Check this little pic to the left. That's quite an important badge for a manufacturer to have bestowed on them, and right now it belongs to the all-new Opel Astra. The award was announced in March before the local launch of the the car. This has me wondering that if the Astra made it to SA just a few months earlier, would it have taken the SA Car of the Year title? I'd bet good money that it could have, would have and should have - this car is just that damn good. I know that I'm not on the review/launch list for all the manufacturers in SA, but I've still managed to drive most of the cars that the new Astra competes against and I do believe it has what it takes to rule the roost.
For the launch, I was flown down to East London where the Astra was revealed to us, it's clearly an important car for Opel as all the main players were there to tell us about the brand, the car and their future motoring plans for SA and the world. You won't get all the info here, just know that Opel are on a massive offensive and what they're doing is clearly paying off - the sales figures don't lie.
After the presentation came the good bit, we headed outside to see a fleet of new Astras in all guises waiting for us. The plan was to drive from East London to Port Elizabeth, the home of Opel South Africa. We'd be driving to a few pre-selected locations for driver and car swaps, but something odd happened, myself and co-pilot Justin Jacobs never managed to swap cars. This wasn't a bad thing as the car we ended up in all day was the top of the range, the 1.6T Sport in manual. A car that I'd be in many times over the launch.
It's never a bad thing starting with the daddy car, it has all the bells and whistles and the biggest engine of the lot. Well, these days the biggest doesn't mean big, it's "only" a 1.6. But it has boooooost, which means the small capacity lump still pushes out a very healthy 147kW with 280Nm of torque (300Nm on overboost), enough to get the car to hit 235km/h on top. 0-100km/h happens in 7-seconds but with that torque kicking in at just 1700rpm, the new Astra feels quicker than the numbers suggest. The ratios in the new 6-speed manual 'box work just right too. Even in higher gears there's not really any need to downshift to get the car to gallop. The new lump is claimed to use just 6.1 litres/100km, but that's something you'll never see on a launch.
The route we drove on was brilliant, and it was long enough to get to grips with the new Astra. The car has more than enough power, but it has all the usual safety features in play with a bunch of new ones, features that make it a brilliant car. The best bit is the Opel Eye front camera that comes with it's own set of features. It monitors the IntelliLux LED Matrix System and introduces a host of new acronyms like TSA (Traffic Sign Assistance), LDW (Lane Departure Warning), LKA (Lane Keep Assist), FDI (Following Distance Indication), FCA (Forward Collision Alert) and LSCMB (Low Speed Collision Mitigation Braking). The names are quite self-explanatory, and on the drive we got to feel them all. With the following distance one you can set the sensitivity so that people cutting in front of you doesn't upset things. The FCA isn't something you want to test, but we did manage to. A truck with no taillights stopped dead at a small 4-way stop and while we weren't speeding, the Astra picked it up and the collision warning popped up on screen in the centre of the gauge cluster and also on the windscreen via a HUD module. Impressive stuff, but kak scary if you didn't realise it was active and all of a sudden the car starts swearing at you.
How does it drive though? It's fantastic! Power delivery is great, there's never a feeling of any lag or dead spots in the rev range. The Astra pulls hard through to the redline (tested to legal speeds of course). On the twisties the Astra sticks to the tarmac and when things tighten up it has no problem firming up. It helps having filtered down technology from the current Astra OPC in it's underpinnings. All the driver aids work well too, they warn you like they're supposed to and they're not too intrusive either, unless they need to be. The cockpit is a comfortable place, the fit and finish is great - the tagline for the Astra is "Upset the upper class" and it doesn't just do that on tech and features, it can do that on build quality and the fit and finish of everything. Seats are sports seats that keep you in place, but that was expected since the seats in all the new Opels are great. If only an OPC version was on the cards...
