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:
Yes, 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:
I 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 less standardization to do.
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.
Here’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.
A 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:
My 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.
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.
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).
Here’s a better look at the DRL.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 an 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.
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);
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.
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.
See an even closer close-up.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
Wow…. car buying and speccing over there is completely different from what I’ve seen until now. I always seen the Astra J as one of the prettiest C-segments over there, and also a competent one, and that’s why I was dumbfounded when I saw and read every single critic saying the 2016 model blew the doors off it. You had the Sports Sedan over there, right??? That was the basis for the well-known Buick Verano…
About the Korean Chevys: The name chosen by Daewoo for the Epica (Tosca) was a very bad choice… Tosca/Tosco is Portuguese for something poor/crude (I guess that’s how it translates to English), so at least Chevy saw it made sense to change it
Yes, the Astra J sedan is (still) being sold in Israel and is referred to as “Berlina”:
That’s because it won’t be replaced. I have no clue of what will replace the Verano.
It’s clear Opel should not produce a sedan version of the Astra K- GM have got its sister Cruze for that. As for Buick? well…
Too bad, as it was one of the best selling premium C-segments in the US. Giving it the axe is not very wise. Anyways, good luck with the Astra K! Seen them on the road and they look awesome, especially the rear, which is the reason for me to prefer the Hatch to he Sports Tourer. Happy motoring, Yohai!
Congratulations on your growing family!
Germans do seem to prefer darker, serious colors in marketing, compared esp. with the Japanese who seem to like brighter, primary colors.
BTW contrary to Anglo propaganda, there is such a thing as:
Perhaps because of language, it just doesn’t get as much play as British, American, & Jewish humor.
I had a friend years ago that worked in Honda’s Marysville Ohio plant building Acuras I believe. He told me that they would have special runs made specifically for Israel and they would be made sans side impact beams in the doors among other content omissions. I wondered why they would do such a thing, now I know!
We got a lot of ex JDM cars without side impact beams only required in certain export markets so they just leave em out, nobody realises untill you crash. NZ assembled Subaru Legacys like the 93 I owned had a sticker on the rear window extolling the safety features like side intrusion beams the Japanese versions dont even have em.
Great insight on Israel’s culture as far as car ownership. I nearly blew out my coffee when I saw the 85-90% tax rate. Governments, and their desire for revenue as well as control of vehicles, vary considerably.
In the U.S., most vehicle taxes are at the state level. My state is known for high taxes with a 7% tax on sales, and considerable annual taxes based on the state’s perception of the value of your car. Some U.S. states exempt cars from sales taxes, while others have low annual fees.
While the typical $2,800 USD sales tax plus first year registration around $900 USD in my market seem onerous, it pales compared to your situation. But, I can recall buying entire nice used cars for around $3,500 USD, and that only covers the taxes on a $40,000 new car now!
Congratulations on your growing family!
There used to be a federal excise tax on new cars, about 2% IIRC, but to his credit it’s one of the few taxes Nixon managed to get shelved.
And yet, some folks think this tax, or one like it, should be re-instituted while lowering or eliminating the federal income tax.
Oh yes, the Israeli specs. You may also wish to note such things as Volvo 244s with the old pushrod, single carb 1.8L engine, mated to a 3 speed auto box, or the equivalent Peugeot 505s with a similar spec. Horrid, slow, fuel guzzling aberrations created in light of vehicle taxation classes at the time to enable people to – just – stretch to an “executive” sedan. Or six cylinder Chevrolet Impalas. It is getting better I believe, but many dealers are still into the old habits.
The Israeli car buying experience sounds pretty bleak. The idea that your insurance company should insist on such a poor anti-theft device that other countries gave up on DECADES ago would indicate that the car sellers aren’t the only ones refusing to give up old “habits”.
I was kind of disappointed that GM/Saturn gave up on the Astra after just 1 year of sales. I considered buying one but finding a 2 door with a manual transmission was next to impossible. Like many captive imports, the sales mix was heavy on automatic cars.
I’ve always liked the look of the Astra J, but after seeing that back seat photo… That looks ridiculously small for a car of those exterior dimentions. The front seat back is thicker than the remaining room between both cusions!
…but after seeing that back seat photo
iirc the first gen Chevy Cruze is related to the Astra J and the Cruze also is bereft of back seat legroom.
Actually leg room is not bad at all, provided you don’t position the front seat in its most rearward position, which is not such a problem, apparently- I’m 185 cm, and I’ve never felt the need to get the front seat all the way back.
