COAL: 2016 Opel Astra K – A Thoroughly Modern Hatchback

(83 LeBaron needed a day off, so we have this one-time COAL)   It was almost two years ago that I posted this COAL about my family’s main ride, the Opel Astra J, in which I promised a review of its successor, the K. Now that the K is a little over two years old, it might be even more appropriate to review it, even though it’s nowhere near as old as some of the cars being reviewed in other writer’s COALs. But I suspect this might appeal to our US readers, being devoid of the Astra as you are getting its GM sister, the Chevrolet Cruze (of which you can read here in Mdlaughlin’s COAL)

The story of the new Astra started with my wife and I heading to the Opel agency sometime in mid-2016 to have a look at the just-arrived-in-Israel Astra K. The car seemed to be a massive improvement over the J, in almost all departments – Better quality build, better interior materials, more accessorized, and the best was the promised improvements in performance, handling and economy, as Opel managed to shed some 200KG moving from the J to the K. This, along with a totally new 1.4 liter turbo engine (the only one offered in Israel) mated to a new six-speed gearbox, was something I was curious to try out.

But more than anything, for me the game changer was the fact that the new Astra arrived in Israel fully equipped, in stark contrast to what I wrote about in the J’s post, of how Israeli importers purchase cars almost bare-bone, and install anything you can think of here in Israel.  This was a welcomed change, and by now, more importers are beginning to import other manufacturer’s cars this way.

So, it was a matter of test-driving the car – actually, you’ve sort of seen this also, in this 1984 Ford Cargo post, caught inadvertently during that test-drive:

The drive went fine; they just handed me the car’s keys and sent me on my way, without a sales’ representative present in the car. Regrettably I couldn’t really stretch the K’s legs, as this was inside and around Tel-Aviv’s busy roads – but I was impressed with the improved build quality, better creature comforts, multimedia and more room in the cabin, all surpassing the Astra J.

On with the reservation, then; In 2016, the Astra K was imported into Israel at three levels:

“Enjoy”, which was not enjoyable at all since it was basic and really meant for fleets – hence, it settled for basic multimedia with smaller screens and lower graphics, Mobileye add-on safety system, wheel-covers on 16″ wheels and so on.

Mid-level was “Enjoy Plus” which had a much better multimedia, and most importantly, brought Opel’s own active safety systems to the car (actually the software is still Mobileye’s but it’s connected to the Astra’s hardware, so instead of beeping through danger, it’ll (presumably) brake and steer when needed – more on that later. It still had wheel covers…

Top level was called “Innovation” and added such accessories as larger 17″ alloys, key-less entry and startup, upgraded seats and upholstery, sunroof and added safety in the form of side blind spot alerts. I forget, but there were probably more.

We pretty much decided on the mid-level “Enjoy Plus” Astra, but first checked to see whether there were better deals available with other manufacturers and their prospective importers. I was somewhat hesitant to purchase a newly introduced car and get of one of the first batch of Ks arriving in Israel. But the deal was good (Opel Israel will take the old Astra and pay full market price for it – I was free from having to deal with Weird and Wonderful prospective buyers), and the equation included the very good service I received during two Opels’ ownership (for two years we owned a Corsa D I wrote about here). Another plus was the full three years’ warranty, which eased my mind about any new-model niggles I hoped wouldn’t occur.

One anecdote needs to be mentioned so that you’d experience what’s it like to buy a new car in Israel – bare with me, as this will reoccur during this post. Yes, the car was to be delivered with wheel-covers, but we were upgraded to alloys at no cost. The Opel representative assured me that these will be Opel’s own and not some unnamed Chinese wheels. The agency’s manager even said these were “delivered from Germany”. I was skeptical, having knowledge of how the Israeli car market operates- Opel IL didn’t invent the method of installing Chinese wheels (although good quality) locally and save money over original items (VW importers has been doing it for years). But what the hell, so be it. The representative mailed me images of three possible alternatives I was to choose from – here’s an example:

Sorry for the low quality of this image – but this is what I received (the other two images looked a little better, but roughly the same size). Now, obviously, this has nothing to do with Opel, and it actually resembles a wheel of another manufacturer altogether- curious. Never the less, this one actually interested me over the other two, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes, if possible. Having had spare time (the kid wasn’t born yet…), I managed to get permission to drive to Opel’s facility, where they prepare the cars before delivering them to the customers (it’s not far from home and I’ve been there twice before, taking delivery of the previous Opels). Here’s a photo:

And here’s another Astra, this one looks ready to be delivered / handed over to the customer. If I recall correctly, I took this photo because of its color (not sure we were settled on our chosen color at the time):

I was ushered inside to where they kept the wheels, and one of the workers opened up the boxes:

This photo is of the wheels I wasn’t interested in, and I must say they looked identical to the low-res images I was sent. But the next photo is of the chosen alternative, see for yourself:

For convenience, I’ve inserted that image again in the photo – identical, isn’t it? Well, no. What’s more, I’ve finally identified the small image as a Mazda6’s wheel replica, while the wheel itself is a very close replica of Nissan wheels (you can see them on various models of Juke and Qashqai, although bi-colored).

