General Motors Europe boss Carl-Peter Forster told me over a year ago that he wanted the new Opel Astra to be totally different from the current crop of hatch boxes - and that's certainly true of the new Astra, which hits South African showrooms in force from next week.
And it's not just the styling - the top of the engine range will initially include a 2-litre 147 kW turbo engine, while red hot 176 kW OPC and extreme GTC versions will come later.
On top of that the new Astra has a LOT of features which haven't been seen in this class of vehicle before, including adjustable suspension and corner-tracking active lights.
The range-topping 2.0 GSi Turbo also gets a built-in cellphone unit that only requires you to put your SIM card into a slot on the centre console.
The new Astra is offered in four equipment lines and three engine combinations. The latest electronic stability programme, ESP Plus, head curtain airbags, active head restraints on the front seats, a height and reach-adjustable steering column and heated power mirrors are among the features.
The car has a full 5-star Euro NCAP crash test rating.
Options include cruise control - which can be retro-fitted - and park distance warning. There are BIG 17 inch wheels as standard on top models, with 18 inch wheels optional. Satellite navigation may come later.
In an exclusive interview last night General Motors SA marketing director Malcolm Gauld revealed that next March would see two turbo diesels slotted in to fill an obvious gap in the lineup.
There would be two oil-burner versions, both with 1.9-litre four cylinder engines.
The 8-valver will produce a creditable 88 kW of power, while the smooth-running 16-valve unit pushes out a massive 110 kW.
Two normally aspirated petrol engines are on offer at dealers right now.
The first is a 1.6-litre Twinport Ecotec 16-valve motor producing 77 kW at 6 000 r/min and 150 Nm of torque (at 3 900 r/min) while offering superb fuel economy of the order of 6.6 litres/100 km. It's fitted with a 5-speed manual gearbox.
"This is Opel's answer to Volkswagen's FSI," says marketing manager Alastair Ironside.
This gives the three 1.6-litre models a top speed of 185 km/h with 0-100 km/h acceleration in just 12.3 seconds.
Then there's a 1.8-litre Ecotec 16-valve model. This will be the only version that comes in manual AND auto configurations, the latter an ageing but smooth 4-speed.
Power output is a healthy 92 kW at 5 600 r/min and torque 170 Nm at 3 800 r/min. Top speed is 198 km/h while the zero to 100 km/h sprint is dispatched in just 10.8 seconds. Overall fuel consumption is 7.8 litres/100 km.
The auto version has a top speed of 188 km/h, does 0-100 km/h in 11.9 seconds, and its consumption overall is 8.4 litres/100 km.
At Auto Africa
Just to complete the offering, the hot 2.0 GSi Turbo will come in March next year - but will be seen at the Auto Africa Expo later this month.
This car, which we were able to drive extensively on the launch yesterday, pushes out 147 kW at 5 400 r/min and a very healthy 262 Nm of torque at 4 200 r/min.
And there will be more. The GTC coupe will definitely be added to the range later next year, as will very quick OPC versions of both the new Astra hatchback and GTC coupe which push out 176 kW.
"We want to regain the Astra's sporting image," says Ironside.
This elicited gasps of anticipation from those who remembered Opel's giant-killing feats on the race track, only to have them dashed with the words "But this does not mean we are going back into motor sport".
But the new Opel Astra hatchback range is not just about engines, or styling.
There will be three distinct styling and feature packages within the range.
The 1.6 Essentia is the entry-level, designed to appeal to trendsetters, traditionalists, and those who merely want transport.
It comes well equipped, including aircon, a radio/CD player which will also plays MP3 compressed music disks, remote central locking with immobiliser and alarm, and electric windows in front, plus a 5 year/100 000 km transferable maintenance plan, all as standard.
Then there's the Enjoy package, which comes with both 1.6-litre and 1.8-litre versions, and which is set to appeal to those with strong family values - as well as the trendsetters and the traditionalists.
And for those who like it hot, there are Sport versions which come with additional features aimed at enhancing driving enjoyment. There are Sport versions in all the engine derivatives.
Measuring 4.25 metres long, 1.75 metres wide, 1.46 metres high, with a 2.61 metre wheelbase, the dimensions of the five-door Astra are among the most generous in its class. It is about 35 mm higher, 44 mm wider and 139 mm longer than its predecessor.
As I said, Carl-Peter Forster threw the rulebook out of the window with the new Astra, and it shows in the styling.
Although it mirrors the length and general silhouette of the Golf 5 - except for the height (the Opel is lower) - the new Astra looks bolder, longer and sleeker thanks to its unique styling.
The rounded lines of the out-going model have given way to a sharper, sculpted look.
At the front the grille has just one bar with an exaggerated Opel badge in the centre, deep air intakes underneath - with foglights at the edges in some models - and a strong crease in the centre of the bonnet.
There are big lights, with projector headlamps and built-in indicators, as well as "see-round-the-corner" active bi-Xenon headlights on the top models.
From the side, as we said, the car looks long and sleek, while at the back there's a bold and wide look, accentuated by the huge tail-lights (which feature new translucent lenses aimed at allowing out more light), a chrome stripe, and large tailgate.
All models get colour-coded bumpers back and front, with removeable (and replaceable) rubbing strips designed to cut the costs of minor accidents.
This depends on the model, but the accent has been on clean design without gimmickry (although there are lots of features) with a two-tone colour scheme that sees soft-touch materials on top and harder plastic below.
