COAL: 2012 Opel Astra J – On The Way Up

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Recently I’ve traded in the family’s Astra J for the new, much improved 2016 Astra K (a review of that will follow). And it got me thinking this was the first true “member of the family” car, i.e. part of my forming family, which until now included just my wife and myself. Naturally there were other cars before it that could also be refereed to as COAL, but these were either part as my past as a bachelor or weren’t chosen by me. The Astra J was on my list since I first read about it, and when the opportunity arose it was me who chose it for the family.

 

But I’ll start with this:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYes, I did have wheel covers. Can’t remember why they’re off the car in this photo.

Back when I started dating my future wife, I was driving a 2001 Peugeot 206 1.4 manual (last in a line of 1980s-1990s Peugeots. I was a sucker for the chassis response they managed to duplicate throughout their lineup back then. The 206 was the last of that breed);

While my wife was driving a run-in-the-family 2000 Mitsubishi Carisma, so horrible I don’t even have a photo to show you. It was so rattly and spartan, dull and unassuming. Never was a car named so wrongfully.

As time passed and we started living together, it was clear that two cars were not needed. I let go of the 206, while my wife decided to get rid of the Carisma and buy her first new car, a 2008 Suzuki Swift 1.5 Automatic. I was skeptical at first, being used to European and American makes running in my family. But I must say the Swift turned out to be a fun little car. The only thing hampering its agility was the automatic gearbox, but this was the only configuration you could buy it here in Israel at the time (Israelis are somewhat like Americans in that sense, preferring auto gears over manuals). Also, driving in and out of the city in rash hour traffic everyday meant auto was the logical path. And again, this was her car and her choice, so the Swift it was:

imag0158I think it even looks good. You could say this was Suzuki’s first “European” car, if you will.

 

At this point I should pause and explain a few things about new cars in Israel, and how deals between Israeli importers and car manufacturers affect cars’ prices and accessories here;

Because of very high taxes on new cars (about 85-95%), Israeli importers have always been able to get manufacturers to lower prices on new cars, much more than their counterparts abroad. Sort of “if you want us to sell your cars in Israel we have to get better prices to contrast the high taxes”. This has been going on for many years and includes practically all importers in Israel. Of course, the actual price per car that any given importer pays the manufacturer is top secret, so you can forget comparing these prices with your local dealers.

There is a catch, though; When negotiations between Israeli importer and “its” manufacturer start over a new car, (besides price) the most important thing will be the base setup of the car, i.e. how much the car will be equipped. Other than what you’d call “accessories” (such as LED lights, multimedia, heated seats and so on), this might even go down to resolution of running gear. This is because the manufacturer, having had to concede the low price, wants to maximize its profits and so- almost always- will produce the cars destined to Israel in bulks or batches, all conforming to the same (minimal) equipment and all accessorized the same, almost to the letter. Remember the Swift above? At the time, the importer and manufacturer set the price-per-car around a package consisting only 1.5 liter engines and automatic gearboxes. So virtually all Swifts imported to Israel during 2007-2011 model years were such. Not one was manual, or with 1.3 liter engine so popular in Europe.

This also helps the importer to standardize the new car for the MOT- after all, if you import a car with one (or two) types of running gear, tire size and so on, there’s lessĀ standardization to do.

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This is an MOT standardization instruction. In red is my (minimal) translation of the sections. I think you’ll be able to understand most of the rest.

And a byproduct of all this is naturally, a thriving “accessories” businesses, working hand in hand with importers to install locally all the things omitted from the car at the factory. This of course is one of the most profitable routes for the local importers- you know how, don’t you? For example, buy a stock of rear parking sensors at $25 each and sell it as an “accessory” to the customer for $100. No, I’m not dreaming up those prices… Shoddy Israeli workmanship is another problem, with add-on accessories malfunctioning due to poor installations. You can imagine how un-healthy it is to leach off the wiring harness while installing an after-market alarm, for example.

633012-5Here’s an example of an insurance-demanded, locally installed “accessory”. More on that later.

Back to the Astra or more to the point, Opel; In Israel, during the 1990s/2000s and under the hands of the previous importer (UMI), this brand has become somewhat grey and dull, yet still expensive. Maybe this was also how it was perceived abroad, meant to be a VW rival but never there. Also, Opel had to work under the limiting resources and budgets GM would supply (which got worse as revenues got lower). In Israel this has gotten worse because UMI preferred to push forward the (then) Korean Chevys, such as Epica and Optra.

