I’m a man on a mission.
All too many of my rock ’n’ roll heroes have died recently, so I’m intent on seeing as many of those still touring and performing as I can.
The 60s and 70s are widely regarded as the greatest era of recorded music, and one of my idols had hits through that period – Vincent Damon Furnier. Otherwise known as Alice Cooper, the godfather of shock rock performed recently in Wellington, and I seized the chance to see him play.
Considering I had an Interislander voucher to use up, I chose to drive to Picton and sail to the capital on the ferry.
Well, it was a bit of mission getting to Picton from Christchurch, requiring the long inland route after the Kaikoura earthquake took care of the coast road, although now that road has been reopened.
The car I had for the seven-hour drive on the inland route was Holden’s Astra R hatch and it was perfect for the journey – quiet, comfortable, capable and economical. The entry-level Astra is a 1.4-litre model with manual transmission, a six-speed unit.
There is another engine available in the Astra line-up, notably a 1.6, but the 1399cc turbocharged unit is a real honey. There was never a point where I thought it wasn’t up to the task. Holden claims power outputs of 110kW and 245Nm which are generous for an engine of this size, and if you take into account the areas where maximum torque arrives – 2000rpm to 4000rpm – it’s not working to fill the transmission gaps, turbo lag is almost non-existent.
To be honest, I mostly used the driver selectable sport mode, it’s management protocols tend to make the throttle a little more lively, and it will even allow the engine to relax slightly as you back off the accelerator for changes, but the engine still picks up sweetly even if you short shift, such as I did as a fuel saving measure.
On that subject, Holden claim a 5.8-litre per 100km (48mpg) combined cycle average. Having covered almost 1000km at mostly highway speed, the evaluation car’s fuel usage readout was constantly listing 6.6l/100km (43mpg), and it was good to see the average constantly lowing, even in the uphill sections. At 100km/h the instantaneous readout shows around 5l/100km (56mpg), which are all impressive figures.
On the subject of figures, the Astra in this form will also accelerate keenly. Sure, it isn’t a sports car, but with an under 10sec time to make 100km/h from a standstill, it is no slouch either, easily keeping pace during the hard yards. It will also complete an overtaking manoeuvre (80km/h to 120km/h) in 6sec. I had many overtaking opportunities, the turbo delivers at all points of the rev band and gearing, the Astra R constantly feels lively.
The Astra in all forms is an adept handler. High grade models in the range do have the benefit of an upgraded rear suspension in the form of a Watts linkage in conjunction with the multiple link mechanicals, however, the entry-level car doesn’t get that, but it still has contained suspension movement, the rear end feels tightly connected with the road.
The other benefit of fully independent suspension systems is to promote ride and handling qualities. That is taken care of without too much firming, in my introduction I mentioned how comfortable the Astra is, the spring and damper rates are set soft-to-medium and the ride is glorious. The road from St Arnoud through the Wairau Valley is taking a pounding from the increased traffic, bumps and ruts are everywhere.
Road crews are working to repair it, but there are always areas where the surface is uneven, the Astra dealt to the big hits with dignity, quickly settling suspension movement. The Astra also turns sweetly into a corner, it can be pushed through the steering and doesn’t rely on the quality of the tyres (225/45 x 17in Michelin), there is little to suggest that the neutrality noticed through the steering is going to manifest in any other form.
The Astra R proved itself on that long hike, it is a value model which offers a reasonable level of fitment for a $30,990 price tag. Sure, it’s simple, there’s not a lot of gadgetry, but there is everything that will satisfy, and it gets a five-star Australasian New Car Assessment Program rating.
The Astra range in New Zealand is very extensive. Holden is marketing the line-up as a complete series for a vast array of buyers. As I’ve eluded to recently in my sedan evaluation, it is my favourite; but I’m smitten with the entry-level manual hatch, and it must be said that it performed admirably when I asked a lot from it.
Up and down the north of the South Island is a challenge given the distance, but if I had to face that drive again in the same car I wouldn’t hesitate.
It’s a car that offers a lot for little outlay, it’s a European design but it feels right at home on New Zealand roads.
Price – Holden Astra R, $30,990
Dimensions – Length, 4386mm; width, 2042mm; height, 1485mm
Configuration – Four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive, 1399cc, 110kW, 245Nm, six-speed manual.
Fuel usage – 5.8l/100km