The Evolution of A Star

We recall the 1998 G-Series Astra. 

2002 Opel Astra “G”

Every major manufacturer faces the challenge of scheduled replacements for designs that are already incredibly well-suited to their market. One day, Opel had to replace the 1992 Astra F. With a new iteration, the aim is usually to keep all the good bits, strengthen the appeal and do something different that is at least as good, if not better. The risk of getting it wrong, of playing it too safe is balanced by the opposing risk of a design that is too bold.

Either risk means customers drift off to other brands. For a car like the Focus, Golf or, here, the Astra that means thousands of lost sales at the centre of the market. In 1998 the Astra G went on sale, with the mission of retaining the goodwill attached to the F (which we covered here) but also advancing the car’s values without indicting the predecessor.

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From a styling point of view, the 1998 Astra’s designers had to endow it with its own personality, appropriate for the market it competed in.  Compared to the F, it had flatter surfaces and sharper intersections. The forms were consistent with the Art & Science themes being developed by Cadillac. That in turn might have been inspired by the 1999 Opel G90 concept car with its taut flanks, pronounced wheel-arch grooves and the letter-box grille with a single bar. The thick C-pillar is also there, but for the Astra it got smoothed off, probably for packaging reasons but also so as to strengthen visual links to the Vectra C which used the same design tropes.

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Let’s take a more detailed look at the Astra using some annotations:

Opel announced the Astra G in late 1997 and had in mind the less-than stellar Escort and the ever-steady Volkswagen Golf as its main competitors. The nice-to-drive but anaesthetically styled Citroën Xsara emerged at the same time. The Astra G gained siziness compared to the F but did not gain mass; it could be obtained with one of eight engines and they had less work to do, as the drag factor was smaller than before.  Opel paired the Astra G to the Zafira (another neat design) and Opel offered the usual generous range of body-styles: three-door and five-door hatch, four-door saloon, estate, cabriolet and coupé (a lovely and subtle design from Bertone, a house not known for subtlety).

The eight-engine range seems generous today but such variation was considered necessary so as to match the vehicle to a broad spread of consumer needs. A 1.2 litre did work on the low-end; then a jump to 1.4 litres, then  1.6 and 1.8 litres, all 16-valve L4 motors. Two diesels could be had, 2.o litres both but in 82 bhp and 100 bhp tunes. Today some go to considerable lengths to obtain the car in 1.6 litre guise.

To improve the predecessor’s already well-tamed road manners Opel’s engineers and product planners specified a compact rear axle and, at the front, a sub-frame offered even more refinement than the F provided. Lotus are believed to have had some input on the chassis tuning hence the car’s higher estimation among those concerned with handling and driving quality.

Sun by night

All in all, the Astra did do exactly as a new generation car should: improve everything without scaring the existing customer base. That the car is more or less forgotten has more to do with the nature of the market it did its battles in than anything about the car. It’s the centre of the car market, the least sexy sector there is and there is usually little scope for drama or statements. Statement cars like the Alfa 147 are much lauded by the motoring press and largely much-ignored by those who need a car in this size.

The Astra G didn’t ape the Golf of the same period but had its own style. Ford moved the goal posts markedly when the Focus broke cover and ended up putting the Astra into the shadows. That should not reflect badly upon the Astra – the Focus fell into the black swan category. The next Focus in a way followed the same formula as the Astra G: rigorous but cool design and another rather unfairly overlooked effort. It is remarkable though that this sector of the market manages to throw up cars that vary in identity as much as they do. Whichever one you prefer, Astra, Golf, Focus or Xsara, it is highly likely your preference is marked and not a close run thing.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

31 thoughts on “The Evolution of A Star”

  1. Good morning, Richard. I like the rigorous design of this Astra. One might argue that this makes the car a little anonymous, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    The C-pillar is, at least as far as I am concerned, the interesting feature. I wouldn’t call it beautiful, but it somehow manages to blend in with the car while at the same time appear a little out of place. Having said that I don’t know if changing it would make the design better. I like the C-pillar on the Astra G better than on the Vectra C.