2009-chevrolet-epica_2A Korean Chevy Epica, also known as Daewoo Tosca.

Even though Opel were staring to release more modern and interesting products, such as the Insignia, none of these were reaching Israel. At one time, only the small super-mini Corsa was imported here, and sold mostly to leasing and rental companies. I remember reading about the new Astra J in Car magazine, and being impressed with its updated, much more sexy looks (compared to the Astra H), thinking it was a shame this car would never reach here. I guess Opel were neglected so much that in 2011 GM themselves saw fit to release it off UMI and give the franchise to the current importer, which straight away started importing the Insignia, Zafira and yes, also the Astra.

At this point you might ask, what did I find in this quite unexciting, regular Golf-wannabe hatchback? Previously I was never an Opel fan, besides the obvious cars such as the Ascona 400 or the group B Manta rally. Well, at first I liked the Astra’s looks- I thought Opel did a good job styling it with its own personality, not copying any of its rivals, while maintaining a clear styling link to other models of the brand, such as the Insignia or Zafira. Opel also tried to raise the dynamics of the previous Astra H by giving the new Astra J revised suspension sporting Watts-link, and also started using turbo engines, thus finally being able to level the car with the most recent rivals in the category. And all this, as mentioned above, while having to work under the limiting budget and resources of GM, still recovering from the economic downfall of 2008.

Back to our COAL; we planned to keep the Swift at least five years, but in 2012 a sharp decrease in the Astra’s price meant it was now within budget, so we decided to go for it, even before selling the Suzuki (this was achieved about a month later). And so, we picked up the Astra on 27th March, 2012:

imag0197My wife obviously prefers her privacy… This was photographed on the day we picked the car up. In the background you can see the Opel center.

The Israeli importer decided to import only three engine configurations; two petrol units; 1.6 liter atmospheric and 1.4 liter turbo and a 1.7 liter turbo-diesel unit, intended mostly for the taxi’s market. The most logical way for us to go was the 1.4T, imported to Israel with 140hp only (in Europe there was also a 120hp version of the same unit), automatic of course. Well, not that you’d had a choice- all turbo Js were imported with auto boxes, for the reasons mentioned above. And all with the same “Enjoy” package, which was stingy, to say the least. I decided to install only the most needed accessories, to avoid the dreaded shoddy workmanship also mentioned above, so the car was ordered with rear parking sensors (with stand-alone display, not utilizing the J’s original display), and also the insurance demanded a pre-ignition stupid keypad (which any self respecting car thief could neutralize in a minute). The only thing I really wanted was alloy wheels, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend the money at the time, which was stupid- I regretted this for most of the car’s time with us, and tried to remedy this with… well, you’ll see.

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Here it is, about a year into its life. As said, I really liked the design, which is much better and more modern than its predecessor, the Astra H. The color doesn’t suit it though. I ordered it after seeing that Graphite Gray on an Insignia, but in hindsight the Astra wears brighter colors much better.

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The front looks just as good, nicely designed with “eagle” headlights and arrow shaped DRLs (post-facelift cars had blackened out headlights and looked even better).

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Here’s a better look at the DRL.

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From this angle the Astra’s rear looks fat, that bumper looks ginormous! But notice how the rear lights’ design mimics the front headlights. Another nice touch is the oval exhaust tip.

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Moving inside, and those of you who ever drove a Chevy Cruze (the Astra’s “American” sister) would get a feel for it. The layout is basically the same, if the design is different. Being of German orientation, it’s of course devoid of any humor (I’m joking) and so mostly black-on-black, with variable plastic materials used. But they did try to brighten things up with silver touches and even used red light as a design feature, seen just barely under the gear cluster.

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Familiar GM knobs and switches on the steering wheel, as are the stalks behind it. I do like the separate dials on the instrument panel.

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Center console displays one of the Astra’s most annoying flaws. Care to count how many buttons are on there? I mean, the climate control cluster is fine (and was easy to use- all you had to do was press “auto” and from than on you just rotated the temp knob, which controlled the coolness as well as the fan). But operating the stereo/ infotainment system was a nightmare. This was as uncomfortable as can be to use. Also, note it says “CD 300”, which was the lowest spec GM offered at the time. Remember what I wrote above? The Importer was most happy to offer you an upgraded multimedia system with navigation and what not. Just get ready to pay extra for what was really a low quality Chinese unit and nothing like original Opel units.

