Minor design flaws in the Astra saloon undermine the car's strong points for a disappointed Campbell Spray
I had been looking forward to picking up the new Opel Astra saloon; it was to be the first drive of the new year and initial reports from some of my colleagues had been encouraging.
Of course the ads on the radio about Opel's guide to German had got plain annoying but no more so than many others of their ilk. These all seem to be predicated on the idea that if you repeat them enough we will all turn into cash-carrying zombies who will take a bite out of the nearest car showroom.
Opel has been going through a bit of slump over recent years and I think their overall confidence was badly shaken by General Motors' woes. While still holding onto their most loyal fans here they have been squeezed by Volkswagen at one end and the marauding terrible twins of Korea – Kia and Hyundai – at the other.
The company's most exciting car in recent years was the Insignia saloon which still stands out for its looks, handling and all-round quality. The Astra saloon was dubbed Insignia's baby brother, actually more teen than infant, and certainly does have some of the looks. The saloon completes the Astra line -up; with the five-door hatchback, the Sport Tourer station wagon and three-door GTC coupe as well as the high-performance OPC version already launched. The saloon is an important car for the company for three reasons: the compact segment represents 30 per cent of all cars sold in the Irish market, the Astra is Opel's biggest seller and this country is also more wedded to the traditional saloon than most others. The car, which has a starting price of €19,495 (plus a heap more for postage and packing) for the 1.4 petrol model and €2,000 more for the 1.3 diesel version, is also well-specced and a host of advanced safety features are available which originally made their debut in the Insignia.
If you add up all the bits of the Astra saloon, it can look pretty good: those safety features, nice looks, massive boot, pleasant enough interior, easy to drive, good prices and a solid feel.
However, I had an immediate problem. Call me fussy and pedantic but it quickly ended any positive feelings I had for the Astra saloon. When I released the handbrake with my left hand my knuckles were either stuck between the lever and the moulding leading up to the gear lever or caught on a bit of trim. This happened every time I used the handbrake. And that wasn't all. Just six inches the other side of the gear lever was a small storage place in which you might put coins, pens or the like. Unfortunately every time I put my hand in to retrieve something it got caught on the cover of the 12v plug. Perhaps more worryingly, on the other side of the steering wheel, the ignition key seemed to be at a very dangerous juncture if your knee came forward in a crash.
Now, you might say, these are minor things but I believe that if you can't look after the simple ones how can I trust you to look after the major issues. If a car upsets you before you have even driven it out of your drive you are not going to be happy in the long run. Sorry Opel, you do deserve credit for a lot of work on the Astra saloon, but you simply must try harder.