Wednesday 20 September 2017

Banishing an old ghost

I can still picture the old, old Astra in dark metallic green, with a going-nowhere look and an inside like a shadowy black-and-white film in a poky cinema. For some reason, I think that image has hung around for quite a while. Especially if you haven't driven the previous, or this, the latest, edition of the small family car.

There is no point in pretending the Astra has a cachet, or an attraction over and above being an Opel small family car. Not like the Golf (build, icon) or the Focus (handling/ride), for example.

That old metallic green ghost haunts it, hanging around its name like a bad odour.

This new one -- it is just on sale -- sets out on several fronts to convince you the past is banished and this is the future.

It is a big task, I agree, because a doubting public, myself included, take a lot of convincing these days.

I was a bit of a fan of the previous model (not the one before that or before that or . . . . ) mainly because it was a far better car than it ever got credit for.

They have moved on a good bit again and have made this look like a cutting-edge modern family hatchback. It is as far in looks, demeanour and performance from old drabsville Astra as I am from bodybuilder of the year. They've also made a really good job of the cabin, which is now warm and welcoming. There were a couple of complaints, however. It took me an age, and a rage, to get my seating the way I wanted it.

I tried hard but finding the comfort zone for this old body and accommodating a non-strenuous reach for the steering wheel posed a tough task. That is a big mark-down in a car today. I swear (I swore as well) I grew muscles on my elbow attempting to twist a lever here, lift a lever there. Long-nailed (not necessarily female) drivers would have a cracking time.

Anyway, I got it more or less the way I wanted it, but never completely to that level of torso-embrace that I think is essential if you are going to really settle into a motor. Maybe it was the sport seats and the thigh-support element of them -- I did have a range-topper Elite trim version (leather seat facings, buttons for different settings for suspension/engine, 17in alloys, cruise control and much more) -- so I'll leave it at that.

The other thing that drove me mad was the electric wing mirror adjustment. I got the twist on the ould knob so wrong a few times the mirrors were flapping in and out like a dog's ears.

I'm sure you think me a right old nitpicker. But I also feel there are basics every car should offer and I insist on the key instrument switches being simple, straightforward to use and without ambiguity. That's all. No big deal.

And, while I'm at it, I would have liked a lot more visibility out the rear window. The shape of the car -- and I think it looks exceptional -- militates against it, with the rear corner pillars blotting out a fair bit.

On the positive side, there are many good, and one or two excellent, attributes within its stylish portals.

Its looks now vie with the best in the class for style and smartness, though why they should drape cutting-edge shape in near-funereal brown (my test car) and not in the vivacious red you see before you is beyond me.

But it was in the extensive driving of this new departure that I came to appreciate how savagely they have driven a stake through Metallic's heart.

Here was a big, well-balanced motor, with a lot of room in cabin and boot. Sometimes that can lead carmakers into the trap of settling for just that -- being spacious. But there was a discernible mix of solidity and sprightliness to this on the road, a directness of feel through the steering, a sense of balance on the corners and a cohesion to its overall handling that I don't think we've had from an Astra before. No, I'm sure of it.

In the purely technical terms of how it was put together and how it works, this now commands serious attention. I would say its biggest achievement is how well it deals with the ordinary: the bumps, divots and thumps that can send many a shudder through a cabin. In this, it was all absorbed with what felt like ease but, as we know too well, there was serious work afoot across the chassis and suspension.

I might, just might, quibble with a bit of tyre/road noise on rougher patches, but that is partly because the cabin itself quenches a lot of decibel fires before they can flicker.

And I might quibble with the official fuel consumption figures for the 1.7-litre diesel engine but it gave me great service on a few long journeys.

It is a grand piece of work, seamless and responsive to gear change and showing once again how enormously proficient diesels have become in mainstream motoring. We do tend to take it all for granted.

On balance, I'd have to give this a lot of plus marks. It gets seriously down to business and carries on doing it.

There is decent room at the back and the doors open out, wide and well, to let you in. Again, that is something you accept as basic but modern design can often override practicality.

But the Metallic ghost gets to haunt it one last time. And it is on residual values (how slowly/quickly the market and the trade reckon a car will depreciate). If this new-era model is to truly exorcise that spectre, then it has to convince us again of its real and sustained worthiness in the second-hand market.

I give it a better than even chance -- but it will take time.

ecunningham@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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