And if anyone needed further assurance of their unnamed origins, see this:

Upon returning to the agency, the sales-representative was surprised to find what was clear to me from the beginning. I’m no police detective, but I’m sure of the authenticity of his reaction. Anyway, it didn’t matter since I was told the car will be delivered with the wheel-covers and I will be sent to a tire shop later to have the wheels replaced, since “they weren’t ready yet”(?). The best bit was that I did this representative a favor and emailed him my photos, so the other customers will at least get images of the correct wheels and not some trashy pictures you can decide nothing from. And if you think the wheels’ saga was thus finished, read on – we shall return to this matter later.

So on July 2016 we came to trade the old Astra with the new K. I snapped one last photo the J:

Yes, she’s still censored.

After having signed away the J, we were led to the delivery hall, where customers were given their new cars, being explained how to operate the various systems on the cars. While my wife sat in the car and was instructed to its systems, I looked over any outer damage that could’ve happened on the long journey the K has had. Yes, I looked under the bumpers as well as taking this photo (by now you probably realize we settled on white):

You can see an Adam and a Mokka waiting their turn to be handed over to their prospective buyers. Everything checked in order, so off we went to the petrol station to have its tank filled – you get only about one or two liters just to get to the nearest station, which thankfully, was about 300 meters away:

First normal photo of the car, and it’s pretty standard as you can see. This “Enjoy Plus” is indeed adorned with wheel covers, and doesn’t even get fog lights. No matter, as I had use for these in sunny Israel exactly three times in the previous Astra J, which was equipped with fog lights.

Back home I put into the K the horse-shoe that was in the J. I’m by no way superstitious, but this reminds me of my late father, who used to transfer a fifty years old horse-shoe between his cars, I think as a joke (he wasn’t superstitious either). Anyway, his got lost and none of us in the family sensed any effect on his cars’ luck one way or another… But I thought, what the hell – every time I lift the spare wheel cover (to top up air pressure), I sneak a glance at the horse-shoe and am reminded of Dad.

So we started using the car, and my impressions were that this was a very capable, modern family hatchback, that falls almost nothing short of the class-leading VW Golf. Despite the overall size reduction it underwent from the previous J (to save weight), clever planning meant more room inside the cabin, for both front and rear passengers. That weight reduction has the K handle extremely well, and I could take turns at greater speeds than I would with the J. I would dare say Opel’s engineers saw the Ford Focus in their vision, as the car has a very assuring road-holding, very much like the Focus which generally excelled in this area.

The best bit was that with the new power train, especially the new gearbox, I was finally rid of the J’s most annoying downfalls and its definite Achilles heel – its old gearbox, which was a total let-down of the old Astra. Once the turbo kicks-in, around 1800 RPM, the K will accelerate well past the legal speed limit, in a most convincing way. Gone was the sluggish acceleration of the J, hampered by its quick-to-shift-up gearbox. Of course, the weight reduction has a lot to do with this also.

Cons? Well, besides small niggling things which I will get to later, the two most obvious were, firstly, the boot size – all that increased space in the passenger cabin had to come from somewhere (especially once the K got smaller after the J). So from a class-leading large boot, it went to one of the smallest, similar to Mazda3 and Ford Focus. The second con is the somewhat lower-quality-than-expected inside the cabin. I mean, it is certainly better inside than the J, and not bad by any means – but it falls short of VAG quality. I maintain that VAG’s switch-gear is the best in the business, from the luxurious of Audis to the lowest of Skodas. There is something about the weighing of the column-stalks or the press of the various buttons that’s just right, and I’ve yet to find a (common) manufacturer that can top that.

About a month and change after owning the car, I got a call from the agency which directed me to a tire shop where my “gift” wheels are waiting for me. I arrived there on a free Friday morning, to discover one of the shoddiest places I had the misfortune to step in. I mean yes, they did the work but their equipment looked medieval (later it turned out its looks matched its accuracy) and the whole place was really what a respectable car-agency should avoid – even if it costs them more money to send the customers elsewhere, better specialized (and I won’t even bother to mention what I think of the fact that I had to drive there myself instead of some Opel representative turning up at my place, taking the Astra and doing the exchange without me having to bother). Anyway, this is what the K looked like with the wheels on:

I think it looks better than the wheel-covers, even if they have that Chinese look about them. More photos will follow in which you’ll be able to have a better opinion.

