Opel Astra: First Drive: 2010 Opel Astra

The old GM might have been a bad car company, but it was launching some seriously good cars, especially (but not limited to) the ones developed at Opel in Germany. The Opel Insignia is current European Car of the Year, which bodes well for the related Buick LaCrosse and Regal. Now Opel has done it again with the new Astra. Honestly it's one of the best compact hatchbacks made anywhere in the world, a car fit to take on the VW Golf for refinement and driving ability.

But for Americans, the meaning of all this is uncertain. The Astra was originally supposed to provide the basis for a Saturn and a Saab, but GM has jettisoned those brands, as well as Opel itself.

Of course, New GM might well have access to this platform. At this writing, an MOU has been signed with Russia's Sberbank and Magna that will give New GM a 35-percent stake in Opel. How it might use it is uncertain, and even the final signing of the Magna deal is not a foregone conclusion.

The 174-inch Astra has a three-inch-longer wheelbase than its predecessor, the car sold unsuccessfully here as the Saturn Astra. It also has a much more sweeping look. Distinctive elements include arrowhead jewelry in the light clusters, a sculpted blade in the bodyside, and strong shoulders. The photo car wears 19-inch wheels, though our tester has more reasonable 225/50 17 tires. 2010 Opel Astra Rear Click to view Gallery

The interior derives much of its upscale feel and design from the Insignia. The sweeping center stack has finger-friendly switchgear that manages to carry out a wide range of tasks without the need for an iDrive-type controller. Habitability is helped by an array of cabin storage, including a big console bin enabled by the presence of an electric park brake switch instead of a foot-long manual handle.

Ex-GM product czar Bob Lutz used to talk about producing vehicle architectures with the flexibility to use a set of different suspensions, depending on how premium the result needed to be. The Astra is an example. It's the same platform as the Chevy Cruze, but the suspension gets some notable refinements. At the front, it has the same lower control arms as the Cruze, but there are supplementary rebound springs in the suspension to take the load off the front anti-roll bar and reduce understeer. At the rear, the torsion beam axle is supplemented by a Watts linkage, which affords better axle articulation than the more typical (and cheaper) Panhard rod. This design allows the bushings that take the lateral loads to be separated from those that take the longitudinal. The former are stiff -- for handling finesse -- while the latter are soft for ride comfort. 2010 Opel Astra Front Three Quarter Click to view Gallery 2010 Opel Astra Rear Three Quarter Click to view Gallery 2010 Opel Astra Side Click to view Gallery

It works. The previous Astra was fun to take through curves, but its ride was jittery. The new one has even more precision and resistance to understeer, while at the same time showing the sort of ride comfort that makes the VW Golf the class-leader for long-distance use. The Astra, like the Golf in Europe, can be ordered with an adaptive damping system that spreads the compromise wider still.

For highway work, the smooth suspension is aided and abetted by a good sound-deadening package and strong directional stability. Firmly supportive seats and a clear control layout do their bit too.

The test car uses GM's 178 horsepower, 1.6-liter turbo, the mainstay of its downsizing strategy in Europe where it does the work of the former 2.0-liter four. This is the top gasoline engine at launch, though a 2.0-liter turbo with 237 horsepower will make it in the Astra OPC, a feisty competitor to the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Other motors include a range of diesels from 94 to 158 horsepower. If you're on a European vacation and the car-rental rep hands you the keys to an Astra with the base unturbocharged 99-horse gasoline motor, we'd suggest you plead for an upgrade. 2010 Opel Astra Interior Click to view Gallery

That Astra OPC will use next year's two-door Astra body, which has even more pronounced shoulders, coupelike side glass, and a smaller more waspish hatchback. There will also be a station wagon and a seven-seat minivan called Zafira, which is a strong seller in Europe. The Astra range has included a coupe-convertible up to now, but a new one is doubtful in these challenging times -- more likely is a sedan, necessary for markets such as Russia.

Before Chapter 11, noises coming out of GM were that Opel could share more with Buick. If Buick needed a small car, if it maintains relations with Opel, and if the sedan version of the Astra goes into production, a Buick-badged edition would be a significantly more premium machine than a Chevy Cruze. But that's a lot of ifs.

    See also:

    Redefined design vocabulary
    Like the signature crease on the hood, a blade form has been chiseled into the side, signposting a styling element that becomes another defining characteristic of future Opel cars. Other unmistaka ...

    Apply footbrake
    illuminates yellow. The engine with manual transmission automated can only be started if the foot brake is depressed. If the foot brake is not depressed, the control indicator illuminates. ...

    Transmission display
    Transmission display Shows the mode and current gear. The display flashes for a few seconds when A, M or R is selected with the engine running and the foot brake not activated. ...