Nostalgia takes a front seat
Opel's new 'green and lean' five-door Astra hatchback handles beautifully on the road but comfort and good visibility aren't so good, writes Campbell Spray
THERE have been times over the past few weeks when the chance to wallow in nostalgia has been getting in the way of the job in hand.
About this time 27 years ago I was editor of the relaunched Social and Personal magazine and was prompted to write a motoring column for it. My first test car, thanks to the legendary PR and advertising man Don Brindley, was a large Opel saloon which was a rather lumbering beast but probably suited my aspirations very well. It set me on a path which I have trodden as a sideline to my main job since then. But now, even after testing the guts of probably 1,500 cars, I can still recall the thrill of my first testing. That I promptly lost the car in a massive car park later that night and couldn't remember the colour or the registration is a different story.
I was back in an Opel for a week of my holiday, but this time it was a more svelte and good-looking machine: the five-door Astra hatchback.
Despite all the problems that General Motors has had over the past few years, it can still build exceedingly good mid-market cars; and the Astra is no exception. There is an extensive range of around 40 Astras to choose from, divided into a line-up of eight engines and five trim levels. "Green and lean" is the phrase that Opel uses. for the engines.
Within minutes of getting into the top-of-the-range model I was driving, I was kicking myself for not testing the new Astra earlier. It was a very fine car that had, as Don used to say in the old days, "all the bells and whistles". But then I noticed some strange things. I couldn't really see the top of the speedometer or other dials, nor could I find somewhere convenient to put my knees. In other words, I was cramped. I moved the steering wheel and adjusted my seat many times to no avail; the fascia and centre console were far too intrusive.
Maybe it is more big me than small Astra, but I think not, as there is bad visibility when looking left and some other poor ergonomic touches. But for many people, this may not take from the Astra which is at the very heart of General Motors' future. Some 30 per cent of its sales is based on the Astra and 45 per cent of that is the five-door hatchback, which isn't as good looking as the coupe but isn't far off. The 10th-generation Astra rides well and handles beautifully. Prices start at €20,605 and go up to €9,000 more.
I also broke into my holiday for a day to attend the launch of the new Saab 9-5 saloon.
This was for two reasons; firstly this marque, with its great rallying, innovation and aeronautical heritage, needs every encouragement to return to former glories after its takeover by Stryker put an end to General Motors' years of dumbing down the cars.
Secondly, nostalgia. A Saab '96 was the first car I spent a lot of money on back in the middle Seventies and I followed that up with the Saab 95 estate with its two extra seats that could be pulled up to face backwards in the load area. The car eventually joined me in Dublin a year or so after I arrived in 1979. The 9-5 is a very big saloon that competes very favourably on price and spec with other premium contenders like the BMW Three Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. There may be some issues about the flexibility of its diesel engines when it is not being pushed hard but it will be a motorway cruiser par excellence. Prices start at a very competitive €36,500 and I am really looking forward to a test drive.
It is a very busy time for launches at the moment. The Paris Motor Show is on at the end of the month, which always ratchets up activity. The new Ford C-Max gave an indication of the way that company is going when it was shown to the international media this month. The C-Max is the first car to show off the new platforms that will underpin a lot of Ford's new cars, including the Focus next spring. My colleagues report that all the signs are that the platforms will build on the massive reputation the existing ones have for nimble and fun ride and handling.
Nearer home, the much anticipated Nissan Juke arrives next Monday, while last Tuesday the updated Suzuki Swift was launched. It is bigger -- 90mm longer, 10mm higher and 5mm wider -- than the old model which was the 2006 Semperit Irish Car of the Year and picked up masses of other honours. It is priced from €14,650. First impressions are good.