We all have fond memories of our first car. Unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, your first car tends to be a family hand-me-down, or something paid for with a pittance. Mine was the former, the old family car that had since been replaced: a 1997 Holden Astra GL 1.8. By the time I inherited it, three of its wheel covers were gone, it had a nasty key scratch all the way down one side and a bad case of sunburn. One of the doors hadn’t opened since my father had attempted to fix something I can’t recall and ended up breaking the door, and trim pieces had fallen off throughout the cabin. It was the ultimate beater. Naturally, I absolutely loved that car.
When my mother first bought it, it was a beauty. Mum had looked at some other small cars, and as the car buff of the family I went along for the ride. I distinctly remember being unimpressed by the base model Corolla, finding it too bland and spartan. Mum, being quite a fiscally prudent woman, was intent on a small car. Her previous one, a canary-yellow Holden VH Commodore SL with a brown-vinyl interior, had a serious case of tin worm on the rocker panels but was otherwise mechanically sound. Still, it was now more than ten years old, and Mum felt it was about time for a new car.
The old Commodore took a visit to the wrecker’s, and Mum went looking around. Thanks to my avid Which Car? Magazine consumption, I’m sure I helped with the hunt. I recall that I corrected a salesman at a Kia dealership, and also took Mum to a Proton dealership. Hey, I was a kid.
an identical Astra I found, in mint condition
The competition in the small car segment was fierce then (and remains so today). The Ford Laser and Mazda 323 twins were solid, high-quality small cars, but not the cheapest, due to the rising Yen. The aforementioned Corolla was reliable to a fault, but oh-so-dull. The Subaru Impreza had been targeted for cost-cutting in an attempt to bring down its price, leaving the base LX with embarrassing exposed wheels and giant black plastic bumpers. Suzuki’s Baleno (Esteem in the U.S.) was a complete nonentity that I rarely saw. Chrysler’s Neon was new to the market, and enjoyed the ignominy of having the last three-speed automatic for sale in Australia.
Nissan and Honda had just redesigned their Pulsar and Civic, respectively, and both of them were blockier, cheaper-looking and less attractive than their predecessors. Mitsubishi’s Lancer was available, but it always seemed a second-tier alternative to the Corolla. Likewise, Hyundai’s interestingly-styled Lantra; actually, only Hyundai’s Excel was making any major headway here, and that was due to its bargain drive-away pricing.
If the Lantra was second-tier, the forgettable Proton Wira (above) was a third-tier alternative, even though its Mitsubishi Lancer bones were sound. Actually, Proton has never been taken seriously here since its arrival two decades ago.
Daihatsu’s Applause, the smart little notchback that had a hatchback, had undergone an embarrassing end-of-life facelift with a toothy chrome grille and cheap brightwork. Kia’s Mentor had just arrived–and good luck finding one of those on the road–and Daewoo had just launched its Nubira, with which I would later become acquainted.
Finally came the Europeans, with the attractive Peugeot 306, Volkswagen Golf and SEAT Cordoba. Peugeot has always been a bit player here, though, and Volkswagen was then nowhere near its current sales position (VW is close to breaking into the Top 10 manufacturers by sales). SEAT arrived here in 1995 with the smartly-styled Ibiza, the dumpy sedan-derivative Cordoba and the aging Toledo, after which they promptly disappeared, reappeared in 1999, and then disappeared again.
That left one compact: the Holden Astra. What was new to Australia in 1996 was already four years old in Europe. While the Astra was Holden’s first Euro-sourced compact (manufactured in the UK by Vauxhall), its name had been used down under once before, on Holden’s rebadged ’80s version of the Nissan Pulsar which itself was replaced by the Nova, a rebadged Toyota Corolla.
Although the old Astra seemed to enjoy moderate success, the Nova was a bit rarer on Australian roads. The same was true of other Button-Plan rebadges, including the Holden Apollo (Toyota Camry) and Toyota Lexcen (Holden Commodore). Thus, out went the rebadged Japanese models, and in came the Europeans. First was the Barina, switched from a rebadged Suzuki Swift to a rebadged Opel Corsa. Then came the Astra, followed by the mid-size, Apollo-successor Vectra. A memorable advertising campaign accompanied the launch of the Astra.
