Vauxhall’s 16-valve engines have long been appreciated for providing levels of driveability that were but distant dreams for other merchants of four-valve-per-cylinder technology. On the plus side, the 150 bhp jewel was blessed with oceans of torque. The trouble was finding a chassis worthy of it. “Once driven, forever smitten” claimed the marketing men. In reality, for those who drove early 16v Astra GTEs, it was a case of “Once driven, forever torque-steering on anything other than a dead straight road”.
It was not a short-term problem.
When the ageing, vaguely ovoid MkII Astra was finally usurped by the current model, the feeling was that Vauxhall still had work to do if the range-topping GSi was to win admirers and, more importantly, customers. Put simply, the Astra was not as good as its components suggested it should be: it looked the part, and the engine remained as sweet as ever, particularly as selective modifications (reinforced block, revised head, larger inlet port and uprated Bosch Motronic management) have further boosted torque (to a whisker under 145 lb ft at an entirely reasonable 4,600 rpm). The suspension, however, could have come straight from a Rolls-Royce . . . circa 1910. Or that’s the way it appeared on British roads. It probably wasn’t quite so bad in Opel-land, on pimple-free German autobahns, and it wasn’t long before GM’s trouble-shooters were brought in to give the Astra a good throttling on some of the UK’s worst pot holes.
Revised steering: a quicker rack (with around half a turn less lock) has removed some of the duller edges of the original system. It still isn’t wholly communicative, but it feels a great deal sharper.
Modified front suspension: stiffer bushing has reduced the former tendency of the front wheels to patter around on what passes, on these shores, for a road surface.
Smaller wheels: these have been reduced from 15 inches to 14, and low-profile 205/50 rubber has been ditched in favour of smaller, taller 195/60 tyres. Ride quality is said to be improved (a process additionally aided by the adoption of shorter bump rubbers in the front suspension), which has eradicated the original’s fondness for tramlining.
Finally, the electronic traction control has been fine-tuned, so that power is reduced less abruptly whenever the system (which, for the benefit of the mechanically insensitive, can be switched off) detects the onset of wheelspin.
Vauxhall has to be admired for admitting, so soon after the GSi’s launch, that it had goofed. In some ways, it was a bit like a school pupil being handed back several terms’ work and asked to resubmit it, but the response was laudable, for the Astra GSi has been transformed
And positively so.
While it still has a few of the usual vices associated with powerful front-wheel drive, it has been refined beyond recognition. Perhaps we should have guessed when trying the Corsa GSi recently (see Motor Sport, December 1993) that Vauxhall had finally got its small-car act together. The Astra merely acts as further proof.
The standard equipment list is good (it includes a full-size driver’s airbag and Vauxhall’s effective stereo system with its neat, separate components), and at long last there is a visible fog light warning within the instrument binnacle.
The best news, by far, however, is that its reserves of performance (137 mph, and 0-60 mph in 7.5s are claimed) are now readily accessible and can be achieved without causing your teeth to drop out. S A