When we reached P.E we had a little breather before it was time for a night drive along one of the beachfront roads to be able to test the absolutely fantastic IntelliLux LED Matrix System. When I got to the meeting point, all the cars were 4-up and there was no space for me, so I was directed to a black Astra that I had all to myself. I started it up and it synced to my phone straight away - it was the same car I'd spent the day in. Bonus. So with some Slipknot blasting I headed out into the darkness. Well it was the darkness until the Astra arrived. IntelliLux is hard to describe without seeing it first hand - the release does it best I reckon:
"The IntelliLux LED Matrix system consists of 8 LED light sections per headlight, which can be individually activated and in total, constitute the high beam light distribution. These are controlled via the Opel Eye front camera, which registers the preceding and on-coming traffic, as well as recognising ambient light, for example street lighting in urban areas. Driving data, such as steering angle, speed and turn indicator activation, are also added to this input. From this information the system calculates in real time which LED segments must be deactivated in order not to dazzle other road users. Because every LED segment only lights a small section of the road, any area can be darkened dynamically, following precisely the position of the detected vehicle. The area around the darkened section remains optimally lit. The benefit of the system is that there is optimal illumination of the road in every situation, while the headlights stay on high beam around the darkened section. The IntelliLux LED Matrix system also offers other automatically activated functions:
Urban light – Whenever street lighting is recognised, at under 55 km/h the system switches to an optimal town headlight setting (similar to dipped beam).
Highway Light – Through specific data analysis the system recognises when the car is underway on a multi-lane highway. From 105 km/h the light distribution on the left lane is reduced to exclude glaring, also when the lanes are separated by guardrails.
Country light – From 55 km/h the light performance is increased.
Static Curve/Cornering Light – In response to steering wheel activation and other vehicle data, curves are illuminated at speeds between 0 and 70 km/h.
Energy Saving Mode – When fitted with the Start/Stop System, IntelliLux LED Matrix system automatically goes into energy-saving mode when the vehicle is standing still.
Parking Light – Selecting reverse activates both side-orientated reflectors and the reversing lights to light the area beside and behind the car."
On the 2nd day of the launch we headed out to Opel's Vehicle Distribution Centre to see a bit of the way Opels are handled in SA. It's a moer of an operation, the scale of it is pretty mind blowing. The short tour was great, and finally having a chance to see Microdot, well, dots, up close was cool. We were divided into two groups, one would go on a drive to test a bunch of the features of the new Astra (some didn't get to see and feel the stuff on the previous day), while the other group got to test the car's dynamic handling on a short gymkhana circuit. I did the drive first (and cleverly left my phone in the car so I couldn't use it to share pics and updates for ages, which I blame for costing me the win in a social media competition that was running).
On the short track, things were being timed - queue competitive journalist mode. I loved this part, any chance to drive a car on a track rocks. This part gets special mention too, but only because I WAS SECOND FASTEST! Martin Pretorius beat me, I did only get in two good runs out of three (I got lost on Run 1 - warrachop!). Getting to feel all the driver aids is always cool - I think every person buying a new car should be offered a course like this so they know what they're buying. The best bit about this little race session? I was in that same black Astra again. I think that may be a sign...
When I heard rumour of the pricing I thought it was a lot - but once seeing the car, driving it and also seeing that looooong list of tech packed into it, the pricing is good. SA has many loyal Opel fans, and this new car may just bring fans of other manufacturers over to the Opel side.
New Opel Astra Models and Pricing:
1.4T Enjoy MT
1.4T Enjoy AT
1.4T Sport MT
1.4T Sport AT
1.6T Sport MT
1.6T Sport PLUS MT
Astra Hatch Enjoy Driver Assist Pack (Opel Eye Front Camera System) R6 300-00
Astra Hatch Essentia R 4.0 IntelliLink R4 000-00
Astra Hatch Sport Navi 900 IntelliLink R 10700-00
All new Opel Astras come with 5-year/120 000km Warranty & Roadside Assistance;
5 Years/Unlimited Kilometer Anti-Corrosion Warranty and a 5-year/90 000km Service Plan