BY ANDY ENRIGHT
When the Mark 4 Astra range was launched in February 1998, it was heralded as a sure sign that Vauxhall was turning things around, developing cars that would appeal to real people with real money in their pockets rather than a legion of browbeaten photocopier salesmen. Few realised quite what Vauxhall were up to. The Astra Coupe offered sleek good looks and a decent chassis beneath it for reasonable money and, most importantly, it wasn't answered in kind by Ford. Although not a runaway sales success like the Calibra, the Astra Coupe is held in high esteem by anybody who's spent time behind the wheel. It's mainstream but it works. Now is the perfect time to start picking up reasonably priced used examples.
Models Covered: (2 dr coupe, 1.8, 2.0, 2.2 petrol, [Coupe Edition, SE1, SE2, Bertone Edition, Turbo])
Summer 2000 saw the launch of the stylish Astra Coupe. With a roofline vaguely reminiscent of the much-loved Calibra coupe, this two-door Astra, with styling by Bertone, has exploited a niche uninhabited by the Focus. Three models were available from launch, the 123bhp 1.8-litre Coupe Edition, the 144bhp 2.2-litre Bertone Edition and the storming 190bhp Turbo model. June 2001 saw the introduction of the 1.8-litre SE1 edition. The 1.8 SE2 succeeded it in October 2001, joined by the SE1 and SE2 versions of the 2.2-litre car. A limited edition 888 model was also launched in October 2001 to coincide with Vauxhall's overwhelming success in that season's touring car championship. The Astra Coupe was discontinued to make way for the MkVI Astra Sport Hatch which went on sale in early 2005.
What You Get
The prices - like the shape - make it difficult to pigeonhole this Vauxhall into either of the traditional coupe categories. It's obviously bigger than compact models like Ford's Puma but at first glance, not quite as large (or as pricey) as bigger coupes like Toyota's Celica. Still, you could say the same about cars like the similarly-sized Hyundai Coupe. These tend to straddle the sectors, with appeal dependent on the size of engine fitted. So it will be here. In terms of interior space, this Astra has most of the credentials necessary to stake a claim amongst supposedly larger rivals. The tape measure may tell you it's smaller than a Celica - but you wouldn't know that inside. Quite the contrary in fact. Those swooping lines may look a little bland but they're also very practical, offering enough room to make this a true four-seater - an unusual coupe attribute. A huge 460-litre boot and split-folding rear seats add to the versatility. But then you don't normally buy a coupe for its practicality. Or economy (the 2.2-litre Astra Coupe averages nearly 35mpg). Or class-leading safety (twin front airbags and a maximum 5-star rating from the Euro-NCAP impact-testing people). You buy a coupe like this because it makes you feel good. So have Vauxhall got it wrong? You'll need to spend time with this car to find out. For a start, those initially anonymous looks grow on you, particularly if you choose your colour carefully. Partly, this is thanks to the way the whole car sits 30mm lower on the road than the ordinary hatch or saloon. So far, so good but when it comes to interior ambience, you might be expecting a disappointment. This car's predecessor, Vauxhall's Calibra, might have looked good from the outside but the inside was pure boring Cavalier. Is this an improvement? Well yes and no. Since unlike most rivals with their bespoke-designed cabins, this Coupe must make do with ordinary Astra switchgear and the usual dull choice of GM plastics, it's easy to find fault. Having said that, the design team have made more of an effort this time round, reworking the instrument binnacle with smart, white-faced dials surrounded by aluminium rims. Elsewhere, there are beige or neutral-coloured finishes, a leather steering wheel and an upgraded centre console with either gunmetal or bronze-coloured inserts. Match these improvements with optional Alcantara (suede) or leather upholstery and it's easy to forget the car's humble origins. Standard equipment includes alloy wheels, air conditioning, electric front windows and mirrors, a CD player, front foglamps, power steering, central locking, tinted glass and sports seats. To this tally, the 2.2-litre Bertone Edition adds cruise control and an alarm, while the Turbo also includes metallic paint and a trip computer. All models include nice little touches - like a passenger-side airbag that deactivates itself when the front seat is unoccupied. One that was irritatingly missed was a memory function for the front seats to return them to their original position once tilted forward to admit rear passengers.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The Astra Coupe has yet to suffer any significant faults. Build quality is leagues ahead of its predecessors, as is the technical excellence of the new engines. Check the sporty Turbo models for the usual tyre wear problems. Aside from obvious body damage, just ensure that the car has been well looked after, insist on a service history and buy with confidence.
(approx based on a 2000 1.8 Coupe Edition) The usual Vauxhall bargains in this instance. A new clutch assembly is £165, whilst front brake pads can be found for around £40. Rears are nearer £35, whilst a radiator will cost around £175. Alternators are slightly pricier, nudging the £300 mark, so make sure your prospective purchase is generating a healthy current to its battery.
On the Road
Though on a test drive round the block, the Coupe will feel much like any other Astra, motoring experts have universally applauded its appeal once out on the open road. Particular plaudits have been bestowed on the direct steering, the fluid 5-speed gearbox, the prodigious grip and the first rate body control. The 20% stiffer bodyshell helps here. To this impressive list of virtues, the 2.2-litre model adds a lovely exhaust rasp that you hear through the oval tailpipe as the revs rise and you accelerate from rest to sixty in 8.5s en route to 137mph. ABS and traction control are standard. The Turbo model's steering isn't devoid of wheel-fight under hard acceleration, and the gearbox isn't the slickest around, but you can forgive these minor misdemeanours when you set the Astra up through a series of sweeping bends. The ride is firm, and the chassis transmits what's going on beneath the big Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres clearly to the driver, although the seats aren't the best, being too high and lacking lateral support. Traction is better than would be expected for a reasonably lightweight front-wheel drive car boasting 190bhp, although it is easy to spin the inside front wheel when accelerating out of tighter corners. The uprated brakes are better than they feel, but the chief bugbear of the Coupe Turbo is wind and tyre noise at speed, both of which fill the cabin at speeds above 70mph and make long journeys wearing. The engine really is the Coupe Turbo's trump card. With little turbo lag and a healthy dose of available torque, it translates every available horsepower into genuinely impressive acceleration. With sixty mph arriving in 6.7 seconds and a top speed of 152mph, Porsche Boxster drivers would be well advised to think twice before trying to outstrip the Vauxhall. Indeed, that's part of the car's appeal - its stealth credentials are underlined by blandly benign looks. For those who like the unthreatening lines but don't care for the jarring ride or the manic acceleration, the normally-aspirated models are a far better bet.
The Astra Coupe is the sort of car that makes coupe ownership pretty painless. It's practical, reliable, a reasonably entertaining handler and has a range of decent engines. Whilst it never excels at any one particular thing, it manages to do everything with quiet competence. It'll never be a cult car but contended owners couldn't give a fig. Best buy? Definitely a 2.2-litre.