2014 Opel Astra OPC Review
Meet the new King Kong of the hot hatch world
By Imthishan Giado
I don’t envy Liberty Motors. They have an uphill job trying to re-establish the long-dormant Opel brand in the UAE, a country renowned for its automotive conservatism. Just ask Renault how long it has taken to get off the ground, even with the might of Arabian Automobiles behind it.
You never know, though; all you need is one good car. Actually, it doesn’t even have to be good; as the inexplicable success of the Duster proves, all you need is something that does what people want, at the right price. Luckily for new boys Opel, the Astra OPC is good. Holy crap, is it good.
I liked the regular Astra when I drove it earlier this year but it was sorely lacking in grunt under the hood. The range-topping Astra OPC, available only in smoking-hot three door guise, sorts that out nicely with a bonkers 280bhp from its 2.0-litre turbo Ecotec motor. If that’s not already more than the front wheels should be asked to handle, the engine also dumps 295lb ft of torque into the front axle for the driver to deal with. Potent, or potentially terrifying? We drove the Focus ST in March and though Mr Sheikh was fond of its raucous thrills, to me it was an arm-twisting mess with gloopy steering that struggled to corral less horses (250) and torque (270) than the Astra.
But while that Focus had all the sex appeal of a geriatric ballerina, this Astra totally looks the business. I love the low, hunkered down look of this car; no dainty Golf GTi or delicate Peugeot, it’s a pumped-up middleweight boxer sitting menacingly low on 19-inch wheels (20s are coming later this year, we hear). Clearly Opel subscribes to the school of design that a hot hatch should look like it’s about to beat up all the other hot hatches and steal their lunch money, and the Astra OPC is the meanest kid on town.
Ironically, it’s all very sensible once you get inside with superb multi-adjustable front seats that are among the most comfortable I’ve ever sat in, bar none, and with plenty of room for back seat passengers. As expected the tapering rear end cuts into sternward visibility (parking sensors are standard) but the boot is a reasonable size. With its smorgasbord of buttons, the Astra’s dash is slightly intimidating, but I’d rather have good old buttons and knobs than have to sort out another unintuitive touchscreen interface. Plastics quality is decent rather than outstanding, and fit and finish is as befits a German brand – which is great, because the Astra OPC is made in Poland!
Borrowed from the same parts bin that feeds the Camaro, the steering wheel is an excellent item with switches that don’t get in the way. The same cannot sadly be said for the gearknob which is an unusual, non-ergonomic shape and takes some time to get used to. There’s also a lack of toys; you get an decent A/C, solid stereo with a prominent iPod/AUX connection but no Bluetooth audio, all the trip gauges and data you could want. But don’t look for climate control, a colour screen, navigation, ventilated seats, a sunroof or electric adjustment for the front pews
Right, enough sensible stuff. You want to know how a 280bhp hatch drives. And I can sum it up in one word: wow. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first: the clutch is super light but has a fairly high engagement point, and the gearshift is too baggy and disconnected, like stirring a wooden spoon in a bowl of treacle with none of the satisfying action of the best boxes of yore. Granted, by the time this particular test car came to us it had seen quite a bit of action with some of the more, ahem, ‘enthusiastic’ media in region so it was feeling a bit tired.
And that is the very end of anything negative I have to say about the OPC, because this car is fun with a capital F! This is a very clever car with proper hydraulic steering – none of this feel-sapping electric stuff that’s infesting the industry right now – and a mechanical limited slip diff ensuring none of the power spins away wastefully. Then there’s the FlexRide variable dampers which can ride as smooth as luxury car or switch to max-attack stiffness at the press of the ‘Sport’ or ‘OPC’ modes, riding on top of ‘HiPer Strut’ front suspension that is supposed to dial out that annoying torque steer.
Boy, does it work. From a standstill in ‘Normal’ mode, the Astra actually feels a little soft. Below 3500rpm, the turbo seems to be napping – but pass that midway point and the Astra wakes up and suddenly punts hard with a great ripping/sucking sound from the wastegate. It’s totally thrilling in an old-skool turbo nutter way and the way the Astra gathers speed never, ever got dull. Switch it into full-on OPC mode and you can even cure the laggy throttle although you have to accept the too-stiff dampers as well.
All that speed would be nothing without a good chassis but thankfully the OPC delivers. The steering is not the last word in feel but it feels well matched to a super-pointy front end and has excellent weight, while being amazingly bereft of torque steer no matter how silly you are with the throttle, except in the very tightest of bends. Braking is superb, with tons of stopping power available right at the top of the pedal and enough deceleration to change the shape of your face at the bottom.
Despite the headline-grabbing power figures, this isn’t a playful car, but one that feels resolutely glued to the pavement through the corners with immense amounts of traction on offer. Try as I might, the back end would not come out to play, not helped by the fact the handbrake is an electronic item – boo! Nevertheless as a point-to-point car this is one superb piece of kit, capable of eating up bends and devouring the straights between them with the flair of a true racecar. And when you’re not in the mood – it calms down and becomes a quiet, composed highway cruiser. Even with those big 19s the damping is remarkably effective at resisting large bumps while sixth gear is one big fat overdrive.
I honestly can’t think of a car that I’ve enjoyed driving more this year. Well yes I can – but it had the words Corvette on the side, and that’s mighty fine company for a little hatch that only costs AED115,000. Yes I know, the Focus is cheaper still at AED95,000 but there’s a good reason for that – it doesn’t look anywhere near as good as the pocket-rocket Opel, which has the big-boy speed pants to match and the refinement of a German saloon – the kind of cocktail that’s hard to resist.
To sum up – I loved driving the OPC, I loved looking at it and if it had been available last year, I’d have bought it instead of my 86.
2014 Opel Astra OPC
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, 280bhp @ 5500rpm, 295lb ft @ 2500-4500rpm
Performance: 6.2secs 0-100kph, 250kph, 8.1L/100
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive