Sunday June 18, 2017
By Richard Bosselman
RECENTLY I watched a television programme featuring seven couples who were uncannily alike.
So close, in fact, you would imagine each pair were twins — genetically matched and almost indistinguishable.
The twist was, the doubles were not twins nor even related. These were complete strangers, brought together by their striking physical similarities to take part in a unique and ground-breaking scientific experiment setting out to prove the high probability that somewhere out there, we all have a doppelganger.
Only, it didn’t really work out that way. When meted prolonged examination, only one of those ‘pairs’ truly passed muster. The rest were close, but not quite exact enough to cause ultimate confusion.
In truth, it would have naïve to expect anything less than the same result from the Astra sedan and hatch.
As much as Holden purports that these cars, due to their component commonality (powertrains, platform, electronic architecture), are close kin, the reality doesn’t support that they’re wholly DNA-linked or even set to travel the same path.
Merely sourcing from different parts of the world – the hatch, from Germany’s Opel and assembled in Poland, the sedan having American upbringing and being built for us in South Korea – alone has an unavoidable impact on how they present, simply because each of those places, while faithfully following a common design template, still delivers different cabin plastics, small but obvious changes to control design and presentation treatments and … yes … different feel.
So, as closely-related as they purport to be, really there’s a lot that suggests they are also strangers in arms.
No harm done. Met in isolation, both are decent cars. Moreover, that they come as being ‘together apart’ is actually considered a win by Holden, which in undertaking responsibility for finessing the sedan’s suspension and steering for its only right-hand drive application determined it wanted to impart a singular feel.
“Yes, we wanted to make sure they were in character with each other,” explains Jeremy Tassone, who as Holden’s group manager of vehicle performance has overall responsibility for the programme. But cloning? Well, that seemed daft.
“This whole car has been set up to take those strong dynamics that Astra has been renowned for, but we have aimed to take more of a comfort side.”
That’s why the R, RS and RS-V designations used the latter did not transfer and instead we have LS, LT and LTZ badges.
The R line cars are not officially described as ‘racers’, but Holden proposes that the hatch is intended to be a sportier proposition, for younger drivers who enjoy an enthusiast-flavoured car. Whereas the sedan? It is more conservative, not just in look but also nature. Intent to win appeal with older drivers means it has a more compliant ride, slower steering, a more relaxed demeanour.
Were we ready for this? Indeed, given that the Cruze line that this car replaces included a flagship SRi model that was quite overtly sporty – firm, nippy, quite quick, very driver-oriented – did we ask for it?
Well maybe you and I didn’t, but according to Tassone, quite a lot of customers did. Regardless that the SRi had quite a solid fanbase, there was also a substantial customer base – maybe more in Australia, where the roads tend to be less challenging than here – who wanted their car to be … well, more cruisy, more like the alternate CD and CDX versions. So, it is.
“There was good take up for SRi, a lot of people went to it for the features it had … but we did get feedback that not everyone liked the slightly firmer ride.”
So is it better to consider the Astra hatch less as siblings than cousins? “We kind of think of them as siblings … (but) we intentionally didn’t want the sedan and hatch to be exactly the same – we think that they are different enough … to broaden the appeal of our small car family.”
That was most evident with the first car I drove on the media preview on Australia’s Gold Coast. The entry 1.4-litre manual LT sedan will be offered in New Zealand, though you won’t see it on the showroom menu – it is considered so niche it will only be available to special order.
Nonetheless, it seemed just the right car to start with because it’s equivalent in the hatch lineup, which is immediately available, proved the surprise and delight car from the five-door’s media launch in March. Basically, that R hatch was a stunningly well-sorted driver’s car. So, what better barometer?
Within 10kms’ of the programme start at Coolangatta airport, I knew comparison was time-wasted. The base cars are so different in their connection. Indeed, it’s the same further up the scale. You’ll have more fun, always, with the hatch.
That doesn’t mean there are winners or losers here. Yet, at the same token, the sedan just hasn’t the same edge, something that is probably due to a multitude of reasons beyond the specific tuning or the sourcing.
The big one is a lack of continuity in rear suspension design; the sedan’s rear beam set-up is less complex that the hatchback’s, pure and simple. Also evident is that the entry car’s Hankook rubber just doesn’t grip as the base hatch’s Michelins do. You also have to wonder if the sedan might affect a more energetic attitude were it meted throttle, braking and gearshift-sharpening ‘sport’ function that Opel implements into the hatch.
At the same token, though, this is not a lost cause. It’s not that sporty, but neither is it flast-footed. Holden has again lived up to its reputation for sorting out a car to better suit Australian, and Kiwi, road and driving conditions. A programme controlled by acclaimed lead dynamics engineer Rob Trubiani and mainly run at the Lang Lang test ground near Melbourne has undoubtedly provided the car with more dynamic flair that the Chevrolet base car provides, even if it does imbue it with a greater degree of suppleness than Opel’s hatchback recipe demands.
The plus of the latter is that the sedan has a fluidity to the spring-damper response that passengers, in particular, will hardly find disagreeable, not least when the car is traversing surface imperfections.
Certainly, we found more than a few ruts, ripples and way worse on the roads we were directed to. This drive programme took us into an area hard hit by Cyclone Debbie in March and much of the damage to the roads was still to be reconciled when we came through. Indeed, heavy rain on the days immediately be our run had probably worsened their state.
