The 11th generation of the Astra on its way. Autocar were allowed to test a disguised prototype and reported on the apparent changes in comparison with the outgoing car.
The next Astra is going to be smaller and lighter but roomier inside. I am a little anxious that the next car is going to be less pleasant to look at than the current car which I regard fondly, especially in bechromed estate guise. However, one compensation is that Opel intend the new Astra to dispel the lingering criticism that they are duller to drive than its arch enemy, the Ford Focus. How will they do this?
Interestingly and, indeed bravely, Opel’s engineers have done away with bushings in between the front suspension and the body. Torsion beams and a Watt’s linkage do service at the back. Those bushings: they serve the purpose of adding a layer of insulation between the suspension and the body to kill high frequency vibrations. A corollary of this is that if you have nice soft bushings then you add an extra element of motion between the body and the wheels.
For front wheel drive cars this means that steering quality is affected such that it loses some directness. At the extreme it becomes rubbery-feeling. Making the bushings stiffer counteracts this but you lose the insulation effect, of course, even if the flexibility of the bushings varies laterally, longitudinally or torsionally.
Astras have majored on refinement and ease of driving for thousands of years so this decision to dump bushings means that they will have to do extra work elsewhere in the suspension system to avoid the ride and steering gaining a harsh quality. This can be done, I expect, but through fussy and time consuming tweaking of the remaining suspension parts.
According to Autocar the results of this change are overall good. The Astra seems to be targeting the Golf more than the Focus: “The steering’s lighter and more positive than in the current Astra; well weighted, with good speed and fine accuracy. It feels fairly natural, if lacking the outright engagement that you get from a Ford Focus’s rack. It’s a bit more like a Volkswagen Golf’s, in that respect: smooth and natural, if not aimed at the enthusiast.” The ride gains a little patter over rough urban roads, they write, but nothing to be alarmed about.
You can’t really win this one, I feel. The Astra is a comfortable car in its current guise but it gains no respect from motoring hacks who prefer a sportier set up even if the vast majority of drivers don’t need this. Having tuned out the comfort in deference to handling, the criticism will be that it now has a less than plush ride. Presumably Opel feel this price is worth paying if the journos will shut up about driving dullness; the hundreds of thousands of repeat Astra buyers will still buy the car anyway.
The next Astra weighs a fifth less than the current car and coupled with some fairly frugal 1.4 litre units ought to end up as an economical vehicle. I note with some concern that Opel are reducing the scope of the engine range. Of all the changes this one alarms me the most. Among the reasons the Golf is such a good performer in its class is that VW have a reasonable spread of engines offering performance, economy or a compromise (though with a bit of a power gap in the 1.6 litres part of the capacity spectrum: “1.4 TSi engine problems!” we all sing).
For many people, vehicles like Astras, Golfs and Foci epitomise the boring side of cars. They are ubiquitous and there is little about them that is sexy or striking. For me they have their own interest. I think the medium sized family car as among the hardest cars to get right.
They provide serious challenges to engineers and designers to strike a balance between style, price and practicality. The current crop of these cars are all very good and to judge any kind of a distinction you must not look at the relative difference – which may be small – but consider the effort required to make it. Think for a bit about .03 of a second. That’s not much. Yet it can be the difference between gold and silver in an Olympic sprint and we all know how hard it takes to be that much better than the person who came next.
You can see a rather flashy animation of the Astra GTC here.