Tony the lion tamer

Can this muscular Astra win over our resident cynic?

TONY OíKANE

WITH Holdenís local manufacturing chapter soon to close, the Astra hatch suddenly finds itself with a helluva lot of weight resting atop its shapely European shoulders.

And expectations are sky-high. For starters, as a small hatch it must do battle in Australiaís most popular market segment, up against the big-selling Mazda 3, Hyundai i30 and Toyota Corolla. And as the latest Holden model to be sourced from Europe (the 2018 Commodore will be next), the natural rival of this Polish-built Astra is Volkswagenís supremely polished Golf VII.

Talk about a high bar.

With a nameplate stretching all the way back to 1984 (and badge-engineered Nissan N12 Pulsar origins), the Astra brand has cachet in this country, despite an on-again, off-again relationship spanning those three decades. Thereís certainly a lot more goodwill for Astra than there ever was for the Cruze, even though initial sales have been pretty disappointing. Punters will expect great things from it, and so do I.

But Iíll be honest Ė the new Astra hasnít exactly dazzled me so far.

We praised it for its well-rounded performance in our recent 10-car small hatch/sedan Megatest, finishing second behind the Golf, yet there were elements that didnít quite feel up to snuff to me.

The way it drove wasnít one of them.

Astra clings to corners like velcro and the Rís smooth, perky 110kW 1.4-litre turbopetrol four is matched to a fine six-speed auto with a superb idle-stop system. Ride quality is well-controlled, meaning the base Astra has merits beyond its sporty handling, so if not for the Golfís existence, the Astra would have a Megatest crown to its credit.

Yet the Astraís cabin quality isnít quite as sparkling as its German DNA would suggest.

Granted, itís far from having the cheapestfeeling interior in its segment, but I find the GM-generic design and execution a little wide of the mark for a Euro hatch.

However, the design is a step up on the previous Astraís button-festooned cockpit Ė and leagues ahead of the cheap and dated Cruze it replaces Ė though I find the mix of surface textures and materials cheapens it. The door handles flex and creak as you swing the doors shut, the outboard rear passengers rub their elbows on a rockhard plastic wheelarch trim, and its glossy piano-black dashboard plastic will no doubt become a magnet for fingerprint smudges, dust and scratches.

Then again, this mid-grade Astra RS manual that will be calling my driveway home for the next four months has some distinct positives.

Thereís a seriously grunty 147kW 1.6-litre turbo-petrol engine under its lid, for starters. And being an RS grade, it also scores bingle-avoiding autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and blind-spot monitoring as standard Ė useful gear for highway commutes.

A leather-clad steering wheel improves the cabin ambience somewhat, plus thereís keyless entry and ignition to bring a touch of luxe thatís absent from the base Astra.

Sure, itís cloth that covers the seats and door cards, but itís a pleasant weave and Iíd much prefer fabric to the synthetic Ďpleatherí thatís pitched as the premium upholstery in Korean-built Holdens.

Then thereís the appeal of what lies in the left corner of the driverís footwell. Iím still a sucker for cars with three pedals and a DIY gear lever, and Iím hopeful my love of a good manual íbox will go some way towards overpowering my distaste for coarse-grained cabin plastics.

Plus, the Astra R has already proved that thereís a fine dynamic base beneath this car, so a manual gearbox and 37kW/60Nm more muscle should only enhance that.

Overall impressions so far are mixed.

When the dark-coloured paint is spotless, the Astra looks incredibly handsome for a mainstream hatchback, and the 1.6-litre powertrain has vast reserves of mid-range torque that limits the need to row through the six-speed manual gearbox.

But on the other hand, Iím still yet to properly warm to that interior. Am I just being too harsh?

Mid strength

The Astra RS sits in the middle of Holdenís model hierarchy wearing a $26,490 sticker, and itís arguably the pick of the bunch.

A larger, more powerful 1.6-litre turbo-petrol, a glut of electronic safety aids and none of the arguably unnecessary frills of the range-topping RS-V, such as a heated steering wheel and ambient interior light tubes. But itís missing two biggies: a proper integrated sat-nav and rear-seat air vents. Smartphone mirroring gets around the former, but the lack of the latter is not cool.

Whip cracker

Already Iím starting to wish there was greater differentiation between this mid-grade RS and the base Astra R. When youíre spending a few grand extra on your whip itís nice to have a car thatís identifiably different to the boggo variant, but the five-spoke alloys (in the same 17-inch size), some extra chrome on the grille, a leatherwrapped steering wheel and an extra chrome-finished tailpipe donít make the RS massively different ... until youíre in the driverís seat experiencing that wonderful 1.6 turbo.

HOLDEN ASTRA RS

Date acquired: March 2017 Price as tested: $26,490 This month: 559km @ 8.7L/100km Overall: 559km @ 8.7L/100km m 34 44 3 3 0 0 5 0 9 0 WEEK 2 URBAN COUNTRY SPORTS FAMILY MOTORWAY