We were on the second wave of the drive programme and by then our hosts had learned, the hard way, about the damage caused to their pride by a series of hard-to-spot humungous potholes on one particular section. Three destroyed tyres, two bent rims … we were asked, politely, to drive more decorously so as to avoid raising that score. Mission accomplished.
Progressing through the sedan range reinforced that, the more you spend, the better the ride quality and roadholding. The 17- and 18-inch Kumho Ecstas that the LT and LTZ progressively upgrade patently offer improved grip on soaked surfaces. Those derivatives, too, seem to benefit more from Holden’s effort to quell wind and road-induced roar.
So there’s that. And then there are other strengths. The intent to position the sedan as a more affordable alternate to the hatch perhaps shows more clearly in Australia than here, prices across the ditch being noticeably lower than ours, but you definitely appreciate that the booted car will work for those who prioritise space and comfort over sexiness and sportiness. In all dimension, wheelbase included, the cars are much of a muchness, yet the sedan has superior rear legroom and, also, very reasonable back seat headroom for a tall person.
On the other hand, there’s to suggests that Holden has had to give up on utterly recreating the premium-ness that so has been so carefully integrated into the hatch. The surfaces and control interfaces are not quite as nice, and some functionality aspects also seem just a bit ‘different’. The sat nav interface; I’m certain the hatch’s is just a bit smarter and offers better clarity.
The driving position is much the same, but those Korea-sourced sedan seats – even though they appear just like the hatch’s in general shape – just don’t impart the body-hugging support than come with the Opel car: The side cushions are softer and there’s less lower-back support. The steering wheel rim is narrower and feels harder.
The sedan also loads up pretty well for specification, save for one omission that, Holden testifies, it had no control over: The lack of autonomous emergency braking on this bodyshape.
In August AEB is going to be required for any car to achieve the appealing five-star ANCAP crash test result that is considered important for fleet selection (especially with Government departments. The Astra sedan carries that maximum, and avoided any embarrassment, by having been tested in May. However, the brand still admits it would have preferred to have had it, not least because in all but base form the sedan has the forward collision warning tech that is needed to trigger the AEB action.
Nonetheless, big ticket items are present, such as an intuitive touchscreen with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, reverse-view camera, rear parking sensors and automatic on/off headlights. The LT adds a leather-trimmed steering wheel, direction lane-departure warning with lane-keep steering assistance, side blind spot alert, auto high-beam and has ability to self-park and can remote start. The LTZ focus enhances comfort, with heated front seats, full leather, heated wing mirrors and a sunroof.
It’s just a shame, however, that Holden has to deliver a car that carries some cheapskate Chev considerations.
You can genuinely call the Astra hatch a semi-premium proposition; its build materials and assembly quality is right on par with the cars that Opel used as their match-or-better target products during development, the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf.
But the sedan just doesn’t impart the same level of care and attention to detail. Yes, the build and paint is great, but cabin is let down by hard plastics. For sure, the hatch is also built to mainstream standards, but at least the switches and controls that look to be soft-skinned are. Whereas those same features in the sedan, while seemingly identical in appearance, are hard to the touch.
Some conveniences also change for the worst. In the hatch, for instance, the USB port is sensibly tucked into the lidded console between the seats: You can plug your phone in and hide it away. In the sedan, the port is right in front of the gear lever. Not so smart; using the phone cable that Holden had thoughtfully provided a phone cable simply highlighted how easy it would be to foul gearshift. Another grumble: The first thing you notice about the boot isn’t its commendable 445-litre capacity but that it has old-style, luggage-crushing gooseneck hinges instead of the gas struts you’d expect to find these days.
Performance is the one constant across these model types. Holden’s faith in having the 110kW and 240Nm (or 245Nm in the manual) 1.4-litre direct injection turbo engine as the sole choice powerplant for the sedan (and upcoming station wagon) is well-placed. This is the best four-cylinder that GM builds at the moment; eons ahead in respect to smoothness and responsiveness to the like-capacity but otherwise totally different unit that still attaches to the Trax, for instance.
While peak power doesn’t come on until 6500rpm, it isn’t an engine that demands to be worked hard to obtain best performance, thanks to the torque flow hitting optimum between 2000rpm and 4000rpm. This low to medium end muscularity is especially beneficial for the six-speed auto; a unit that sneaks relatively surreptitiously through the cogs and also is keen to grab lower gears when braking downhill.
Is this enough to grab your attention? No matter how the sedan shapes up on the road, history suggests it will achieve a significantly lower penetration than the hatch, maybe just 30 percent of total volume. And the split will change again when the wagon lands.
At $30,990, $34,490 and $38,490, the three derivatives are sited to be competitive with other sedans in the category, but it’s a strategy that means they’re not too distanced from the Astra hatch, either.
In five-door format, the 1.4-litre fight only sits at base level; the RS and $36,990 RS-V hatches run with a 1.6-litre turbo that, while less vivacious than the smaller mill, have more verve. Importantly, they also have AEB. And, to my eyes, are smarter-looking and have immensely more polish.
Look at it that way and you have to wonder whether Holden’s thinking about how customers won’t give consideration to this because they are simple so shape-fixated does seem to be a touch wishful.
Of course, Holden could also could also effect a mindset change by one day reviving a sporty small sedan some time in the future.
Tassone says his brand never says never about anything: “But there’s nothing to talk about at the moment.”
Meantime, we look forward to the wagon, which also comes with the same ‘L’ badging as the sedan yet, in all likelihood, given it also comes from Europe (well, the Vauxhall plant in the United Kingdom) might also be expected to drive more like the ‘R’ cars.