We recall the 1998 G-Series Astra.
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.
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.
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.
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.