You could almost see the disappointment on the faces of Holden New Zealand's management team - they aren't used to failure. The occasion was the launch of the new generation Holden Astra, recently introduced to New Zealand. By their own admission, the Astra hasn't done as well here as it should have. And there's no real reason why it hasn't performed. I looked back on all my previous Astra reviews - hatchbacks, wagons and convertibles - and in each I've thoroughly enjoyed the driving experience.
The Astra is a dynamic driver's car which is both functional and practical, I like it as a realistic alternative to the many mid-size models out of Japan and Korea, and for Holden to land it here from Europe with a competitive pricing structure is a credit. But they need to push the model a bit harder and get bums in seats so that the new car buying public can see how good it is as a series.
Holden's marketing team look like they are going to some effort to make the Astra more noticeable. The new range has a couple of sporty elements added in, the line-up is a lot more comprehensive than before, there's a model to suit all tastes.
I'm scheduled into two or three different variants, the first out of the block was one of the most dynamic, the turbocharged 2-litre, three-door SRi which Holden label a coupe. It almost tops the range at $40,990, but as with SRi variants of the past, it stands out for its personality and performance.
Holden rate the double-camshaft, 16-valve engine at a lively 147kW with 262Nm of torque. While neither of these figures are outstanding in terms of sheer output you have to consider the 5400rpm figure where peak power is developed. Together with a strong torque spread, the engine is very throttle sensitive, it surges into life satisfying every request, especially when the dash-mounted 'Sport' button is pressed. It changes the engine management system into a more frenetic mode.
In coupe form the Astra is fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox. If you take into account the low and close ratios and the feisty nature of the engine, you know that you are in for a thrilling ride if you do get a bit eager with the accelerator pedal. A 0-100km/h time of 7.2sec is achievable along with a 4.3sec figure to make 120km/h from 80km/h.
And it's not just the immediate acceleration that impresses with the SRi, it's the smoothness and willing nature with which momentum is achieved. There is a bit of an engine howl as the 7000rpm red line is reached and there is a constant exhaust throb, but these are elements which the driver will find wilful.
Straight line speed is one thing, and I'm pleased to report that the handling is more than adequate for a car that has turbo boosted power forced out the front wheels. Sitting on low profile Dunlop Sport performance tyres (225/40 x 18in), the Astra coupe has serious grip and well firmed spring and shocks. Consequently, body roll is well contained and steerage is precise and direct. The SRi turns into a corner with purpose, feedback of what the tyres are doing is communicated directly to the driver, while suspension feel and balance is all very involving.
As you would expect of a $40k, car the SRi gets a traction and stability control device which did activate a couple of times as I powered out of a slow corner in second gear, the torque force demanding a lot from the tyres; however, it's nice to have that security. Inside the cheeky, sleek exterior styling lies an equally flashy interior with a lot of silver/alloy garnish. Full perforated leather trim greets the occupants and thankfully seat heaters are included up front.
Other items fitted for comfort and convenience include climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel on tilt and reach-adjustable column, full electrics, six-disc audio, cruise control and trip computer.
The latter provided realistic fuel usage readouts. At 100km/h in sixth gear the engine turns over at just 2300rpm returning a 7.5-litre per 100km (38mpg) return. My test average of 10.9l/100km (26mpg) was also good given that I did enjoy the benefits of that forced turbocharged boost.
For safety, Holden have specced the model with ABS, no fewer than six air bags and, of course, there's an overshoulder seat belt for five.
The driving position is laid back and low, all of the ingredients are in place for an enjoyable driving experience. It's fair to say though, access into the rear isn't easy and rear vision is a little obscured. The rear window just doesn't seem big enough.
Holden should be proud of the new series. It is energetic, continuing the reputation of old; I only hope we'll see some happier faces next time we meet Holden New Zealand as a group.