Astral Projection

For some while the Astra GTE appeared to become the forgotten sports-hatch; although there was a good deal of noise when the original GTE arrived, the newer shape somehow became left behind as new arrivals like the Lancia Delta HF Turbo and the 16-valve Golf pushed the horsepower standard up to 130-plus. Now it is back in the hunt, with 124 bhp to play with.

No turbos or multivalve heads here: the new engine, which also finds its way into the Cavalier SRi, has been on a muscle-building course based on traditional tuning methods. Step one, increase the capacity— this goes up from 1800cc to the full two litres. Step two, raise the compression ratio, from 9.2:1 to 10.0:1. Install modified camshafts, improve the engine’s breathing, and of course add the latest in electronic fuel injection and engine management — in this case a Bosch ML4 Motronic system incorporating a diagnostic memory — and your new powerhouse should be ready.

This sort of recipe can often result in a car which is less pleasant to drive because flexibility has been lost. However, Vauxhall has avoided this pitfall by radically revising the basic design of the unit: the block is lighter, as are the pistons and connecting rods, the combustion chamber design has been improved, and internal friction is substantially reduced.

Instead of the somewhat harsh and undoubtedly noisy character of the 1800 version, the GTE 2.0 benefits from a far smoother engine which is at last willing to rev freely and has much more eager throttle response. Not only has the peak power gone up to 124 bhp, but the torque figure of 127 lb ft arrives at a mere 2600 rpm, in line with Vauxhall’s promotion of what it calls its LET (Low End Torque) philosophy.

Interestingly, the same 2-litre engine fitted to the Cavalier SRi 130 squeezes out an extra 6 bhp (hence the 130 tag), apparently because of variations in the exhaust run. It also manages a couple of extra pounds of torque, though at 2000 rpm further round the dial. A further advantage of the Motronic system on both cars is that the owner can switch from leaded to unleaded fuel by rotating a small plug under the bonnet.

Translating these changes into sensations on the road, the small drop in 0-60 mph acceleration times (our average figure was 8.8 sec, with one reading of 8.5) and the extra 4 mph on top speed (up to 127 mph) are of little more than academic interest compared to the appreciable gains in the mid-range. In its new form the single-cam four gives the driver both options: when overtaking he can stay in fourth gear and allow the torque to spin the speedometer needle up, or he can flick the lever down into third and use the engine’s new-found willingness to rev. Either way the car has much more punch than before, with a pleasing rasp from the unusual oval exhaust-pipe.

Overall the feel of the car remains the same, with a light clutch and gearchange and a relaxing, rather upright driving posture which allows the unassisted steering wheel to be twirled quickly when negotiating roundabouts. It feels a little slow for second gear manoeuvres, and the keen press-on driver might wish for a higher ratio even at the penalty of higher parking loads, although the tyres are a reasonably modest 185-section which are unlikely to strain anyone.

Absorbing the bumps at the front is a pair of MacPherson struts with gas pre-loading, while the back end is suspended by GM’s variation on trailing arms, which it calls a “compound crank”, in which the two arms are linked by an integral beam. Acting on the arms are space-saving “minibloc” coil-springs, wound so that the coils fit one inside the other, making the compressed unit very shallow, while the telescopic dampers stand vertically close to the wheel and thus do not intrude into the luggage area.

A hatch, which opens right down to bumper-level, makes for easy loading, though the unequally-split rear seat does not fold down quite flat. And the hatch was particularly awkward to close as there is nothing to grip. Provision is made for storing the rear parcel shelf vertically behind the rear or front seats.

Interior appointments are straightforward: there is little in the GTE that cannot be found in lesser Astra, apart from a check panel covering oil, water, washer and brake fluid, bulb failures, and front brake pad wear. This is situated in the back edge of the neat dash-top tray, which would be more useful if there was a lip to stop objects cascading into the passenger’s lap. Below this tray are a glove compartment and an open cubby which offer welcome stowage. In the centre of the fascia, between two fresh-air vents, is a clock, which for a pleasant change is a round one with hands which can be read with the ignition off.

In contrast, the instrumentation is all LCD , as is Vauxhall’s habit on the top model of each range, and is only partly successful. All these systems have a problem of legibility in sunlight, which is an intermittent nuisance, even in Britain. But why the insistence on using a digital display for speed? In this case the subsidiary gauges have a graphical output which is perfectly readable, and the tachometer lights up in a representation of the power curve — a little gimmicky perhaps, but acceptable. Yet speed comes up in large flickering figures which can be very distracting at times.