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I’ve added this photo to further emphasize this “batch” thing of imported cars into Israel; See that electric “hand” brake? Normally, this would be a costly option which of course, I did not specify, but was surprised to find when we came to pick the car up. Apparently, this J was part of a batch of cars assembled at the factory with this button. It was cheaper to sell them to the Israeli importer with this option installed rather than change the entire batch to a manual hand-brake, so this was eventually rolled over to the end-buyers.

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Back seats are as back seats as can be, i.e. I have nothing special to write about them. Again dark tones dominate but note the charging point visible between the front seats.

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Same goes for the boot, or luggage compartment. Just a simple place to put your stuff in, and not unlike any of other 5 door rivals. Just a side-note: I think this is the best, most comfortable and logical layout there is out there. Try living with a five door hatchback and you’ll immediately know what I mean. So easy to get things in\out of the back, and with the seats folded you get acres more room.

Again, bulk import to Israel meant I was deprived of Opel’s brilliant Flex-Floor:

But no matter, at least I got this:

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Nowadays, it seems many manufacturers forfeit spare tires in favor of repair kits. I’d take a spare tire any time, even “space-saver” such as this one.

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Last but not least in these series of photos is of course the Engine. Again, modern GM owners would recognize this turbo unit right away, here in 1.4 liter form producing 140HP. The engine bay itself is messy, with exposed welding and pointy screw ends that threaten to cut you hands.

Without making this post into a full test drive (you can find plenty of these on YouTube anyway), I’ll just mention how surprised I was to find a (relatively) smooth turbo engine with anĀ impressive pull from about 1800 RPM. The J weighs about 1.4 tonnes, but I had no problems moving along, while actually feeling very secure going through turns and fast curves, even with this weight on.

The one thing that ruins the entire car is undoubtedly its auto gearbox, rushing to change up gears most of the time (to save fuel), and because it has six of them, in traffic there was always an annoying up\down shuffle, usually from 2nd to 5fh and back. The turbo unit had so much more to give, but was limited constantly. As my wife was the primary user of the J, this wasn’t so much of an issue because it didn’t bother her, but every time I used the car I was reminded of that gearbox.

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No matter, we still enjoyed the J, and it served us well, both daily, like in this photo (my wife of her way to work, just dropped me at my work);

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And also on trips around the country. This was a drive to the Golan Heights one winter, to witness some snow (a rare thing in sunny Israel). Started from Tel Aviv at about 14:00, and by 16:00 we were in the Golan.

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At some point I got into detailing- well, not professionally but rather wanted to get the Astra to look as good as I can, with what I have. Once clean, that Grey would seem very impressive.

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See an even closer close-up.

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The Yellowish DRLs were also bothersome to me, so I replaced the bulbs with a white-tinged pair.

As for the Alloys, I searched for an original set that wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg, but couldn’t find any. So I settled for stingy solution: replace the original wheel covers with the Astra’s post face-lift covers:

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I thought they looked better anyway.

Of course, servicing the Astra was part of the deal, and I omitted no service from the car. In this video, I’m coming in to replace a dead battery (free of charge, as the warranty covered that).

I kept trying to maintain the car as best I could, and I think it shows in the next few photos:

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But although it looked much younger than it actually was, time was moving on. I was offered to trade the J in favor of the new Astra K, which is miles better (a COAL will follow). So a deal was struck and I spent one more month with the car, here in one of its last photos:

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On July 19th 2016 we went down with the J to replace it with the new Astra, and I managed to obtain a photo of my wife with it, similar to the one I shot when we picked the car up some four years earlier:

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The sharp eyed among you will recognize the main difference between those two photos, which is a pregnant belly. Yes, part of the reason for moving on to the newer Astra was to start afresh- and enter the next stage of the family, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post. You’ll now also understand why I stepped back writing posts recently- you know, newborn time-consuming issues… As I’m writing this, young Ben is just over a month old.

So there you have it- the Astra J. A car on the way up, both for Opel, as a major improvement over its predecessor, the H, but not quite the Golf contender or shall I say, class leader it wants to be. And also a car to escort my forming family on our way up. I loved it and it served us well.