine was quite peppy with a blend of acceleration and speed. It was zippy in city traffic and held its own on the highway.

On top of all that it was quite refined for a small car. Its ride, while firm, was comfortable, and there was little wind or road noise to speak of.

Safety

While safety was a key issue in 1998, small cars like the Astra lagged behind their bigger, more expensive cousins when it came to safety features.

Buyers of the TS City had to hope seat belt pretensioners and dual front airbags would be enough to protect them in a crash.

Anyone who bought a CD was in a similar situation, but they had the option to buy ABS braking for a little extra crash avoidance. It was a similar story for SRi buyers.

Those who bought a CDX, however, were treated to the protection of dual front airbags, side front airbags, and ABS braking.

The Astra was given a two-star rating in the latest used car safety survey.

Built before their advent the TS doesn’t have ISOFIX child seat restraints.

Lap/sash seat rear seat belts facilitate the fitment of a baby car seat.

Any common issues

The good news for anyone contemplating buying a used TS Astra now is that the solid design and build quality that went into them in the first place is now standing them in good stead as they approach the end of their useful life on the road.

After 20 years on the road the reliability of the TS Astra is quite commendable.

With odometers reaching 300,000-plus they are still solid and often rattle-free, as long as they haven’t been thrashed or crashed.

Having been on the road for so long, and often in the hands of young and inexperienced drivers you should expect that they have been involved in a panel bender or two.

They should be approached as if they have indeed been crashed, and carefully inspected for collision damage.

With its zinc-galvanised body it’s rare to find rust in a TS Astra; if you do, be very wary about it having been crashed.

Fading and peeling paint on the upper surfaces most exposed to the sun is, however, common. Short of repainting affected panels there’s not much you can do about it.

The most serious issue affecting the TS is its propensity to break cam timing belts on the 1.8-litre engine. It was a widespread problem when new, so much so that Holden cut the service interval from 120,000 km to 60,000 km while they worked out how to overcome the problem.

Once it was solved the interval was pushed out to 90,000 km.

The problem for today’s buyer is that uncaring owners, or those short of cash, can ignore the belt change. But they do at their own peril, as a broken belt almost always means serious internal damage to the engine.

It’s critical that the belt be changed as recommended to avoid the expense of replacing an engine.

Servicing is at 10,000km and there was no capped price servicing on the TS.

But service costs are not excessive, and any experienced mechanic can do it.

When new the TS carried a warranty of three years/100,000km.

Check for a service record that shows regular maintenance.

MORE: If anything crops up, you’ll probably find it on our Holden Astra problems page.

Owners view

Kim Uden: I bought my Astra two years ago when I wanted a cheap car to run around in. It has done nearly 300,000 km and gets along nicely on the country roads where we live. It sits on the road well, is quiet for a small car, and hasn’t given me any trouble in the time I’ve owned it. My only complaint is the thump when I engage Drive or Reverse.

Sonya Makepeace: I have a 2005 Astra convertible. It has been very reliable in the years I’ve owned it. It has plenty of room, is quiet and handles well.

John Bone: I really love my 2003 SRi. The 2.2-litre engine is punchy and gets up to speed quickly, the gearbox is smooth, but the clutch is a little too sensitive. It’s well put together and hasn’t given any trouble. My only complaint is that the rear wing interferes with rear vision.

Natasha Billings: I got my 2002 City when I was a 16-year-old learner driver. I’ve now had it for five years and haven’t had any desire to buy another car. The boot is spacious, it’s nippy, starts first time every time, and I feel safe driving it. I’ve had to clean the throttle body, replace the ECU and a coil pack, but that’s it.

Rivals

Toyota Corolla
Well-built, reliable, and solid little car if in good shape.
2 stars.

Nissan Pulsar
Goes well and depending on condition and regular servicing is a worthy contender.
2 stars.

Mazda 323
Older 323s can be a good buy, but only if they’ve been well cared for and are in tip-top shape for their age.
2 stars.

Verdict

Solid build, reasonable safety, and decent reliability make the TS Astra a worthy contender in the cheapie stakes.