History never repeats, according to 1980s pop-rock band Split Enz. But it certainly is trying to in the case of the Holden Astra RS.
Not because this small Holden is attempting to revive old-school small-car motoring, but rather it is trying to rekindle its spark on the charts. From the late 1990s until mid-way through the 2000s, the Astra was absolutely class leading. But the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf then stormed the reign parade, just before the Astra was killed.
Holden’s Cruze replacement never really recovered from either a talent or sales perspective, but now the Astra returns armed with class-leading power and torque figures, competitive kerb weights, segment-challenging technology and keen pricing.
As with New Zealand-born song-artists Tim and Neil Finn, Holden hopes Australia will call the new Polish-built Astra our own. But can charts-topping success return?
Vehicle Style: Small hatchback
Price: $26,240 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 147kW/300Nm 1.6 turbo petrol four-cylinder | six-speed manual
Fuel Economy Claimed: 6.5 l/100km | Tested: 9.0 l/100km
The entry-level Astra R is designed to toil with the Hyundai i30 and Toyota Corolla, and the 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder model grade is a superb option in either six-speed manual ($21,490 plus on-road costs) or auto ($22,490 plus orc) form.
However, the middle-tier Astra RS, as tested here, is designed to lure small car buyers up the range while making no apologies for tackling the semi-sporty Mazda3 SP25 and semi-luxurious Volkswagen Golf 92TSI Comfortline head on. For too long, these models have been leaders for raciness and refinement respectively.
Priced from $26,240 (plus orc), the RS comes with a 147kW/300Nm 1.6-litre turbo and six-speed manual transmission. An automatic with the same number of gears asks only $1000 extra, too. Meanwhile, a similarly-priced SP25 gets a 138kW/250Nm 2.5-litre non-turbo, while a 92TSI is auto-only with a 92kW/200Nm 1.4-litre turbo.
The Holden also gets automatic park assistance and lane-keep assistance technology over the $25,690 (plus orc) Mazda, while the $28,240 (plus orc) Volkswagen lacks those features as well as the digital radio, blind-spot monitor, forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) featured here.
- Standard Equipment: keyless auto-entry with push-button start, automatic on/off headlights and wipers, power windows and mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel with multi-function trip computer and cruise controls, and manual air-conditioning.
- Infotainment: 7.0-inch colour touchscreen with digital radio, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB input, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone connectivity and eight speakers.
- Options Fitted: None.
- Cargo Volume: 360 litres.
The Astra quickly falls somewhere between a Mazda3’s basic blandness and the Golf’s high-quality sophistication inside. In this respect it’s a bit like a third contender, the Peugeot 308 – only without the ergonomic weirdness.
In a case of less is more, there is nothing that particularly stands out about the cabin of the RS. The dash and door plastics are quality soft-touch items, while the lower plastics are basic and cheap. If the 17-inch alloy wheels and absence of foglights present an inconspicuous look outside – an SP25 gets 18s and fogs – then the cloth trim, gloss-black trim and chrome doorhandles likewise hardly say ‘sporty’ inside.
Thankfully, the front seats are broad and supportive, the driving position is terrific and the leather-trimmed steering wheel and gearshifter each fall as neatly to hand as the ergonomic dashboard controls do to fingers.
A lack of dual-zone climate control air-conditioning – found in the equivalent Mazda and Volkswagen – is the biggest gripe, and even then it’s hardly sizeable. It can be found on the flagship Astra RS-V along with 18s, leather, heated front seats, a larger 8.0-inch touchscreen and satellite navigation; though for a hefty $30,740 (plus orc).
Given the Astra RS costs $4500 less and still gets keyless auto-entry, cruise control and the other safety stuff, it arguably remains more convincing value. Although it lacks integrated sat-nav, the standard Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity means that virtually anyone with a smartphone can display a maps app on-screen.
The 7.0-inch screen itself may be an inch smaller than the flagship model grade, but it retains its superb ergonomics. Everything is just so easy to use in this cabin, leaving driver and passengers to appreciate the surprisingly excellent eight-speaker audio system and the generous front and rear seating; the simple, important things.
Again, spaciousness sits somewhere between a Mazda3 and a Golf, although the lack of the latter’s rear airvents prove the greatest disappointment. No surprises, either: the boot is bigger than the former, but smaller than the latter. You get the gist.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 147kW/300Nm 1.6 4cyl turbo petrol
- Transmission: six-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front and torsion bar rear
- Brake: ventilated front and rear disc brakes
- Steering: electrically assisted mechanical steering
Decently competitive inside the Astra may be, but the RS is ruthlessly competitive on the road. It seems as though Holden – in concert with Germany’s Opel, which designed and engineered the car – cherry-picked the best attributes from each rival.
With a kerb weight of 1325kg, the RS is only 23kg heavier than the Mazda3. It shares with that model a light liveliness than never fades, whether travelling around town or on the open road. The quick, light and precise steering also amply supports the chassis engagement – hands can be held at 9-and-3 on the steering wheel and you can weave through city streets without ever crossing arms.
The Holden darts immediately into corners before quickly rolling onto its outer-rear tyre as though the suspension is slightly softer at the back than the front. It instantly, almost instinctively, avoids understeer, while maintaining fine control of its body.
Yet the Holden has torque where the Mazda doesn’t. There’s hardly any turbo lag in the lower reaches of the rev range, with crisp, smoothly immediate response and a nicely refined but cultured engine note.
On coarse-chip roads the RS is about as noisy as that rival, but in terms of ride quality it absolutely approaches Golf standards. Having previously tested the RS-V on 18-inch wheels, the 17s here erase that model grade’s tendency to clunk and thump across chopped-up tarmac at speed. Less is more it seems, yet again.
The Golf is so highly polished that some sharpness and engagement is lacking, while it takes picking $34,890 (plus orc) the 110kW/250Nm 110TSI Highline with R-Line package, just to match the Astra’s sportiness. Even then, it’s a case of auto-only.
The Astra was tested by Euro NCAP in 2016 and it scored 32.9 out of 38 points.
Safety Features: Dual front, front-side and full-length curtain airbags, ABS and ESC, front and rear parking sensors with automatic park assistance, reverse-view camera, lane-keep assistance, blind-spot monitor and forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking (AEB).
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/100,000km.
Servicing: Capped-price servicing program includes annual/15,000km checks at an extremely affordable cost of $229 for each of the first four dealer visits until four years or 60,000km.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
We have discussed the Golf and Mazda3, but what about the others?
Well the Focus is feeling its age, but the subtly sporting Sport remains the pick of the bunch, particularly in manual form. An Elantra SR lost to the Astra RS-V in a recent comparison test, but will soon be joined by the more stylish, all-new i30 SR hatch.
The Peugeot 308 is most like the Holden in terms of being both fun and refined, but it’s auto-only, ergonomically messy and questionable value by comparison.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
This Holden shines because it successfully mixes in domestic small car attributes (comfort, ergonomics, technology, value, ride comfort) with a subtle skew of sportiness towards performance, steering and handling.
Having tested the R automatic and RS-V manual, we can confidently say that this RS manual is the sweet spot of the new Astra range. If an auto is required, then thankfully the 1.6-litre versions share the superb calibration of the 1.4-litre.
The RS seems to make a Mazda3 SP25 feel needlessly noisy and firm, while showing up the polished Golf 92TSI Comfortline for dynamics – although it isn’t as refined and crafted as the latter, which will soon get more power in facelifted trim.
Ah yes, a Volkswagen facelift. Whether the Holden Astra absolutely nabs class leadership simply must wait until mid-year. But history could be about to repeat.
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