The Astra arrived with two body styles, three engines, two transmissions and three trim levels available. The base, gray-bumpered City came with a 1.6-liter, 99-hp four mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed auto. It had cheapo wheel covers,and came equipped with only an airbag, power steering, six- speaker stereo and central locking. The mid-range GL sedan and hatch added body-colored bumpers, electric mirrors, fog lamps and a more powerful 113-hp 1.8-liter four. The top-of-the-line GSi came only as a hatch equipped with a body kit, alloy wheels, sport seats, sport suspension and a leather steering wheel. It also had a nice power bump, as its 2.0-liter four punched out 134 horsepower. I have never seen a GSi, which is a shame. The hatch was frumpier than the smart-looking sedan, but the GSi did come in an electric banana-yellow color that really made it pop.
Mum loved the Astra, which she called her “little red car”. How could you not love it? The first Euro-sourced generation was not very common, so it had the rarity factor–and it looked damn sharp, especially in the pleasant maroon my Mum chose. Fog lamps made it look a little more expensive, too, and overall it just looked more expensive and stylish than the Japanese competition.
The interior was also extremely pleasant, with nice textures, stylish upholstery (alternating blue-and-red stripes on gray cloth), light plastics and an airy greenhouse. It wasn’t faultless though: There was uneven fit and finish quality and blanked-out buttons where higher-spec overseas models had real ones. While as a child these things annoyed me, otherwise I loved the interior, which was decently roomy for our family of five, as well as the big boot.
Eventually, though, Dad’s company car became our primary family car. The Astra fell into obsolescence, driven only once a week to stop the battery from dying (which happened on many occasions). This was around 2003; five years later, when it came time for me to get my license, the Astra became mine. By now, the aforementioned cosmetic problems had arisen: It looked like crap. But hey, if I accidentally bumped it, who would notice? If it sat out in the sun forever, it wouldn’t matter. A chronic oil leak was the only mechanical problem, although the muffler developed a hole which made it very noisy. But it didn’t smoke, it always started, and it left stranded only once. My only regret was not getting a decent photo of the interior, which I always admired despite its propensity to shed plastic trim pieces.
photo courtesy of Picknpayless.com.au
The best part? The Astra was fun to drive. Sure-footed handling, a great ride/handling balance and a slick shifter made it a joy to belt around. The ride wasn’t too stiff or too noisy (other than the dodgy muffler). In fact, for a four cylinder, it sounded quite good. Also, the shifter wasn’t too notchy, and the car felt light on its feet.
The Astra launched in 1992, but it rode and handled better than the floaty, crashy 2002 Nubira that replaced it. The Astra’s interior was much nicer to look at and touch than the Nubira’s. The latter had a plastic-y, drab interior that squeaked and felt flimsy to the touch. Where was the decade of progress? Still, it was bought as a run-out as the Daewoo brand was being withdrawn, and it came with leather seats–never mind the notchy shifter and weird seating position. It was cheap, and now it’s gone–and I won’t be looking at that junker through any rose-tinted glasses.
I throttled my little Astra, and friends of mine were slightly terrified to sit in it. My good friend Betsy also informed me that the car smelt “dusty, like it was about to die.” The timing belt did bite the dust as I was driving to work one day (it was one of the most unpleasant sounds I’ve ever heard), but fortunately, the car died just as I was pulling into a parking spot. The parents paid to have it fixed – hey, I was a university student – and also paid for the oil leak to be repaired and the muffler replaced. Yes, it was the sunk-cost fallacy in action: The car was worthless by this point, but they kept paying to fix it.
But I couldn’t bear to part with the Astra, knowing I’d miss it even as I actively saved to replace it. It was time to move on, and in 2011 I bought a car that was truly my own: a 2004 Ford Falcon BA XR6.
The TR Astra lasted only until 1998. It had done what it needed to do: introduce Australians to a European small Holden and to the Astra nameplate. It made way for the TS Astra, which was the first small Holden since the Gemini to crack the Top 10 in sales.
As for my Astra? As much as I knew I would miss it, I never drove it again after buying the Falcon, and it sat there until the day my dad traded it–not for money, not for another car, but for one weekend’s use of a dumpster. Now it belongs to a young girl, and I hope she’s enjoying it as much as I did.