  2. For me, this Astra always looked absolutely awful (just as the equivalent Vectra and for much the same reasons).
    The way thre roof flows into the rear makes it look hump backed and the arc of the rear door in the C pillar is a perfect example of how not to do it. The quarterlight in the rear door and the bar that separates it from the door’s main glass seem to lean rearwards and together with the curve in the surrounding shutline it looks uttterly inelegant, like the rear of a fat Manx cat. The whole thing looks stubby and pudgy.
    Comparing thois Astra to the Golf 4 I know which one looks better for me.

    1. Dave: reading between the lines, would I be right in hazarding a guess that you secretly really like the Astra?
      Being serious for the moment, as I said at the last line, it´s amazing that these cars (the class) can provoke such strong sentiment when they are so strongly constrained? I find the character of the Astra very different from the Golf and Focus and yet all of them went after the same middle market customers.

  3. I used to drive these quite often in my hire car for work travel period. In the same period I drove Focuses, Almeras, Mégane IIs and Peugeot 307s (they once gave me a Primera!). The chassis was really good, with a rounded and controlled ride, light but direct and accurate steering, a light gearchange and the 1.4 16v was really nice indeed. Inside, you sat low behind a deep dash with black and dark grey trim everywhere – not great. It was also a bit cramped and the car felt narrow inside. I enjoyed driving them. Contrasting with the other hatches listed, I would rank it second in terms of enjoying the drive (Focus top by a mile), 3rd on exterior looks (Renault top, Ford second) and probably 3rd inside too (behind the Ford and Renault). The thing was, the Focus was my clear favourite – if I had to buy any of them there would only ever be one thought in my head. The Focus made all the others feel like they were from a previous era, it was not just today’s car, but the future too.

  4. I’m with Dave on this one. I know the motoring press was critical of the Golf mk4 chassis and dynamics, but my son ran an early A3 Sport for a while and with different suspension settings and glorious seats that car was a delight to drive (if not to maintain).

    1. If you bought a 3 door Golf you could easily retrofit A3 sport suspension and seats, then you would have a good drive and good looks!
      But in 1998 leaded petrol was discontinued in Ireland and I replaced my 50mpg Kadett D with a 25mpg unleaded Mazda 626 , and from then on European cars were history.

  5. Good morning Richard. The Astra G had a very difficult act to follow in design terms. The Astra F was, I think, a very accomplished design, with its glassy six-light DLO and lovely surfacing along the flanks and rear end. Only the front was a bit ordinary. Here is a photo of it from its best angle:

    The Astra G, with its four-light DLO, contrived to look smaller (and cheaper) and really a bit plain at first glance. However, it has aged well and, as you have identified, is quite nicely resolved:

    The first word that comes to my mind when looking at it is ‘solid’ and that is appropriate as it had a reputation for being a tough and durable car. A neighbour of ours had one and it carried on reliably for years with next to no maintenance or care.

    The saloon version really did look like the hatch with a boot tacked on, but it somehow works, even if it looks rather quirky:

    It’s interesting how GM were much more imaginative than VW in trying different styles for each generation of the Astra, whereas VW evolved the Golf in a very cautious way. I suppose if you are the market leader, this makes sense and, if you are chasing the market leader, it’s worth trying different things.

    1. That rear door and particularly its quarterlight look as of the car was meant to have a rear screen like an Ami 6 or Ford Anglia and they decided otherwise at the last minute.

    2. To my American eyes the saloon seems to work better, if a bit simplistic and cheap in overall effect because of later imitators of the shape; the ‘truncated’ tail on the hatch where the fascia ends in a little bootlip spoiler seems to imply that saloon shapes were intended, yet hastily truncated in favor of a hatch. The 10th gen Civic hatch suffers from the same odd shared-fascia/boot ledge phenomenon with its saloon counterpart (among a litany of other stylistic foibles, I will add) and looks all the weirder for it.

      The new Civic hatch may have the same proportions, but the more significantly altered rear fascia means that it feels a little more bespoke and less like a ‘truncated saloon’. Likewise, the Astra F and H are more clearly defined hatches that don’t have the odd ‘in-between’ effect with the saloon that the G does.

  6. I was never a fan of this generation, it always looked squat and stubby – at least the “usual” versions, not counting the Bertone Coupe and Cabrio, which look pretty good. I especially disliked the C pillar on the 5-door hatch.

    By the way, there was also a 4-door version, which looks like a 5-door with a longer boot. A better looking car in my opinion.

    Of the usual versions, I think my favourite is the estate. Maybe a bit bland, but it’s one of the last “real” estates, that doesn’t try to look sporty, with large third side windows.

