ROAD TEST: Opel Astra sedan 1.6 Turbo Cosmo

By: Jason Woosey

Opel's Astra sedan has been absent from our market for almost ten years. Back in its heyday it was a big seller and a prime contender, but a lot has changed since then. So does the new Astra still have what it takes to compete?

If we start with the superficial stuff, then it's off to a good start. Its exterior is really elegant and well proportioned, giving me the impression that considerable effort has gone into making it easy on the eye from just about every angle.

But is it easy to live with? Well, this particular test car had to contend with a lot more than the usual week-long daily grind. I had it for more than a month over the recent holiday period and the open road was calling.

My girlfriend and I packed the boot and tackled a long road trip that would see us breathe in some much-needed coastal air while harassing some friends and relatives who have the privilege of living on this country's beautiful eastern seaboard. The round trip would take us through the KZN Drakensberg, Pietermaritzburg, Kingsburgh and East London.

It was easy going on the N3 to KZN, that trip would hardly fluster any car, but the real challenge came on the stretch from Durban to East London along the N2.

I must say, the route has been improved over the years - at least half of it now has an overtaking lane on the up-hills and much of the area has been fenced off to prevent stray animals from strolling into harm's way. Yet there are still many sections where there is little overtaking room and, as Sir Murphy would have it, every few kays you'll encounter a slow truck doing 30km/h. Which, believe you me, can get frustrating. Here's where the Astra performed its role of keeping me calm and providing enough oomph to overtake comfortably where there was a gap.

STRONG SIXTEEN

Given, it is a very powerful car. This range-topping version has a 132kW/230Nm 1.6-litre turbopetrol that, if we're talking in terms of outright muscle, sits in the same league as that 200ts hooligan from yesteryear. Yet the latest Astra 1.6T is anything but a boy racer.

Let's talk simple evolution here. Over the years it's become a lot larger and structurally stronger to achieve the ultimate in practicality and safety. In fact, it's easily the largest car in its segment right now. You pay for this in the weight that it's put on - a quick check on the licence disc revealing that it tips the scales at over 1400kg.

Yet despite the bulk, this Astra is a solid performer when you crack the throttle whip. It'll never push you back in your seat under hard acceleration, but once that rev counter approaches the middle mark, it provides ample torque to get you past the slow truck or bus that's hampering your progress.

There's no real lag to speak of when you're pulling off, but there is a notable lack of low-down urge that will necessitate dropping a few cogs when overtaking.

Given that it lacks technologies like direct fuel injection, it's not the most frugal sedan on the block, but consumption is acceptable given the car's level of performance. My most frugal run, on the N3, saw the on-board readout hover around 7.3 litres per 100km, while my worst long-distance trip - on the N2 through the former Transkei - saw the readout jump to 8.9 l/100km. In town, it sipped a respectable 9.1 l/100km though.

SMOOTH RIDING

Having put this Astra through its paces on a wide variety of roads, I came away rather impressed by the Astra's ride quality, even if it's not quite as cushy over the bumps as its Chevrolet Cruze platform partner. Al right, as far as I'm concerned the Cruze has the best ride quality in its class and the Astra is not far behind that but you can feel that they made the Astra a tad firmer to suit European preferences. The upside to this is that the Astra has an agile feel and inspires confidence through the bends. The steering is accurate and offers enough feedback, but stops just short of being truly entertaining.

Back to the comfort aspect, the Astra proved to be a well insulated, quiet cruiser on the open road. What's more, the driver's seat kept me comfortable over the eight-hour journey to the Eastern Cape and the only annoyance, and I'm really nitpicking here, was the hardness of the door armrest.

The 1.6T Cosmo has its fair share of standard creature comforts, including dual-zone climate control, cruise control and leather seats (heated up front), rear parking sensor and automatic headlights and wipers.

Given its size, the Astra sedan is spacious enough to keep four to five adults comfy in the front and back. On the subject of space, the 460 litre boot is nothing short of generous, although the boot aperture is really small and bulky items simply aren't going to get past it.

I found no real fault with the ergonomics and I was easily able to find a comfortable driving position. The only chink in its armour is the lack of a modern touch-screen infotainment system and satnav. What's more, the cabin has a relatively premium look and feel, and the red mood lighting does lift the ambience a tad.

VERDICT

Even though it leaves a bit of room for improvement, the Astra 1.6T sedan really starts to impress when you stack it up against the other sedans on the market that cost between R250 000 and R300 000.

At R286 900, the Astra is not only one of the few turbo-charged cars, but it's also the most powerful. Add to that the desirable styling, decent features count, overall comfort and interior practicality and suddenly the Astra starts making a brilliant case for itself. It even costs less than the range-topping Kia Cerato, to put things into perspective.

In fact, if I was laying down my own money for a comfortable and elegant sedan for under R300 000, this would be at the very top of my list - without a doubt.

FACTS

Opel Astra sedan 1.6 Turbo Cosmo

Engine: 4-cyl, 1.6-litre turbopetrol

Gearbox: 6-speed manual

Power: 132kW @ 5500rpm

Torque: 230Nm @ 2200rpm

0-100km/h (claimed): 8.7 sec

Top speed (claimed): 223km/h

Consumption (claimed): 6.8 l/100km

Price: R286 900

Warranty: 5-year/120 000km

Service plan: 5-year/90 000km

ALTERNATIVES

Ford Focus sedan 2.0 Trend (125kW/202Nm) - R267 900

Honda Civic sedan 1.8 Exec (104kW/174Nm) - R294 700

Hyundai Elantra 1.8 Exec (110kW/178Nm) - R269 900

Kia Cerato sedan 2.0 EX (118kW/194Nm) - R294 995

Renault Fluence 2.0 Dynamique (103kW/195Nm) - R259 900

Toyota Corolla 2.0 Exclusive (102kW/189Nm) - R281 600

VW Jetta 1.4 TSI Highline (118kW/240Nm) - R306 600