Model: Holden Astra SRi Turbo
Price as tested: $34,990
Distance covered: 340kms
Road tester: Russell Williamson
Date tested: June 2006
With petrol prices continuing to head north, Australian car-buyers are slowly but surely thinking carefully about their next new car purchase with a resultant boom in small cars. But small doesn't necessarily mean slow with no shortage of players offering hot hatches to add some spice to the small-car equation.
Holden's entrant is the latest generation Astra SRi Turbo. Last seen here in 2004, the turbo three-door hatch carries over that car's 2.0-litre turbo engine with some minor improvements which has resulted in an increase in torque of 12Nm to a peak of 262Nm while the maximum power stays the same at 147kW.
It is now mated to a six-speed manual gearbox -- compared to the previous generation's five-speed -- enabling better use of the engine's strong low to mid-range grunt.
Visually, the car looks the part with a subtle body kit, lowered profile and fat 225/40 rubber wrapped around 18-inch alloy rims. Although strictly speaking the car is a three-door hatch, Holden likes to call it a coupe and its sleek profile -- it is actually about 40mm longer than the standard three-door Astra hatch -- makes the tag justified.
Priced at $34,990, it is at the top end of the range, with only the Astra convertible being more expensive, but it still packs plenty of bang for the buck, both in terms of the drive and specification. This is especially true when you consider that it undercuts all of its main rivals -- VW Golf GTi, Ford Focus XR5 Turbo et al -- and even its predecessor with $2000 shaved off the price of the old TS model.
As a premium product, standard features include heated leather-trimmed sports seats, climate control air-conditioning, power windows and mirrors, remote locking, a premium six-stack CD audio system, cruise control, six airbags, ABS and ESP.
Slip into the comfortable and supportive driver's seat and there are plenty of adjustments -- steering column rake and reach, seat height and tilt, fore and aft and backrest -- to ensure a very good driving position.
With its lower rear roofline, rear seat headroom is a bit tight for adults but more than adequate for smaller occupants. But this was a car designed to be driven and that is where it really excels.
From the minute you turn the key and prod the accelerator, there is a strong surge of power through the front wheels that gets the car off the line in swift fashion. A really strong thrust of the right foot does induce a little noticeable torque steer but it is not enough to be of any great concern. The standard six-speed manual gearbox is slick and smooth with a well-defined gate for quick and efficient shifts.
While the engine is strong off the line, it gets another life altogether between about 3000 and 6000rpm when a quick push of the right foot with the gearshift locked into second or third produces an instant and urgent reaction forward.
Holden calls the suspension IDSPlus and although it retains the standard car's essential configuration of front MacPherson strut and rear torsion beam, it adds adaptive electronically controlled continuous damping control (CDC).
This system uses five bodywork sensors that relay information to the car's computer to continually adjust the dampers for the optimum compromise between ride and handling. It is switchable between Sport and standard modes with the former providing firmer dampers, faster throttle response and quicker steering.
In the standard mode, the ride feels surprisingly compliant and comfortable over rough tram track-riddled and patched-up urban arterial roads. Surprising, because with such big wheels and low profile tyres and sports suspension tune, we expected something harsher but it wasn't to be.
Switched into Sport mode, the ride is noticeably firmer and can get a little jiggly over rougher tarmac, but it is still not what you would describe as harsh.
There are however, benefits to be had in terms of the handling and although the standard setting delivers a responsive and cooperative chassis, in Sport mode, it steps up another level.
Pushing hard through tight twisting roads, the car sits down flat and solid on the road with superb grip from the big tyres further boosting confidence to push even harder. The seats do a good job of keeping you firmly in place although the side bolsters could be a bit firmer and are not up to the standard of the Recaros in Ford's XR5.
The steering too, while reasonably weighted and direct lacks that final precision offered by some of its competitors.
The brakes are hugely effective and should things get a little too slippery, the traction control, ABS and ESP systems intervene with a degree of subtlety that ensures you don't lose momentum mid corner.
Hot hatches can often end up being compromised in dynamics being either too firm for city streets or too soft for challenging country roads, but it seems Holden's switchable adaptive system is spot on offering the best of both worlds. With a superb driveline that delivers on its promises and sharp pricing, the new Astra SRi Turbo is certainly up there with the best of breed.