Seen but not herd

Chances are, if you want to impress the neighbours, driving a new Volkswagen home will do it. And if it doesn't, you must live in a pretty fancy neighbourhood.

But for people who think moving from a Japanese or Korean brand to a German one is an upgrade, Volkswagen isn't the only sub-premium player around

Lest you'd forgotten, there's Opel, too. Mind you, it would have been harsh to blame you if you had. After all, the brand put just 63 new cars on the road here last year, against Volkswagen's tally of 3,056.

Maybe the new Astra can change things. A complete redesign, it's stronger and lighter than its predecessor, and powered by efficient turbocharged engines.

A direct rival to the VW Golf, it looks the part of a relatively posh German. - Auto Germany picA direct rival to the VW Golf, it looks the part of a relatively posh German. - Auto Germany picIf you need context, the Astra is a direct rival to the VW Golf, so much so that if the two cars were people, they would be busy trying to knee each other in the groin. Obviously, the Golf has had the best of it so far, since it's ubiquitous, but the Astra is bringing some pretty knobby kneecaps to the battle.

For one thing, it looks the part of a relatively posh German car. It's more sensual and curvaceous in appearance than the Golf and its geometric lines. The crisp creases in the Opel's body panels look like the work of some precision manufacturing, too.

The little engines that could

The Astra range kicks off with a one-litre model, powered by a 105hp three-cylinder engine. If you're feeling a need for more speed, there's the 1.4-litre with 150hp that we tested.

While this doesn't turn the Astra into a hot hatch, it is an eager little engine. You don't need to rev it hard to get it going properly, and when you add smooth shifts from the six-speed automatic transmission into the mix, the result is smooth, urgent acceleration that makes merging with fast traffic stress-free.

To go with the peppy engine, the Opel has light, responsive steering. It feels safe and forgiving when you push hard through bends. It doesn't feel playful but after driving it with some zeal, you're left with the sense that it would take some doing to get into serious trouble in an Astra.

Safety first

If anything, it's a car that's big on safety. It comes with features like lane departure warning and lane keep assist, a system that nudges you gently back into lane if you've started to stray.

There's also a collision alert buzzer that warns you if you're about to smash into something, then applies the brakes for you if you decide to ignore it.

If you somehow still manage to crash, there are six airbags to mitigate your folly.

Standout quality in the cabin, with a dashboard that's free of clutter. - Big Fish picStandout quality in the cabin, with a dashboard that's free of clutter. - Big Fish picBut if the Astra has a standout quality, it's the cabin's high quality. There are soft plastics in there that feel expensive when you prod them, along with a dashboard that's free of clutter since there are only a handful of buttons on it.

Instead, a central touchscreen takes care of the main infotainment functions, and it has a responsive interface with crisp graphics, and logical, easy-to-figure menus.

Nice as it is, the system's trump card is that it comes standard with Apple CarPlay. Plug your iPhone in and a scaled-down version of its home screen pops up on the Astra's display, showing all the compatible apps. This includes Maps, which just about meets all your GPS guidance needs, as long as you have a data connection.

Roomy versatility

You expect some versatility from a hatchback, and the Astra doesn't disappoint. The car's boot isn't huge but it's deep, and folding the rear seats to expand it is a fuss-free job.

Despite the downward sweep of the car's roofline, you could get three supermodels into the back since there's plenty of headroom there, along with enough legroom to accommodate their lankiness. You can't ask for much more than that from a hatchback, really.

A strong all-round package, neck-and-neck with the Golf. - Auto Germany picA strong all-round package, neck-and-neck with the Golf. - Auto Germany picOverall, the Opel is a strong all-round package, with sharp looks, a practical body, an engine with pep and a long equipment list.

It's just about neck-and-neck with the Golf, but better than Volvo's V40 and more refined than most of the cars that come out of France.

Whether the Astra has enough brand appeal to win you the admiration of others is a bit more doubtful, but wanting to wow the neighbours is a lousy way to choose a car, anyway.

Yet, if you really must, and driving past in an Astra hasn't impressed them, try inviting them into the posh cabin instead. Anyone would admire that.

Source: The Malay Mail Online