Dealers only move the price on their markup which is often excessive over 100% on what they pay the manufacturer, You really do get some crap versions of cars there Suzuki Swift must be the worst named car ever but in automatic OMG, I had a 1500 Manual for a week as a loaner it was an awful car gutless and not very economical to go with it and with below average roadholding I can easily see why on our highways they become a roadblock,
Those Opels come here with Holden and Opel/Vauxhall badging whether new or not I dont know but there are plenty about, I’d only be interested in a manual turbo diesel which actually go quite well according to the propaganda, Vauxhalls hotrod VXR Astra is only marginally faster than the diesel on a 5th gear comparism test, its slightly quicker off the line after that it cant get away on a track.
Was the Swift available with the 1.3 DDiS diesel engine over there? In Europe we got it. I think it’s the same engine found on the Corsa and base level Astra over here.
The center stack controls are just as bad on the US Buick Cascada, which is a Polish built Opel. The US built Buick Verano has the same horridly complex HVAC and radio controls. First gen Cruze owners got the best setup.
The second gen Cruze has more overwrought styling with more elements already overused by Asian manufacturers than the new Astra, but the instrument panel looks cleaner.
Looking forward to your report on the new Astra!
Here’s a pic I found on line of the new Cruze panel.
The Verano dash is completely equal to that of the featured Astra, but more equipped, so even more complicated.. Pre-facelift Regals were also plagued by a similar setup. But Opel has been trying hard to get it right from 2014 on
But Opel has been trying hard to get it right from 2014 on
Doesn’t seem like it would be that hard, unless management things more buttons makes it look “high tech”. The US 2012 Ford Focus had a terrible center stack, looked like they wanted it to look like an old cell phone. Ford has cleaned that up some.
This is the top of the line US spec VW Passat.
2017 Astra. Still looks more complicated than the Cruze.
Going to agree that VAG rules when we talk about switchgear. Polo, Golf, Passat, Touran… you always know where are the buttons you need (only the HVAC in the Polo differs).
Euro spec Passat. The similarities in switchgear with the US model are visible
Center stack on a US spec Astra H. Abbreviations undecipherable without the owner’s manual.
And many buttons can be easy to use… but I have no idea how the Swedes managed to accomplish it.
The center stack of that Astra H is much like the stack I had on the Corsa I reviewed here:
Abbreviations are fine with me (you learn them eventually), vast numbers of buttons is not. If you have to look at a button to operate it, something is wrong with its design/layout.
Your Corsa was the best gen in terms of looks. Opel screwed up the styling in the new one, even if the interior seems to have gotten better.
Indeed. I have a 2015 Golf SportWagen (SEL, so it has the auto/dual-zone climate controls) and I love how logically the switchgear is laid out.
Mazda 3 instrument cluster – best of the lot. But there’s a catch: many functions are accessible only by following secret Shinto prayers and pressing buttons in sequence I can barely follow even if I were able to read the driver’s manual when _driving_. It is a year I had the car now and I have consigned myself to the fact it has tens of functions I will never discover or use…
There it is…
Did you mean to blank out the license plates in some photos and not others?
I understand taxation on cars is also pretty brutal in Denmark.
This is a part of the joy of living in countries who have to provide for one extremely large government agency (armed forces, welfare). And knowing Paul’s views on political comments, I am not even dreaming of getting into the “whys” of the above…
Some of those photos were previously published at another, Israeli forum and I wanted to keep my privacy. Now that the car is gone, it doesn’t matter.
Congratulations, Yohai! Do you get any sleep yet?
This article is an interesting look at car ownership in a country we know little about. I think it is a lovely little car and you sure take good care of it. Too bad you don’t have the option of a manual gearbox.
Always enjoy reading your articles, and especially learning about the differences. More please, when your schedule and your family permits….
Thanks for all your comments and congratulation. No, I still don’t sleep properly at night. Apparently now it’s the gas phase, later it’ll be growing teeth, than he’ll ask for money…
I imagine full-nights-sleep is gone forever. 🙂
Great article Yohai, thank you. I never thought an article on an Astra could be so interesting!
Congrats on the new arrival! Also I do love the styling of that Astra–it just seems to be the “right” shape for a 5-door hatch. Shame Saturn disappeared before we had a chance to get them over here.
If Buick had done the same they did with the Regal (keep the front end) with the Verano and brought over the 5 door, it would be pretty darn close.
BTW, Chris, how is your 780 going? Any progress? Just interested to know because… well, my username says it all…
Sadly, no. Status is the same as when I wrote the COAL–it’s currently serving the vital function of holding down the driveway. Always something to keep me busy on the weekends, and always something to keep my money spent. Keeping hope alive though–I have no intention of giving up on it!
Well, and I’m sure all the CC community is with you! The 780 is a true beauty!