Holden now has the 2016 European car of the year in its local stables. A starting price of just $21,990 gets you into one of the most technology-packed cars in its price bracket -- turbo engines and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto across the entire range, and on the top RS-V you also get Holden's first forward-facing, traffic-sensing camera and some very very cool headlights.
What Is It?
You might recognise the ad above; you might even recognise the Chevrolet ads from the US that it's based on. In that series, unsuspecting potential car buyers are asked questions about a de-badged car in front of them. Ooh, it's stylish, it's luxurious, it has all these fancy features -- is it a Renault? A VW? No, it's a Holden.
That's what Holden thinks the new Astra is going to do -- surprise you. And, to be honest, it surprised me. $22,000 is not a great deal of money in the car world, but in 2016 it gets you a lot of car. The 2016 Astra -- which can admittedly be specced as high as $37,180 in its top RS-V six-speed automatic guise with Holden's 'Innovation Pack' added (more on that later) -- is a hell of a tempting package.
The 2016 Astra comes in three spec levels. There's the $21,990 entry-level Astra R, which has a 1.4-litre 110kW turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine and a six-speed manual -- the auto is $24,190. That gets you into a four-door hatchback that has a surprising amount of interior room and a well-appointed dashboard for driver and passengers alike with a 7-inch colour touchscreen display that runs Holden's own in-car entertainment but that can also switch to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto when your phone is plugged in.
Stepping up to the $26,490 Astra RS gets you a 1.6-litre 147kW turbocharged four -- again, the auto is slightly more at $28,690 -- as well as a suite of driver-focused active safety features including automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning and active steering-wheel-nudging lane-keeping assistance, as well as interior accoutrements like a leather-wrapped steering wheel and smart keyless entry and start.
Then there's the top RS-V that steps up the outside looks with 18-inch wheels and LED tail-lamps, heated leather seats and an 8-inch touchscreen inside that adds integrated satellite nav -- not that you'd want it, again with CarPlay and Android Auto support built in as well. An Astra RS-V is $30,990 for the manual and $33,190 as an auto. You can add an electric sunroof and adaptive cruise control for $1990, or you can buy the 'Innovation Pack' that includes some trick new adaptive LED matrix headlights. Yep, matrix.
What's It Good At?
And those adaptive LED matrix headlights are the 2016 Holden Astra's crowning feature. Matrix means each headlight is in fact a bank of eight LEDs, but adaptive is where the cool bit starts. Drive along with your 2016 Astra's high-beam, full-power LED headlights blasting away the darkness, and when the car's front-facing camera detects another vehicle in front or oncoming, each LED in that bank of eight switches off individually so as to not dazzle that car with the bright light. We've tried it, it works, and it works so well that it's almost uncanny. You have to see it to believe it.
The safety suite that you get in the RS and RS-V -- it's also available as a $1000 option on the base R -- is excellent for the car's asking price, too. You get automatic emergency braking, a feature that really should be standard on all cars, since it's the kind of thing that saves both your live and the live of the driver of the car that you're accidentally hitting. The lane assist is something that some drivers will turn off -- and it can be annoying, sure, if you're the kind of driver that doesn't like that assistance, but for the daily freeway commute it's a genuine bonus.
It also helps that the new Astra is genuinely a fun car to drive. The 1.4-litre isn't going to win any performance awards, but the 1.6 has some get up and go in its manual variant and the auto shifts up and down with the mix of sureness and eagerness that compromises nicely between saving fuel and offering decent acceleration around town and on the highway. The suspension and (variable, electric) power steering have been tuned for Australian road conditions, too, and it just feels right for Aussie suburbs and freeways.
The 2016 Holden Astra is a nice car to be in, too. Even the base model is nicely appointed and while you do gain leather trim and a larger in-dash display when you move up the range, the most important thing in a car of the Astra's price and demographic target is the fact that it has space inside for its size. In one of our test drives of the Astra, we had four not-insubstantially-sized males in the car and plenty of space to spare. It's just a good place to spend some time, when some of its competitors are just OK.
What's It Not Good At?
This is an understandable criticism, but if you want the fully specced-out, technology-packed Astra then you're going to have to pay for that privilege. In a car that starts at $22,000, stepping up to that top RS-V with the awesome headlights and all the Holden Eye innovation can set you back over $37,000. That's a nearly 70 per cent premium on the entry price. Sure, it's a hell of a lot of cool stuff, and it's genuinely innovative to see in a car at its price point, but it's still a price premium.
It would have been nice, and genuinely innovative, to see those automatic safety features like lane-keeping and especially automatic emergency braking, on the base model circa-$22,000 car. As it stands, we'd highly recommend shelling out that extra $1000 at purchasing time just to get those Holden Eye-enabled safety features even if you're buying the base model Astra R. They might come in handy for that extra 5 per cent of the purchase price one day, and you'll surely get it back when it comes to the eventual resale price anyway.
There are a few areas where it seems like the lesser two models have been artificially hobbled to give a little bit more exclusivity to the top RS-V. The highest-end spec is the only car with a full-colour display in the driver's instrument cluster, for example, where the R and RS only get a monochrome portrait-orientation screen. Stop-start is an obvious reason to upgrade to the mid-range RS, which we think is the best compromise in price versus features -- but you miss out on those lovely matrix LED lights.
And while it's fantastic to see the smarts of forward-facing cameras filtering down to cars like the Astra rather than staying in the rarefied air of Tesla and Volvo and Mercedes-Benz, don't expect it to be a planet-changing, driving-altering addition in the way that Tesla's self-driving is. Holden Eye is an additive thing -- it's going to keep you safe and stop you from crashing into the car in front of you through accident or inattention, and the lane assistance will keep you in a lane, and the active cruise control will control your speed, but even all three together do still require you actively drive the car. The future isn't here quite yet.
Should You Buy It?
Cars like the Astra are cars that people buy -- they're not top-of-the-range halos that people ogle from a distance but rarely actually purchase. That's why it's great to see advanced safety features like automatic emergency braking and lane keeping made available on the 2016 Holden Astra, even if they're an optional extra on the base R model. They're not convenience features like you expect in a luxury model, but the peace of mind they add in terms of occupant safety is important.
The 2016 Astra is an engaging car to drive, has the allure of CarPlay and Android Auto and an in-car entertainment system that does your streaming music justice, and has the added advantage of just looking nice to boot. Sure, it's expensive if you want to get yourself one of the more attractive RS-Vs and more expensive again for those excellent headlights, but there's a genuine reason -- both for your safety and the convenience of other drivers on the road -- to get one.