Tested: Opel Astra GTC 1.6T
BRIDGE BETWEEN ASTRA AND OPC: If you’re in the market for a solid family ride that’s a lot of fun to drive then test-drive an Astra GTC. If white-knuckle driving is what you seek rather wait for the OPC.
Author: SERGIO DAVIDS
The latest Opel Astra was an important model to launch South Africa, amid the automaker's financial woes. The German arm of General Motors took a timid approach to its new vehicle design and focused on practicality, performance and features rather than styling.
The Astra tugged at the heartstrings of Opel enthusiasts and those seeking a large, dependable hatchback.
NOT AS FAST AS IT LOOKS
Unfortunately it proved slightly too expensive and the introduction of its US and Korean rivals in 2011 – among them Ford’s Focus and Hyundai’s Elantra – has seen Astra faltering in the local premium hatchback segment.
Opel fans are a strange bunch – they’ll defend their models like any other brand-loyal car connoisseur though constantly hark back to glory days… “those were days when we gave the Golf GTI a run for its money”.
If you want to tug at the heartstrings of Opel fans mention any of these models - Big Boss, Super Boss, Kadett – and now the 2012 Astra GTC.
There's no denying the GTC is a great-looking hatch but its sporty looks don't do its average performance figures justice. Compared to a VW GTI rivaling two-litre version of the previous GTC, Opel's latest hatchback is powered by a toned down 1.4 and 1.6 turbo.
Why? To bridge the gap between the standard Astra and performance-tuned OPC due in SA later in 2012. SA Opel representatives don’t expect the GTC to push the automaker’s volumes; they’ll leave that to the ageing Corsa and standard Astra hatchback.
It’s not as fast as it looks but it has many redeeming qualities. For starters, it’s not just a three-door version of the Astra hatchback. It has a longer wheelbase, wider front and rear tracks, enhanced suspension and sits 15mm lower.
The sharper and more-focused driving experience means the GTC is a rival for sportier coupes such as the VW Scirocco and the Toyota 86. Much like its standard Astra sibling, the GTC caters for mature vehicle enthusiast - someone who wants the practicality of a hatchback, possibly in need of a family car with performance looks, without the added hooliganism of a hot hatch.
Is it worth paying for a five-door Astra sibling?
After experiencing the 1.6 turbo for a week, I'm still not sold. It’s not a bad car by any means, quite the contrary. Opel’s sporty GTC meets the high standards required of modern vehicles … but so has every other automaker, and then some.
The 1.6 turbo delivers 132kW at 5500rpm (29kW more than the 1.4) and a torque peak of 230Nm from 2200-5400rpm. The engine is mated to a six-speed manual gearbox and has a claimed fuel consumption of 6.8 litres/100km (though I averaged 7.5).
Handling-wise, the GTC is well-poised on the road with superb grip and road-hugging ability courtesy of Opel's HiPerStrut (or high-performance strut) front suspension. The suspension tweaks reduce torque steer and gives extra assurance to the front wheels.
It's not quite a hot hatch but the performance is still superb and responsive. The ride quality is excellent, able to soak up poor roads in excellent comfort.
There's plenty of feedback from the steering and overall it's a firmer ride and marginally more athletic than the standard Astra. It’s not overtly sporty but you'll be well-pleased with its handling and punchy engine.
If a hot hatch is what you seek, you'd best wait until the OPC arrives.
There's a high level of standard kit borrowed from the 1.4: such as cruise control, front-loading radio/CD audio system, daytime running lights and 18” alloys. The 1.6 improves on its 1.4 sibling by adding chromed accents, leather trim, cruise control, auto aircon and sill plates.
At first sight, it looks very cramped in the back, but get comfortable in the driver’s seat and then sit behind yourself and a 1.7m tall male has sufficient leg and headroom for comfort on a long trip.
All models come standard with ABS, ESP, traction control and emergency braking assistance and additional safety equipment includes front, side and curtain air bags.
Overall the interior isn’t as flashy as the Elantra but not as pedestrian as a Golf. Even though it’s seen as the sportier alternative to the Astra, the GTC is a still a practical family ride, sporting voluminous boot space of 380 to 1165 litres – the latter with the rear seats folded down.
The Astra GTC 1.6 retails for R304 000, which is rather steep compared to rival offerings. I’d opt for the 1.4T Enjoy (R287 000) – you’ll still get a lot of car for your hard-earned rands though I suppose if you’re in the premium hatchback market an extra R17 000 won’t be that much more of an inconvenience.
I’ve mentioned that the Astra and GTC face up against Asian and German rivals in South Africa. Also stealing the limelight from the GTC is the Toyota 86 retailing for R298 500 and delivering a potent 147kW/205Nm. Yes, it’s a different beast altogether, but its pricing and features are still highly competitive.
VW’s Scirocco design has held up well over the years, too, but there is one factor the GTC has in its favour: a high level of standard kit. The vee-dub fans out there should seriously consider that, as those “optional” extras start making it less attractive especially since the base 1.4 Scirocco retails from R302 800.
Despite its shortcomings anyone behind the wheel of the new Astra GTC will have a smile on their face knowing they’re driving an excellent vehicle well suited to any family driving need while being a lot of fun on the road.
I think one of the most telling comments I received about the GTC during the test week was from a good mate of mine who owned a previous-generation Astra, GTC and now has a used Audi A3.
“I love Opel, always will, but I’d rather buy a Golf than the new Astra or GTC. Can we please talk about something else…?”
What’s really sad is that the “latest” Opels are fantastic, well-built and well-engineered vehicles, yet GM seems to have hobbled the automaker in South Africa. The Big Boss and Super Boss Kadetts are scarce and a new generation of drivers will never know the thrill of those thoroughbreds.
Let’s hope the next OPC will rekindle some of that lost sparkle.