'Connected' Astra edges towards 'smartphone on wheels' with built-in wifi
First drive - Opel Astra in Bratislava
I'm writing this in, and sending it from, a new Opel Astra. Don't worry I'm parked. In a layby near Bratislava after driving from Vienna. I can do this because it has wifi built in as part of its OnStar communications system.
It is yet another manifestation of how near we are getting to the 'smartphones on wheels' prediction made only a couple of weeks ago by VW Group chief Martin Winterkorn, who has since had to resign in the eye of the emissions storm. He's gone, but at least those words gain credence.
We will get to see OnStar working in the Astra late next month. It is the first new Opel with what is basically an ever-present help ('Guardian Angel') and guiding hand at the push of a button. You can do all sorts with it - from checking with those at base about the nearest restaurant, your car's diagnostics, destination download and so on.
The high-speed wi-fi connection for as many as seven devices comes next year.
OnStar's crucial importance is that it can alert those at base that something has gone, arrange for someone to advise you and get the likes of emergency services to you asap.
It's as good a place as any to start telling you about my first drive in the new car. As I sit here I have a large touchscreen infotainment system in the centre of the dash and an instrument cluster display in front of me.
The new-generation IntelliLink system is/will be compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. They let you use your smartphone as part of the system.
Speaking of visuals, the car doesn't look or feel bigger. Based on new architecture it is shorter (by 50mm), narrower (5mm), lower and lighter (up to 200kgs down) with 2cm off the wheelbase. But there is more rear (35mm) and front headroom (22mm). I've decent space here and there is good room at the back - I just checked. But the boot is small.
These seats were tested and certified by AGR (Campaign for Healthy Backs) too - reassuring for us with delicate lower lumbars. They are excellent, light, slim but firm.
Overall I'd describe it as a tidy but smart car, with lines that are sharply drawn. You will notice it. The Sports Tourer estate arrives in March and there will be a 3dr coupe, but the current saloon and GTC continue as they are.
Prices will start from €19,995 for this small-family car which battles for buyers in a segment accounting for nearly one-third of all cars bought.
The new platform certainly helps the quality of drive, giving a good edge to steering and suspension. It felt much tauter and feedback was excellent. It's a decent driver now.
There is a substantial spread of engines. Notable ones include the 1-litre, 3cyl turbo petrol (105bhp, 96g/km, road tax €180) and the new 1.4-litre turbo petrol (4cyl, 150hp, 114g/km, €200 road tax) which I've just driven. It's a good example of how petrols can be serious options in these cars. Stlll, the 1.6-litre CDTi diesel will be most popular: there are two versions (110hp, 90gkm, €180 road tax and 136hp. Transmissions include 5spd, 6spd manuals, automated manual Easytronic and a 6spd auto.
Expect four trims. Standard spec (S models) includes Bluetooth, audio streaming, Aux-in and USB ports, air con, Hill Start Assist, LED daytime running lights. SC (€21,495) adds IntelliLink with 7ins colour touch screen, steering-wheel mounted controls, 16ins alloys. SRi (€24,495) adds the OnStar system, automatic lights/wipers, sports front seats, lane departure warning, traffic sign recognition, front fogs, 17ins alloys.
And Elite (€25,995) adds dual zone climate control, leather heated front and rear seats, six premium speakers, front fogs and 17ins multi-spoke alloys.