My wife was, and still is the main user of the car, driving mostly in city traffic from home to work and backwards, at least until the newborn arrived. At that point I sometimes used it during longer drives, which, at one time led me to this white rendezvous:

Obviously, rounded turned to angular in the move from J to K, although I’m not sure if the new Astra is an interpretation of the old Astra’s shape or a new design altogether. I’ll let you decide which is more handsome.

Since I mentioned design, this might be a good point to pause and go over some of the Astra’s features and, well design. This next set of photos were taken some three months into the Ks ownership, starting off with the exterior:

As the headline of this post says – a modern hatchback, from the side. The Ks design follows the “sportier” looking hatches, such as the Seat Leon or the Mazda3, rather than the “respectable” VW Golf. An added nice design element is the “floating” roof, achieved with the blacked B and C pillars, and creates a slimmer look.

Back three-quarters has those C-pillars show better, and I guess the car being in white contributes to that also. Here you can also see what I mean by Chinese wheels, as their silver is of the Bling type, and everything, from the center cap through the nuts is the same shiny color. Compare that with original OEM Opel items, and you’ll see what I mean.

In this photo you can see the DRL (Day Running Lights), which on the new Astra, are LEDs. Those double as turn signal indicators and flash amber when you signal to turn. As said – no fog lights on this “Enjoy Plus” level.

Turning to the back, this is much better than the Astra J’s fat rear. Note the importer’s “2016 European Car of the Year Award” sticker on the rear window, no doubt taking advantage of this to try and sell more cars. Personally, I wasn’t affected by this, and I doubt many others have.

Contrary to the previous Astra, inside there are quite some differences between this dashboard and its sister Cruze’s, which were similar in the previous generation (although of course the basic layout is the same). And dare I say that the Cruze’s dashboard is more stylized. The layout is very reasonable, placing the multimedia screen high enough so that your eyes need not look down to read it, yet not too high to block the outside view, and mercifully gone is the vast array of buttons that dominated the J’s center console. Dark colors dominate, with some aluminum touches here and there. This photo was taken much later, just last week, actually, so you get to see the other family car through the windshield.

The small info screen on this “Enjoy Plus” level has much better graphics than the basic models (in which there are icons). I can’t say how better (or worse) it’s like to use than the basic screen, but I’ve attached various info for you pleasure.

The multimedia is absolutely top notch, certainly for a car that’s not luxury. You get an 8″ screen that operates and displays anything you could think of, with clear, sharp and easy to read graphics. I’ve not included photos of various screens and actions, because it’s really not contributing to this post, but it’s the regular stuff; Bluetooth, calls, music and the rest. Still, once Android Auto was installed in the car, I stopped using the multimedia in any other way – simply connect the phone and control it through the multimedia. But the wife still uses the system without AA and is happy with it.

Climate control is, much like the Astra J, easiest to use if you press “auto” and control it by simply rotating the temp wheel – it controls both the temp and the fan. Of course you can operate it manually but I found it unnecessary. And good for GM/Opel for using physical buttons and not screen operated, which regrettably is becoming the norm more and more these days. Besides that, note the narrow opening underneath the climate control unit – who wants to guess what’s it for?

Lower down we come to what might be the most important row of buttons on any modern car. I’m joking of course, but those of you who want to decide whether they want to drive with lane-assist on or off (instead of the manufacturer deciding it for them) can just press a button. Same goes for the start\stop operation, which is on by default when you start the K, but can be turned off by desire. The two other buttons are for traction control shut-off and all-around parking sensors’ shut-off.

Back seats are fine, plenty of legroom as achieved by Opel’s engineers. But here you start to notice the somewhat usual cheapness that goes into these everyday cars: look at the back of the front seats – I can’t remember when I last met a new car without pockets – at least one. And yes, you might think it’s nitpicking but I actually need these of certain stuff. By the way, the baby seat has by now been replaced with a larger one and its turned forwards, for those interested.

Another example for cheapness is this mat which, again, is the smallest size I’ve ever seen. Not only it does not extend under the pedals at the front, but look how much bare carpet is left between it and the seat.

Off to the boot, and nothing fancy. A couple of tether-hooks and that’s it. Once again, it’s one of the smallest sizes in class , but for us – completely satisfactory. Also, if you lift its floor:

You’ll find more cabby holes around the more-than-welcome space saver spare wheel, instead of deflation (or is it inflation?) kit.

