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July 2, 2002

Review: 2002 Opel Astra Club Sedan

It was around two years ago when we last stepped into an Opel.  As competent as the Astra was, back then we concluded that the Honda Civic and the Ford Lynx—our top two for the 1.6-liter segment had nothing to fear from this diminutive German car. However, much like enjoying a good French wine, a single two-hour sitting may not do enough justice to this car.  So this time, we’re taking a four-day affair in the hopes of confirming our original findings—or else swallow our pride and admit  that we made some booboos before.

The Opel Astra’s exterior is an oxymoron, much like the rest of the car’s attributes.  From the outside, it is stylishly bland.  It blends well into Philippine roads especially in anonymous silver or black.  However, the nicely chiseled body is break from the swooping Japanese curves that have swarmed our roads for years.  The thick C-pillars also give the Astra a good solid line and a more substantial stance.  It is also rich in detail especially in the way the creases all blend together, especially around the hood and the trunk.

However, as good as the details are, the Astra fails to tickle the taste buds of the typical motorist.  The short and low body coupled with small looking wheels (they are actually 15-inchers), don’t do this German a lot of favors in the aesthetics department.  More so, the Japanese and even the Americans are getting good in creating delightful details as could be found in the latest Ford Lynx, Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla Altis.  

The body panels are consistently tight and are probably the best thing that this car offers.  Opel claims that this car uses thicker metal panels than the competition—a quality all too evident from the confident and muffled door ‘thunk’.

Inside, the Opel Astra is a mixed bag.  At first glance, this is the best Opel yet with a consistently finished cabin.  Although it does not have leather or wood as standard, the Opel contains, what could be termed as, ‘standard German’.  By this, we would mean that everything feels bank-vault solid.

However, being solidly built doesn’t mean that the interior is all praiseworthy.  In fact, the quality of plastics is quite similar in feel to household appliances: smooth, hard and cold.  Though the major switchgear such as the power windows feel all right, the Astra lacks the cuddling feel of even the coldest Japanese 1.6-liter car—the Honda Civic.

Thus though this car may look small and cutesy from the outside, don’t expect the same treatment from the interior, especially after a long day’s drive.

Supposedly designed for use on the German Autobahn, there is this immediate image that the Astra should do excellently in the acceleration and top speed departments.  Sadly, this is not the case.

Measuring at only 4242 mm long, the small bodied Astra actually feels like a larger sedan than its dimensions suggest.  That’s not good especially at a time when Mercedes-Benz and BMW are designing their S-class and 7-series to handle like their mainstream C-class and 3-series sedans respectively.

The lardy perception of the Opel Astra is not the problem of a single driving component.  Rather, it is how these supposedly good components don’t work as well together, thus transforming a car full of potential into a semi-nightmare of sorts.

First, the 1.6-liter Ecotec inline-4 engine does pretty well for itself, producing 110 bhp at 6,000 rpm and 150 Nm of torque at a low 3,600 rpm.  Mated to a 4-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission, the Astra does 0-100 km/h in roughly 13.5 seconds.  Though the ingredients may all seem promising, the Astra ends up feeling awfully slow.  It seems that the 110 horses are all kept on a tight leash even when depressing the rightmost pedal nearly all the way down.

Engaging the sport mode induces horrible shift shock, but gives the Astra a much needed performance boost.  This time, it’s as if all the horses have broken free as the engine gives out a turbo-like whine—beautiful—all the way to its 6,800 rpm redline.

Second, a supposedly inherent characteristic of small cars is quick and precise steering.  Unfortunately, the Astra fails to deliver here as well.  Though the car has body roll kept under tight control, and the McPherson Strut front and Twist-Beam Axle rear suspension are set-up for a sportier character, this Opel’s steering ratio is too slow.  This requires more steering action especially if you want to carve in and out of Manila traffic.

It is a shame since the Astra’s chassis carries a lot of grip and the steering is precise, especially at high speeds.

Third, the brakes are a combination of front vented discs and rear drums with standard anti-lock system—a set-up similar to the Honda Civic VTi-S.  However, unlike the under-braked Civic, the Astra performs well, bringing this 1194 kilogram car to a dead halt with precise pedal feel.  As good as the pedal feel is, the Astra has a heavier pedal than the Japanese cars', thus requiring more leg effort to gain adequate stopping power.

Lastly, the biggest problem with the Astra is the most invisible hood, even with the driver’ seat raised all the way up.  It seems that the designers did not want the front-end to be seen at all costs.  This could be a problem, especially when it comes to tight-maneuver parking.  A slight shame actually as this could have given the equally-sized Honda City and Kia Rio a solid thrashing.

If the driving experience is still best left to the Japanese and the Americans, could the Opel Astra possibly fight the two in terms of comfort?  In some ways, yes and in some ways, no.

On the positive note, the Opel Astra does come with a powerful aircon.  The blower emits a breezy Mount Everest feel that fogs up the front windshield even during mid-morning operation.  More than just the ventilation controls, the standard stereo with CD player (an upgrade from the 2000 model that only has a stereo cassette) comes with good audio clarity thanks to its standard 8-speaker system (including front and rear tweeters).

The seats offer good lateral support and are very comfortable, even in long distance driving.  Front space is a bit tight, since the center console openly obtrudes into valuable front foot-well space.  However, they are adequate for small to average-sized occupants.  The story is true also for the rear passengers.  Though the three separate rear headrests may suggest a total seating capacity of five people, the Astra is best left with just four inside.

The suspension is a mixed experience.  Though it does pretty well when it comes to large potholes and road joints (despite its small size and non-independent rear set-up), it still has much to be desired when it comes to long stretches of uneven roads as the jitters are transferred all the way to the passengers.  The cabin also fails to block out outside noise such as street vendors and the like.  Tire howl is very evident, especially at high speeds.

Since the Astra was launched into the market last 2000, some owners have become regulars at our website, submitting their tales of both satisfaction and woe when it comes to ownership.

Generally, most have liked the solidity of the car, especially given its sub-one million price tag.  However, there are some bothersome problems when it comes to durability.  The Opel Astra commonly suffers from steering wheel jiggles, easily worn-out brakes (especially the rear brakes) and a rather fragile Twist-Beam Axle.

That said, service and parts are also hard to come by.  Owners have usually complained of some parts requiring a long wait to get replaced.  Some said that replacement of even simple things such as the car’s battery require an expensive visit to an Opel service center as the German marque’s size is not readily available from Motolite and other local manufacturers.

Though the Opel Astra’s price has put it into contention with the likes of the Honda Civic, Ford Lynx, Nissan Exalta and Toyota Corolla Altis, it still lacks the pizzazz and the character to woo a possible buyer.  What’s more, the playing field has been leveled in terms of features as even the most basic of the 1.6-liter cars all have what the Opel Astra has: airbag, ABS, CD player and keyless entry / immobilizer.  What’s more, some like the Ford Lynx Ghia already have a moon roof, a 6-disc CD changer, four-wheel disc and leather seats as standard at almost 100,000 pesos less!

The Astra is not just a tool. Like many German sedans, it turns out to be a cold, unemotional device, much like using a Stanley hammer right out of the freezer.

Right now, it is hard to justify the Opel Astra as the best buy when it comes to the 1.6-liter segment.  Even after doing a longer stint this time around, it seems that we were right all along—the Japanese and the Americans have nothing to fear.

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