How do you determine what makes a premium car? Is it the extent of how many features it’s equipped with as standard? If so, the likes of BMW can hardly be considered premium. Or perhaps it’s the impression that there’s an element of depth beneath the thin veneer of impressive surfaces a cabin is clad with? I can name a few ‘premium’ manufacturers whose beauty is only skin deep. Opel has decided that perhaps it’s a combination of both, and the latest Opel Astra is trying to upset the premium apple cart.
The Opel Astra is now in its 11th generation (that’s Astra K for those who were counting), with a name change from Kadett in the middle. But this newest iteration is really a brand new beginning for Opel – new technology, new engines, a new lease on life and a new found vigour for taking the fight to the established brands.
The all-new chassis underpinning the Opel Astra K has bucked the trend in upscaling, and has instead shrunk from the previous model. But a longer wheelbase and clever packaging means more space inside. Another area of focus for the new Opel Astra has been weight saving – and Opel claims up to 170Kg of weight loss on like for like models. On our Opel Astra 1.6T Sport, the scales are tipped at 1390kg dry.
Where previous models’ weight counted against them and offset whatever power they may have had, the new Opel Astra’s relative feather-weight means that engine outputs are put to good use. In this case, a newly developed 1.6-litre turbocharged 4-pot outputs 147kW and 280Nm – peak power arriving at 4700-5500rpm with peak torque spanning an incredible range of 1650-5000rpm. But the new 1.6-litre ecoflex motor also boasts an overboost function, upping torque outputs to 300Nm between 1700- and 4700rpm for a brief period.
The figures are all but impressive, and the resulting 0-100km/h sprint time of 7 seconds equally so. The truth is, whilst acceleration feels rapid, the steady surge of torque is hardly eventful, and the Opel Astra never feels hot-hatch bating in pace. But whilst on feel of speed alone you won’t challenge a Golf GTI, a quick glance at the speedo clearly displays just how potent this 1.6-litre engine is – gathering speed swiftly and putting you well within the region of ‘go to jail, go directly to jail, do not pass BEGIN, do not collect R200’.
Aiding you along the way is a new 6-speed manual transmission. I say new, but in truth it’s been around since last year where it made its debut in the Opel ADAM and Corsa alongside the 1-litre engine. Like its siblings, the 6-speed unit has a precise motion and short-to-medium length throw. But in spite of its precision, there’s just a hint of hesitation between the gears, and it isn’t quite as ‘bangable’ from one ratio to the next, instead requiring finesse and a measured hand.
The clutch is delightfully weighted though, with an even take, short action, and precise communicative bite – quick enough to be used spiritedly, but well measured enough for traffic and town driving.
But perhaps of greatest benefit to this new Opel Astra isn’t the new engine – potent and frugal at 6.8l/100km – or the gearbox, or even the light weight – although that does contribute to the highlights. No, it must be the handling.
In addition to the light weight, Opel’s knack for handling balance and ride quality has been applied deftly to create a vehicle that toes the thin line between comfort, sporty handling, and ride refinement with incredible aplomb. More involving than the VW Golf and more refined than the Ford Focus, the Opel Astra combines refinement and driver enjoyment.
Despite riding on 225/40 R18 profile rims and tyres, the Opel Astra is surprisingly pliant on the road. Rapid-response dampers filter out rippling road deviations at speed, although at low speeds vibrations tend to be harsher than necessary.
With softer suspension – owing to its lack of hot hatch credentials – there is an element of body roll to the Opel Astra’s demeanour. But it tapers off with linear progression and predictability, and due to the rapid damping, mid corner undulations fail to upset the Opel Astra through bends and corners.
The composure with which the Opel Astra 1.6T Sport can barrel through a series of twists is truly superb. Without any official tweaking from OPC, it shouldn’t be a match for hot hatches – and yet despite the softer edge to its persona, it feels equally as capable as many a hot hatch would be under similar circumstances. Road holding is simply excellent, and body control is fantastic – balanced and composed, with endless amounts of grip in equal measure to comfort.
From within the cabin, the low slung seating position aids the feeling of composure – the ergonomic seats with electronic lumbar support and multi-way adjustability offering masses of support and comfort, both during spirited driving and the day-to-day trundle.
But where the Opel Astra’s driving dynamics are on point – among the best in class with Peugeot’s 308 and VW’s Golf – it’s the extensive features list and levels of technology that truly set it apart as a member of the ‘premium’ class.
Instead of opting for the typically German approach of a base model with charges per option, in 1.6T Sport guise the Opel Astra is about as extensively kitted as can be. Only one option remains, a R20 000 box to tick for Opel’s IntelliLux matrix LED headlights – a segment first and usually the reserve of far more expensive vehicles.
But even without this, the Opel Astra 1.6T Sport is a technological tour de force, boasting features you’d be hard pressed to find on vehicles 2 or even 3 times its price. The likes of Opel’s APA2 (Advanced Park Assist 2) auto parking and rearview camera, as well as blind spot monitoring, have become staples across the Opel line-up. But the Opel Astra also boasts road sign recognition and memory, cruise control with a speed limiter, lane keep assist, following distance monitor, and forward collision prevention with a heads up display should you be rapidly approaching a stationary or slow-moving vehicle – it’s just waiting for full HUD integration on the face lift, mark my words.
The full leather upholstery houses not only heated seats, but a heated leather steering wheel too – again equipping the Opel Astra with features often found on far more expensive vehicles.
As if it wasn’t all enough already, Opel’s latest iteration of the IntelliLink infotainment suite features built-in navigation and is completely compatible with Apple Carplay and Android Auto – when the latter is finally released locally.
But in stark contrast to the high levels of tech and overall quality of the cabin – with soft touch points adorning the bulk of the interior – an Android docking station equipped to our test unit felt tacky and cheap. Thankfully it is removable, but one has to wonder what on earth they were thinking when they equipped the Opel Astra with such.
Still, the Opel Astra offers more – refusing to compromise on safety and boasting a full suite of safety features from ABS and EBD, to ESP, torque vectoring by brake, and even trailer stabilisation.
With such extensive levels of standard specification, and impressive performance figures to back it up, it’s astounding to note that the price of our test unit was only R415 200. It easily has more kit than vehicles twice the price, and the performance credentials speak for themselves. Throw in a composed ride, high comfort levels, and an overall impressive perceived quality, and the Opel Astra really does start to live up to the intended marketing blurb of upsetting the premium elite.
The Opel Astra hasn’t necessarily ousted the VW Golf as segment leader just yet, but the European Car of the Year winner has certainly made sure VW can’t rest on their laurels any time soon.
It’s a complete package – both as a performance hatch, and as a refined premium vehicle – and with technology being the spearhead of the Opel Astra’s arsenal, it’s hard to argue why it won’t be the next South African COTY…
Words: Roger Biermann
Images: Roarke Bouffe, Vaughn Humphrey, Lance Humphrey