We cannot end this section without a photo of the engine bay, and once again, Cruze owners will recognize the turbo 1.4 liter power unit. It’s always nice to have a look at a new, shiny and clean engine before it starts to fade away.

And one last example of Opel cheapness – where’s the bonnet sound insulation? Well, you can’t have that in Israel, but in most western European countries you’ll be able to reserve the K with “quite pack”, that adds the insulation and more weather strips around the doors. The J had these, by the way. Tsk Tsk is what I say.

And now, for something completely different: The wheels. What’s that you ask, haven’t you finished with that already? Well, no. You see, my wife was (and still is) the main user of the car, and she is not as intuitive as I am in regards to the K (or any other car, for that matter). Yes, she pays close attention to warning lights and such, but cannot detect the odd tremors of unbalanced wheels as I can. Also, those happened at high speeds (100 KPH and up) that she doesn’t regularly reach because she usually drives in heavy traffic. But I, whilst the car was in my possession, could sense those tremors and realized the wheels were not rotated properly in that shoddy tire shop I was sent too.

Since the wheels were part of the purchase from Opel IL and not something I bought myself, they fell under warranty, but I couldn’t get the service center to give me an answer where to go to have them rotated properly (I guess they needed to decide who’s responsible of this) Finally they instructed me to go back to that same place where the wheels were installed to have the problem fixed… Well, I wasn’t going to do that, so I went to my usual tire shop:

Turned out that the wheels in all four corners were under-rotated (or over-rotated, whichever you want to call it). So good workmanship and maybe a properly calibrated machine took care of things, plus I got a good review of the Chinese wheels from the personnel – they said those were of good quality. So (hopefully) ends the wheels’ saga.

I want to add few words as to the active safety systems on the K. To me, this is absolutely amazing that I drive a normal everyday hatchback with systems that would previously only be seen on luxury cars, just few years ago. To own a car that brakes at danger or steers you, is a giant step for a CC lover such as myself. I know it’s there to help you, and I’m sure it does at times, but I’m not sure I like it, knowing it all leads to the inevitable autonomous car.

All throughout, the K continued drive us wherever \ whenever, nothing out of the ordinary:

Here my wife continues to her office after dropping me near mine, and look for a very similar photo of the J in the linked post above.

As time wore on, I decided to invest in a few accessories, some useful and some cosmetic, just for the hell of it. This needs no explanation, and is very good once you load a stroller with dirty or even wet wheels into the boot.

Even though the Astra K arrives in Israel with tinted rear and back windows, these shades are a great idea in a sunny and very hot country, especially if you’ve hauling a toddler at the back. They are produced by a British company and are custom made, so fit perfectly. I take them off during winter, of course.

As for the cosmetic stuff, I got tired of the “silver-on-silver” wheels, and wanted to give them a more original OEM Opel item’s look, so I Ebayed some black center caps and black nuts’ covers. Yes, it’s mostly stupid but I like it.

The detailing thing I started with the old Astra J continues with this K, and I try to maintain regular visits to my family where there’s a, well, driveway with running water… making things easier to work on the car. This photo was taken after I’ve finished and the car is spotless, also shows the Astra’s arch-rival, the Golf (this specific car belongs to my nephew who also came to visit). Some more “after-detailing” photos for your pleasure:

Hang on, that’s no detailing photo – again the wheels? Well, no, just regular screws stuck inside both right front and rear wheels. I discovered those by “loaning” the car from my wife, and while driving again I felt (for no other word) sort of something rotating with the wheels – I swear I didn’t hear the screw’s heads hitting the road while driving – just a feeling. So off I went to “my” tire shop and yes, with the magic of soap you could tell (micro) air was escaping from the tires. Fixed.

The car continues to service faultlessly, with regular services and minor Opel updates (for example, there was an ECU update recently that was supposed to increase fuel efficiency – I haven’t noticed any change, but so be it). As said, I usually drive the other family car, but last month I switched cars with my wife and took the Astra to work, where I parked it in “my” usual spot. This was so that later…

… I’ll drive it to have its latest wash. Once you get a hang of the detailing stuff, it much easier to resist taking the car to automated washing machines. Besides, it provides good occupational therapy.

And here is the current KM, which is not much in two years. This is a photo from late last month, and since then, maybe 200 KM were added. But now that there’s another car in use, I suspect the KM will drop yet further.

So there you have it, the Astra K is a very capable hatchback, and should be satisfactory for anyone who is after an offering from this segment. For better or worse, this Opel will most likely be the last GM related hatch, as Opel were purchased by PSA last year. One could say it’s a shame that after such a long time, finally Opel are producing very capable cars (you can also count the Insignia) – and are being sold to an unclear future. But this is probably a discussion for a different post altogether.