Our UK correspondent, John Simister, takes a spin in the insanely fast new Opel Astra OPC
Have you ever seen those car brochures from the 1950s, illustrated by renderings before the days of enforced photographic reality? The paintings usually made the cars look longer than they really were, and spacious, thanks to the simple device of making the occupants small.
Today's Opel Astra achieves the exact opposite effect because, while it looks like a normally proportioned compact hatchback, it's actually a hefty lump of car. It's especially noticeable on the new OPC version (due in South Africa in the first quarter of 2013), whose enormous 20-inch wheels don't look nearly as oversized as they should.
It never used to take this long to walk from one end of an Astra to the other. No wonder there's so little space on modern roads.
Other new cars are guilty of this too, of course, but somehow the Astra seems almost rudely supersized. However, this hottest, raciest version also has a supersized engine output which, at 206kW, is higher than that of any other FWD sporting hatchback for sale right now. Torque is rated at 400Nm.
The 2-litre, turbocharged engine can fling the Astra to 100km/h in 5.9 seconds. But there can be a problem with such energy being transferred solely through the front wheels, one which previous high-power Astras illustrated well: the combination of more power than grip, imperfect steering geometry, firm suspension and driver indiscretion makes for a car keen to sniff out every verge and undulation. It's fun for a few minutes, then it just becomes a nuisance because you're fighting with the car.
NO LONGER A THUG
It's this thuggish nature that prevented previous rapid Astras from entering the petrolhead-pleasing elite, a niche occupied by the Golf GTI, the Renaultsport Mégane and, most recently, the new Ford Focus ST. But this OPC has a front suspension similar to the system used in that Renault, by which the front wheels steer not by the turning of the suspension struts but by the swivelling of a separate hub carrier set a little further outward.
This means that, despite the wide wheels, the power and steering forces can act in the middle of the front tyres' contact patches instead of towards the tyres' inner edges. Result? A better-mannered hot Astra, able to get its power down and stay straight while doing it. Traction out of corners is much better, too, so the Astra can turn fluently into bends before powering out.
Which also makes it good fun. The suspension is lower and stiffer than the regular turbocharged Astra GTC's, and the OPC certainly looks promising with its giant under-bumper air scoop and, if you order the optional Aero kit, a biplane rear spoiler, curvy sill covers and those 20in wheels. The exhaust note is deep and crisp, and after a short wait for the turbocharger to get going, the car launches itself with a heady whoosh.
ROAD TO TRACK
In Standard mode, the adaptive dampers let the suspension “breathe” while controlling the body's movements, making the OPC feel nicely poised as you hare along an undulating back road. Sport mode, however, chops the ride up unnecessarily, while the “extreme” OPC mode is all but unusable on normal roads, though it does work on a racetrack.
Downsides? The brakes are over-assisted and snatchy and there's no proper handbrake, just an annoying electric switch. Otherwise the OPC is a very enjoyable, if unnecessarily corpulent, machine with a civility lacking in its predecessors.
The only problem is that the 184kW Focus ST is nearly as quick, just as much fun, slightly more alive in its steering - and it costs less (in the UK).
OPEL ASTRA OPC
ENGINE: 1,998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbo, 206kW
TRANSMISSION: Six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive
PERFORMANCE: 250km/h, 0-100km/h in in 5.9sec, 8.1 l/100km, CO2 189g/km
ON SALE IN SA: Early 2013
-The Independent on Sunday