A characteristic styling cue is the crease on the clearly arranged centre console, carried over from the bonnet. Further eye-catching design elements in the Astra cockpit include the three-dimensional instruments under a deep hood to prevent glare, and the centrally positioned, easy to read information monitor.
The seats feature state-of-the-art ergonomics with enhanced contours, higher lateral support, longer cushions and optimised adjustment.
Detailed attention was also paid to operation of the seats. The lever used to adjust the height of the seat is constructed according to the latest ergonomic research and consequently is easy to locate and grip.
The height of the front and rear head restraints can be adjusted by the simple push of a button. The adjuster for the lumbar support has been changed and is now slightly higher.
An armrest containing a large storage box attached to the front seat is just one of the new optional extras.
The advantage compared to conventional console layouts is that the compartment is always within reach, regardless of the driver's stature and the position of the seat.
The seat position requirements of various target groups were taken into account by the engineers when developing the sport seat (standard in the Sport and GSi versions and also available in combination with leather covers on the GSi).
Interior space is better than before, with 17 mm more legroom in the back, as well as more shoulder and headroom back and front.
On the road
It all depends on which package, so let's start at the beginning.
The Essentia-equipped 1.6-litre stands out for its exceptionally quiet and smooth ride. Certainly it's on a par with Golf 5 and the new Ford Focus (which I drove in Europe two weeks ago), while the quality of the trim and the fit and finish is excellent.
Part of our test drive route included a section that, quite honestly, has no part in South Africa's roads network, it's that rough.
And I can tell you that the Astra came through with flying colours. I heard some rattles, but realised these were from the fillings in my teeth being bashed around. The car, however, had none.
Handling has always been a plus point in the Astra, and once more the chassis engineers have come up trumps.
The chassis is very forgiving, with understeer never apparent even when pressing on very hard.
On the Sport models the adaptive suspension firms up everything to make handling even crisper, but that comes at the expense of ride quality.
It all comes courtesy of the new Astra's IDS chassis (Interactive Driving System).
The suspension features McPherson struts and a subframe at the front, and a patented torsion beam with double-walled, U-shaped profile at the rear.
The state-of-the-art design used in the new Astra retains all the advantages of a conventional torsion beam axle - such as minimal space requirements, low weight and high camber control.
On the top models it all comes together even more forcibly thanks to the adaptive IDS Plus suspension system and electronic Continuous Damping Control (CDC).
This integrated chassis control network (ICC), where the control units and sensors of ESP Plus, ABS and CDC communicate constantly via the high-speed CAN (Controller Area Network) data bus system, is making its premiere in the compact segment with the new Astra
Drivers can activate a special performance mode by pressing the Sport switch. This selects suspension settings for the enthusiast-driver, adapts the steering and accelerator response and, with the automatic transmission, adjusts the shift points higher up the rev range.
As to be expected the 2.0 GSi Turbo is awesome.
Opel's previous turbo engines as found on the outgoing OPC and coupe versions were incredible units, with power from really low down and continuing in a seamless flow right up to the engine cutout, and the new motor just builds on these attributes.
If it wasn't for the odd whistle from the engine compartment you'd never know it had a turbo - you have to continuously watch the speedo needle to keep below limits.
On top of that there's such a lack of noise that even at 200 km/h you converse normally.
Remarkable in this class of vehicle, and definitely something BMW must worry about in its quest with the new 1 Series.
Other features, all aimed at different preferences and requirements (and depending on the model), include leather trim TPMS (Tyre Pressure Monitoring System), electronic climate control with air quality sensor and automatic air recirculation, Hill Start Assist, Trailer Stability Programme, and a Sport switch.
All models get a removeable tow hook as standard, and there's a full size spare in the boot.
Boot capacity is a very healthy 350 litres with the seats up, 1 270 litres with the rear seats folded, and versatility variations include a 60/40 or 40/20/40 split.
A great feature for kids is that rear seat passengers get a set of headphones and their own controls so they can listen to a CD or the radio while Mom and Dad have their own music choice on the built-in sound system.
Satellite controls for the audio system are standard on most models.
In addition to its advanced chassis and engine technology, the new Astra also impresses with its exceptionally extensive standard and safety equipment, including SAFETEC.
This comprehensive protection system consists of passive and active safety features such as the highly stable body shell with deformation zones, the IDS chassis with ESP Plus, TC Plus traction control, CBC (Cornering Brake Control) and ABS with brake assistant and four disc brakes.
Front and thorax/pelvis side airbags for the driver and front seat passenger, head curtain airbags, active head restraints in the front, lap-and-shoulder seat belts for all passengers, two mountings in the rear for the ISOFIX child's seat system, pedals which automatically release in the event of a frontal collision (PRS, Pedal Release System) and a steering column which can be adjusted for reach and height are all part of the SAFETEC package.
Visual and acoustic warning signals remind the driver and front passenger that seat belts should be fastened.
While General Motors SA Isuzu decided to GO BIG with its trend-setting Isuzu models a while ago, it's now the turn of the Opel Astra. And its slogan has to be GO BETTER.
In every respect this is a great offering, and I think Malcolm Gauld's target of 350 units a month for this super car is VERY conservative.
It's great looking, it's a great driver's car, and with the steps the company is taking to improve service delivery, it's going to be a great customer proposition.
Astra 1.6 Essentia R160 260
Astra 1.6 Enjoy R178 920
Astra 1.8 Enjoy Auto R193 910
Astra 1.6 Sport R188 510
Astra 1.8 Sport R193 720
Astra 2.0 GSi Turbo approx R250 000.
CLICK HERE for exclusive info about Opel's plans for a sedan version