SMART looking machine, and is that a Holden badge I see?
Holden badge indeed. This is the new imported-from-Europe Astra hatchback, which has been with us for about half a year now. Not seen many around?
I don't think so, how've they been doing?
Not bad, but could do better. In 2017 so far the Astra has outsold its Ford nemesis with its Focus, but sales are lagging way behind rivals Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Hyundai i30, Kia Cerato, Honda Civic, VW Golf and Subaru Impreza.
Why's that then?
It's hard to say exactly. It's a new (returning) nameplate, there may be a Holden Cruze hangover, buyers may be a bit Holden-beware in the wake of local manufacturing ceasing, it has high quality rivals and isn't the cheapest amongst these, and there's the inevitable anti-Holden snobbery from some quarters. Oh, and there's no sedan in the Astra range until next month, so its arrival should boost numbers.
So it's not as if it's a bad car then?
Absolutely not. Its body style, cabin design, ride quality, standard kit and punchy engine make it a damn good thing actually, up there with the best in the popular small car segment. With its Opel/Vauxhall badge in Europe it was the 2016 European Car of the Year.
You'd recommend one then?
Certainly add it to your test drive list. I sampled all the variants at the model's launch last November, and this week have been living with my favourite from the range, the mid-spec RS.
RS? Shouldn't that badge be reserved for the hottest of hot hatches or something track-ready from Porsche
Indeed. Honda has a Civic RS too and both it and the Holden Astra RS are by no means wild performance machines. No, it shouldn't be allowed, but it doesn't stop the RS being the one Astra shoppers should pick.
Okay. Your entry-level Astra R uses a 110kW/240Nm 1.4-litre turbo engine which is fine, but move into the RS and you score a 147kW/300Nm 1.6-litre turbo. Those figures mean far more oomph than most of its rivals.
For the safety conscious, RS buyers score a Holden Eye forward facing camera which brings automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist and forward collision alert, plus there's blind spot alert. Many rivals only offer such active safety on their priciest models.
Then the spec goodies. The RS will automatically parallel and perpendicular reverse park for you, it offers keyless entry and start, has a leather steering wheel, rain sensing wipers and sporty 17-inch five-spoke alloys.
Then, just like all Astras, you get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity (meaning you can project your phone's sat nav and apps like Pandora), rear view camera, cruise control, LED running lights and bluetooth.
For $26,240 (or $27,240 with auto gearbox) before on-roads, it's pretty darn generous.
How does it do with family duties?
More good news. The rear passenger space is some of the best I've encountered in this class. I'm six foot and enjoy plenty of head and leg room in the back, meaning my two kids and their child seats are well looked after.
The boot isn't huge at 360-litres, but should serve a small family just fine.
Any good to drive?
I've been driving lots of small cars recently and would put the Astra up there with the most competent available. And you know what? It's good fun too.
I'll give you an example. I've just lived with the rival Mazda3 hatch for three months and the Astra felt a markedly different beast.
The Mazda3 was perhaps a bit comfier and rode slightly better, but the Astra has more zing. Its turbo engine makes it feel grin-inducingly faster than the opposition. If, like me, you enjoy a bit of grunt from your small family car, the Astra with this engine hits the spot.
But it doesn't ride as well as a Mazda3?
Just different. A bit firmer sprung I'd say, mainly thanks to the Aussie-specific suspension and steering tune given to the Astra by the talented Holden team. It feels more engaging than most family hatches.
It still rides comfortably and quietly around town and on the highway, I've been returning a decent 6.1-litres/100km on average, and the auto gearbox has worked seamlessly. My preference would be the cheaper manual 'box for this car though so you can properly explore this engine's talents.
Any grumbles then?
Well, the cloth seats have a jazzy pattern which probably won't age well, and there are small elements in the cabin (such as the cheapie-looking plastic door buttons) letting down the otherwise quality modern layout. Oh, and with such a strong engine as here, not having steering wheel paddles with an auto gearbox is disappointing.
Should I buy one then?
The new Astra RS may shock you. High spec, safe, a zesty turbo engine and a talented chassis makes for a fine package. More fun than most in this segment, the small Holden hatch is one for the keen driver to consider.
What matters most
The good: Impressive tech and safety, ease and comfort to drive, sporty turbo engines, Australia-specific steering tune, pretty design in and out.
The not so good: Needs steering wheel shift paddles, tyre noise gets a bit intrusive at speed, cabin isn't as premium feeling as rival Mazda3 or Volkswagen Golf, runs on pricier 95 RON fuel.
Warranty and servicing: Three-year/100,000km warranty, Holden lifetime capped price servicing, service intervals are every 9 months/15,000km with a total price of $916 over the first three years.
Model: Holden Astra RS.
Details: Five-door front-wheel drive small hatchback.
Engine: 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol with 147kW and 280Nm (300Nm with overboost).
Transmission: Six-speed auto (six-speed manual available for $1000 less).
Consumption: 6.3L/100km (auto).
Safety: Five-star, six airbags.
Bottom line plus on-roads: $27,240 as tested with auto gearbox.
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