Opel used to be an iconic brand, but, somehow, South Africans fell out of love with it. The big question is whether recent brilliant Opel products will be good enough to rekindle this love affair?
When I think about Opel, three memories usually come up. The first is the amount of arguments we used to have in high school about the late 90s turbocharged Astras. Were they quicker than the BMW 328i? To the Opel faithful it was the fastest car there ever was, while the BMW guys were ashamed that it harked from the same country as their beloved six-cylinder sedan. Unfortunately, I don’t recall which camp I supported back then.
The second memory is more personal. Back when I was a toddler, my father was promoted to a position that came with a company car. Being a young man in his late 20s, he opted for a hot hatch and the hottest of them all was the Superboss. He got one and then promptly drove it into a cow two weeks later. The car was a write-off and he replaced it with a sensible Honda Ballade. He still has the GSI badge, however, and I’m sure he looks at it whenever he’s feeling nostalgic about his short relationship with the Boss.
The third, and probably most important of all, is my very own first car, which was a light blue Corsa sedan. Looking back now it was a fairly terrible car, but I loved it because it was my own personal symbol of freedom. It could also drift like a boss on a gravel road, which I did as often as I could.
I sold that car and never really thought about Opel for years, until the new Astra arrived for testing. It was just after it was voted as the South African Car of the Year, so I was expecting great things.
Actually, to be honest, I thought it won via a sympathy vote. The people behind Car of the Year received a lot of flak for voting three Porsches and million rand Volvo as the winners in previous years, so I assumed the Astra (being the cheapest) was a safe vote. The VW Tiguan was bound to win, obviously.
I was completely wrong. The Astra deserved to win the coveted crown, even though it doesn’t necessarily elevate its segment to another level. I think it deserved the win, simply because it performs so well in every category that matter to the average man on the street, and then some.
Let’s start with the most obvious boxes it ticks. It’s deeply comfortably, large enough in every direction and about as safe as you’re going to get these days. That makes it the perfect family hatch, which means you can buy it without having to feel slightly guilty that you splurged on something due to emotions getting in the way. It’s very Germanic in the sense that it does everything a car should do (from a logical perspective) exceedingly well.
That’s true of the VW Golf as well. It does everything the Astra does, but with a better interior and thoroughly modern mechanical components. And that’s the main reason why it always won any hatch shoot-out it was involved in. Now, however, the Astra is fighting back.
You see, the new one also has a quality interior and a modern mechanical marvel underneath its bonnet. You can get the Astra with a 1.4l turbocharged engine, which I know is stunning, and a 1l three-cylinder turbopetrol, which I’m told is even better. My car, however, was equipped with a 1.6l turbocharged four, mated to a six-speed manual transmission.
It produces 147kW and 280Nm of torque, which doesn’t sound like much, but then you remember that a VW Golf GTI was producing similar figures not that long ago. In the Astra you’re not often reminded of the latent performance, mostly due to the fact that it’s so refined and quiet. But then you drop a cog and overtake, and suddenly you’re reminded that this particular model really can be mentioned in the same breath as most hot hatches. It even makes a rather nice noise when you pushing it a bit. And if this is what the standard Astra is like, I can’t wait to see what they do with the aggressive OPC model…
And as nice as the power is, the package isn’t dominated by it. What stood out most for me is the quality and specification of the interior. It looked nice, felt nice and every conceivable gadget is included as standard.
I’m struggling to think of something negative to say about the Astra. Considering the power, standard kit and refinement, one could even consider it a bargain. I suppose if I was forced to be critical, I’d say that it doesn’t look particularly exciting, but that’s neither here nor there. Exciting, aggressive looks are usually reserved for the performance model. People in the market for a hatch that does everything perfectly, in a restrained and tasteful fashion, will likely appreciate the styling.
All things considered, this is the best hatch on sale in South Africa at the moment, but I say that knowing that the new facelifted Golf has just been launched.
My advice is to drive both and decide which one suits you best.