It is not the LCD principle which is at fault (the sunlight problem apart); an all-electronic system with no moving parts is obviously what the industry will move towards. But how long is it going to take before designers of these devices recognise that a swivelling needle also gives extra information? Apart from actual speed, the driver also receives an idea of the rate-of-change of speed, and what proportion of the scale remains, and in addition the needle’s angle can be read out of the corner of the eye. I should be quite happy with an LCD display which reproduced this rotary motion, as indeed the tack does on the new Senator.

In the top corners of the binnacle are a rotary lamps switch and a push-on hazard warning switch, plus two push-switches below the former for front and rear fog lamps, although I see to my consternation that according to the Vauxhall handbook I have apparently been wrong all this time about which symbol means front and which rear. Can no-one think of anything clearer than two lamps, one pointing left and one right? And is this why 50% of motorway traffic (especially Volkswagens) drives with the rear foglamp perpetually on? Surely it would be simple to wire these lamps so that they are cancelled when the ignition is turned off.

Under the clock and conveniently placed is the radio/cassette, with the simple heating and ventilation sliders below, though these are rather indistinct at night. Ahead of the gearlever is a useful storage tray, with a cassette storage rack above it. Electrically adjustable and heated exterior mirrors are fine-tuned from a tiny joystick alongside the handbrake.

Overhead, the manual glass sunroof both tilts and slides with the aid of a small crank. There are separate left and right map-reading lamps, and the interior mirror has a novel twist-dip mechanism. Further aids to occupants’ comfort are the sprung pivoting arm which holds out the front seat belt, malting it easier to reach, and the adjustable steering column. High-sided seats with height-adjustment stop the driver sliding around too much, and new “Laser” trim with mild orange striping adds a cheerful note to the interior, although the moulded flock door-panels look rather cheap.

Vauxhall claims that the Cd figure for the GTE is the best in its class at 0.30. Flush seals between headlamp and bumper and between grille and bonnet help to present a smooth front to the airstream, and the air-intake has been reduced to the minimum area needed, to reduce internal drag within the engine compartment. Even the mounting point for the detachable towing hook is covered by a plastic flap in the lower lip of the front airdam, while subtle extended sills and rear-arch lip help to shroud the wider tyres of this performance variant.

Covered channels on the roof deal with rain water, with sliding panels to reveal the integral roof-rack mounting paints. Seen from above, the car is slightly tear-drop in form, with a tapering tail to cut drag; this also means that the maximum width is available for the cabin. It certainly has a spacious feel, helped by the longer windows on this two-door body.

While the company does not claim to have revised the suspension in any way between the 1.8 and 2.0 versions of the GTE, the new one did seem to me to be much crisper and more able; perhaps simply because the superior power delivery allowed the car to be used harder through a series of bends without so many unsettling gearshifts. It does dart from side to side just a little under maximum power, but generally it exhibits good traction qualities, even momentary wheelspin failing to upset its course.

Throttle action was slightly sticky on our example, making traffic rather more stop-and-go than it need have been, but the response in fast driving was excellent, and well-matched to the gear ratios which are comfortably spaced. It is a pity that the throttle pedal is so far from the brake as to make it impossible to heel-and-toe, though. Braking performance from the ventilated disc and drum layout was well up to standard, even after several top speed runs on the test track, although the smell was briefly reminiscent of an Inter-City 125 slowing for Crewe Junction.

When tackling interesting and twisty roads, the little Astra shows a lot of poise, flicking from left to right obediently, and letting the new-found urge pull it smartly through. That steering could be a touch faster, but is at its best at higher speeds when the car can be inched in or out to avoid holes and kerbs without forgetting where it was going.

Its 185/60 VR 14 tyres endow it with plenty of adhesion without the drawback often felt on FWD cars with wider low-profile tyres, such as tram-lining or the risk of aquaplaning. Body movement is well-controlled, with little roll or pitch, and the ride quality is just the right side of firm. It is a pleasant combination overall, the sort of car which can be driven very precisely because of its predictability: the driver soon learns just how much the nose will tuck in if he closes the throttle, or how smartly it will dodge a pothole.

No-one could call the GTE a luxury car, with its plain plastic trim and hand-cranked windows, but it does include all the expected sporting attachments in its specification, including the rather attractive alloy wheels. It does not sound like a thoroughbred, and the power-unit looks a shade agricultural alongside the shiny window-dressing under oriental bonnets, but it is performance on the road which counts, and the new 2.0 Astra undoubtedly gives GM a contender in this high-profile market segment. It is visually more distinctive than a Golf GTi or a Lancia HF Turbo, and it is a true five-seater, unlike the Peugeot 205 GTi or Renault 5 Turbo. More refined than Fiat’s Abarth 130TC or the humbler Escort XR3i — well, the list could go on, but the Vauxhall, being a fine all-rounder at a little under £10,000, must certainly be on the list of anyone in this market. GC