Thursday 8 December 2016

Food for thought: Astra now real deal on wheels

Put this compact gem on your shortlist.

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

Opel Astra
Opel Astra

I'm watching too many cooking programmes and competitions. Lord, when I hear the descriptions of what competitive contenders are planning on serving up, the mouth waters.

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But after all the sweat and toil some of them come up with a tiny little helping of main course with all sorts of miniatures deployed as adornments.

Worst of all is when the judges dig in and start dissecting the offerings.

That's when I often go and make myself a nice pasta with a good sauce - from the jar - followed by a pot of tea and a chocolate biscuit or something of its equivalent. Nothing to compare.

The point I'm making is that we can sometimes lose the run of ourselves in the form rather than the substance. The same goes for carmakers. Seldom do I get a test car that hasn't every conceivable gadget on board. It's great and enjoyable, but mostly I just want what ordinary people are going to buy. The pasta and choccie-biscuit version, if you like.

I honestly thought Opel were going down the complicated route with their new Astra. Justifiably, there was a lot of emphasis on connectivity and their new OnStar system which acts as a sort of guardian angel if you need help or assistance.

But my 1.6-litre diesel version on test here - I've driven the car abroad previously but you never get the same feel for it really - was simplicity itself. And that gave me a real opportunity to assess the car as opposed to the accompaniments.

Let me start with a negative, however. In beige with a brown-effect interior it was not a delicious looking dish. I'd advocate a brighter colour inside and out; the car looks an awful lot better in red, for example.

Equally it does not follow the 'new-and-bigger' recipe which is near-universally proclaimed by fresh arrivals these days.

Indeed it is shorter (50mm to 4.37 metres) and marginally narrower, but there is more room thanks to crafted seats, rear-seat passengers get 35mm more legroom while I, as driver, am supposed to have 22mm more headroom. But you get the picture, I hope.

It is a compact, tidy, roomy-enough well presented car (when you pick the right colour). I liked the cabin; it was simple and straightforward.

And I have to single out the seats for special mention. They are excellent and even without a means of bolstering lumbar support they helped me a lot.

I was disappointed, however, to find there was no height adjustment on the front passenger seat. I'd have thought that was a basic ingredient.

But the main course is the car and that's where the taste buds got a real surprise.

Don't forget, apart from a few little fripperies, this is a fairly basic version. Yet it worked. And worked really well on a number of fronts.

I always start with the steering; it was excellent, well weighted yet nice and light. The engine was quiet, had loads of power and pull and it seemed to take an age for the fuel-gauge needle to drop to even the ¬ mark.

I think we so-called experts ascribe too much time and effort to handling, ride and performance when all people really want is a car that is comfortable, easy to get around in, has decent room and a workable boot.

The Astra ticks all those boxes, but I would still like to emphasis how composed it felt on all my drives, slow-moving traffic, motorway and your ordinary everyday ripple-and-rut surfaces.

In short, the Astra has, despite the focus on 'connectivity' and almost as a side-dish, taken a major stride here.

I thought the last one was underrated somewhat. I think this could be even more so.

But it won't be by me because I happen to think it is as good as there is in the small-family hatch sector.

I'd find it hard to pass the likes of the Golf or Focus or Auris for maybe traditional reasons but the Astra would sorely tempt me now.

It is as good as any of them - better in some ways and just a tad off in others. But it is one definitely for the New Year shortlist. And I mean a short shortlist.

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