  7. In italy tons of station wagon were sold, for me it had the best design because i really dislike the c pillar of the 5 doors.

  8. For sure Astra G is objectively quite a good car, but it also, for me at least, it was one of those cars that looked old from the vary they were introduced. I’m sure there is nothing wrong with this car from design perspective, but it is incredibly bland. Form should follow function, but it’s good if form is made a least a bit interesting by doing so.

    It’s really hard to grasp, but Golf is a good example of this quality, in theory Golf IV is also quite sober design, but it feels and looks like much higher quality product, much more expensive product. Clear headlamps where not that common back in 97 and they looked like piece of jewelry without being ostentatious in my opinion. There was something similar to Ive’s Apple in VW design back then. Astra looked cheap in comparison. Much less interesting than very week accomplished F model. Hatchback had this weird shape that was between lift back and hatchback and made it looked like straight from the 80’s. Xsara maybe wasn’t the best car in the world, but the shape was so much better. No wonder Astra was so popular among older audience here in Poland. It was relatively cheap and practical. Sensible, yet boring.

    The same applies to the interior, Astra has the most depressing one from compact cars of this era. Focus looked so much more dynamic, interesting, so even if it wasn’t as high (perceived) quality as Golf, you could forgive it. I still believe that if Ford would just make another small facelift, they could sell Focus twice as long as they did. It still looked fresh in mid 2000’s.

  9. I never quite took to the Astra G and couldn’t quite figure out why. I assumed that it was the reflected (in)glory of the Vectra B.

    I can see now the issue lies in that C pillar. It works slightly better with a boot but the hatchback really doesn’t work very well at all. Overall they did well to move the design forward while retaining some of the strengths of it’s predecesor. The Focus, however, really did put most of it’s competiton into the shade, which was a surprise given just how poor the last Escort proved to be.

  10. Poor thing – I fear it lost something in translation. To my eyes, it ended up looking a lot like an early facelift MK5 Ford Escort. However, below is a link to a picture brochure which was produced for the press; pages 18 and 19 show the car in slightly more rounded form and I think that makes it look better / more solid. The part-unpainted bumpers on the early versions showed that GM’s thinking was a bit off the pace, although who would’ve expected the double nightmare of the Focus and Golf to compete with?

    The Astra was an all-new design – platform, suspension (by Lotus) and body, with revised engines and it cost £1.5 billion to produce, so it’s not as if they phoned it in.

    We shouldn’t pity it too much, though – it sold well enough, beating the Focus (the future’s arrived, again), but not the Golf, in Europe in its earlier years. It spawned the Zafira, too, so job done.*

    I bought a Golf.

    Data from CarSalesBase, 1997 – 2004:
    Ford Focus 2.964 million
    Opel Astra 3.994 million
    Volkswagen Golf 4.899 million
    The Ford’s figure was a bit of a surprise – not least to Ford, I suspect.

    1. I meant to mention – page 22 shows the similarity between the Astra and the Signum concept.

      And my asterisk is in the wrong place – it’s meant to refer to the sales figures (apologies).

  11. The one that I bought was Comfort trim, and the interior was brightened -or at least altered- by fake wood on the centre console and gearknob.

    The velour seats were pleasant as well, and it had the DTW-essential rear armrest. I haven’t since encountered a car where all four windows had the “auto” up/down feature, although it is quite a narrow pool. The quality could have been better: I added several pieces of trim-tape or sticking plaster in the gaps to stop it rattling. Tweeters kept failing, curiously. Mechanically it was very good – I dare say that I might still have it now, but someone parking an automatic E-class confused the pedals, drove into it and bent the floor. The Astra was shunted across the road and into the next row of parking spaces – quite lucky that nobody else was around. She was a magistrate, so was not tempted to hit-and-run!

    Is it the last car to be offered (in UK at least) as 3/4/5-door, estate, coupe, cabrio and panel-van?

    1. Thanks for reminding readers of the essential rear centre arm-rest. And I like that wood and velour combination. It looks more than alright to me.
      I think that many people´s views of these cars (all of them) are coloured by feelings extrinsic to the products. With my earnest hat on, all of them a pretty decent cars, even the Xsara goes a long way with its fabulous seats. The Golf is an all-rounder; the Focus has its agility and striking looks; the Astra offers a totally credible set of compromises with styling that´s more interesting than the Golf and less zany than the Focus (but leagues ahead of the last Escort). None are turkeys, none are God´s gift either.

