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The Astra: a star is born


RATING 77/100



I've always had a real sympathy for players who do an awful lot of running and chasing but who get little or no recognition. I call it the Nicky Butt factor. Nicky, you might remember, was a decent midfielder for Manchester United who put in an enthusiastic shift every game but was invariably overshadowed by the shining lights in the side. One flash of genius from a star player grabbed all the headlines.

The Opel Astra has been underrated too. For a whole variety of reasons it has not been given the credit it, possibly, is due. I'm not a major fan, so don't get me wrong. But any time I've driven one over the past while I have had to ask myself: how come we don't hear more about this?

Now they have this 'performance' version called the GTC to put a bit of glitz on the Nicky factor. In a way it is not that madly relevant to you or I in that it is a pricey enough three-door with all sorts of spruced-up looks, technical and performance tweaks -- but with a stiff enough price.

In another, and probably the most critical, way it gives the Astra chassis and platform a chance to shine.

Now I'm not going to give it a glowing report because there were drawbacks but I will say it shows how good a basic 'player' the Astra really is.

This has a lovely cabin and I was so glad the seats were NOT of the pinch-me-bum variety. Instead we got decent support and adjustment.

That is critical and I keep on mentioning seats because loads of people contact me who say they have bad backs and asking what car is best.

There isn't that much rear room in this, even though getting in there is easy enough because the two front seats slide forward easily. Boot room was decent enough. We were able to get a bicycle in full after we dropped the larger section of the back seats. So there is a lot of practicality in it, though I would definitely improve the visibility afforded by the pokey rear screen.

And so to the driving. Firstly, it must be said it is remarkable how much power they can extract from a 1.4-litre petrol engine these days.

This turbocharged version manages a respectable 140bhp. Initially, I thought it was a little wonder but as I let it stretch out across the country on a memorable sunny morning I realised I was asking too much of it. Not in terms of speed -- oh Lord no there's plenty of that -- but in expecting it to pick up much more quickly than it did when I put my foot to the floor. So if you are expecting real zip, you won't get it.

But you will get a grand sense of immediacy from the steering and suspension. The sort that makes driving that bit more exciting. The nice, clean handling was marred a tad by a little bit of wobble when coming down suddenly in speed. Nothing you wouldn't get used to.

This was a bit different, no doubt about that. It's smart, easy-to-get-on-with, surprisingly well designed and technically highly proficient. It's worth a drive because I think it's a car with a nice touch, even if I would look ahead at residual values three or four years down the road.

I enjoyed it in several ways and again ask why we don't hear more about the Astra.

This is certainly a good showcase for the basic car. A sort of Nicky Butt on Red Bull.


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