  12. One of the more striking aspects of this car is how it illustrates how well Opel’s designers and production engineers grasped the art of shutline management. The manner in which the rear-side door shutline melds with the C-pillar is very nicely handled and I would imagine quite difficult to achieve in practice. The first gen Nissan Primera was a bit of a gamechanger in that area, it would seem – I recall certain commentators getting quite hot under the collar about that car.

    Nevertheless, I always thought the G was quite a visual step back after the nicely resolved F (not alphabetically, of course…) but I did like the Bertone-bodied Coupé. It was quite elegant, I felt – especially for Bertone.

    Chapeau Richard, for dying on this particular hill. It must be rather lonely up there…

    1. I wrote to Opel for some input on the design story…. and I asked the UK Vauxhall owners´ club for input on living with the car… From both, silence. That said, Peugeot Denmark couldn´t be bothered to say anything nice about their 406 when it reached 25 years.

  13. Lovely article as always, Richard, and I do love your fascination with Opels as they are a bit of an interest to me as well, being in a market that has never directly received their products badged as such (GT excluded). I have to say, the referenced 1990 Opel G90 Concept is a bit bewildering to consider as it strongly implies the shapes later characterized by the Astra H (faired in grille, geometric creased headlamps, strong Volvo-esque shoulders) yet for some reason they made the Astra G first!

    I have to wonder why they didn’t directly come out with the H if such design themes were already in the works as early as 1990. The G is a handsome car, especially in Bertone and wagon form, but I do prefer both the earlier F for being richer and the later H for its cleanliness and angularity. The G ends up as a bit of an odd-child, mixing the roundness of the F with the blockier and simpler forms reprised on the H from the G90 Concept.

    1. whoops, that’s what I get for reading comprehension! G90 came out in 1999, things make more sense now.

  14. To these eyes, the Astra G is most relevant in its 3-dr
    and Estate forms.

    3 dr.:

    The way the skillfully executed shape of rear quarter glass panel rhymes with the taillight shape – and especially in conjunction with the well judged amount of roofline
    slope, makes it almost a Coupe. I’d dare propose that
    the above ‘triangle’ works so well with the Vorderwagen
    (as proportions) that it actually looks more inviting
    than the Bertone-penned official Coupe. The 3-dr works
    so well,that I am willing to believe that the initial G sketches
    were the 3dr version – as the rest of the car seems so well

    The shape of the rear quarter glass panel is unseen
    in the C-segment, and has obviously inspired Munich so much that they practically used the same shape on the Z-Coupe
    a.k.a. Clownshoe.

    The raising beltline seems to be literally supported by its pillar-like taillights, conveying a subliminal message of
    perceived loading capacity. The relatively pronounced thickness of the A- and B- pillars conveys sturdiness,
    which completes the picture of a proper hard-working
    car (which, in practice, the Astra G estate later actually
    proved to be, and is used as a weekend-gig-cum-family-hauler for many a working class folks especially in Eastern Europe). A textbook example of how can a simple, neat
    optical trick render a car totally fit for its apparent purpose.

    The rest of the range (with the slight exception of the Bertone Convertible, which is not offensive at all and looks rather classy with the top down) just doesn’t cut it for me.
    The 5-dr’s/Sedan’s C-pillar is probably to blame, although
    I couldn’t seem to pinpoint what exactly is wrong with it.

  15. Thank you Richard.

    I forgot to mention that, when one talks about the G’s styling, it’s often omitted just how good do they look at night,
    parked under street lights.

    Actually, at night, the 120deg. “fold” in their beltline, turns into a bright-coloured ‘strip’, which visually ascends it,
    as is it is sharply contrasted to the rather straightlaced flanks.
    This nocturnal phenomenon, underlines just how importantly the Astra G styling relies on the rising (and slightly divergent) beltline which, on the 3dr and Estate, works almost concept-car like sharp (the Vectra C also has a similar nocturnal feature).

    And I will retiterate just how unique is to have a rear side glass-panel (on the 3dr.) that mimics 99% the shape
    of the taillight. I find it downright impressive,
    and don’t think anyone has ever done that
    – I stand gladly to be corrected, of course!


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