crankandpiston – finally – takes a shot on Jebel Jais with the Opel Astra OPC.
|Inline 4cyl, turbocharged, 1998cc
|276bhp @ 5500rpm
|295lb ft @ 2400-4800rpm
Like the Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, the Opel Astra OPC is a model we’ve been looking to get our hands on for a few months now. Fellow hacks across the region have waxed both lyrically and unceasingly about Opel’s hot hatch in the Middle East, praising its chuckability, its grunt and its six-speed manual gearbox. It’s unsurprising therefore that the Astra has been out of action for several weeks, Opel citing ‘service reasons’ (read ‘someone’s stacked it’) for its disappearance.
When the current generation of the Opel Astra OPC first landed in 2012 (after years of limited presence in the Middle East), the Astra’s 276bhp and 0-100kph in a shade under six seconds marked it out as the most powerful in its class. Even now some two years later, 276bhp from the Astra’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder puts the 261bhp Volkswagen Scirocco R and the 247bhp Ford Focus ST power figures firmly to shame. Throw in an impressive 295lb ft of torque, a 250kph electronically limited top speed and a six-speed manual gearbox designed to hold revs until pistons bounce off the bonnet, and those ‘service issues’ begin to make a lot more sense. Where better then to test said hoon mobile than the mountain roads of Jebel Jais?
Against a backdrop of dusty rock faces and late afternoon sun, our Sunny Melon (read ‘yellow’) test model really does pop. And that’s a good thing, since it really is quite a handsome little thing. The ‘squint and you’ll miss it’ front grille, ripple-less bonnet and rather gaping air intakes in the front bumper may not appeal to everyone, but for this particular writer, the subtleties intermixed with bold details really make the Astra standout. There’s a similar vibe down the side and rear, the 20-inch alloy wheels, graceful swoops moulded into the flanks and cheeky tail lip spoiler rounding out a very tidy and sporty package. In fact the only thing that begins to grate is the boot itself: so well has Opel hidden the release switch in the cabin that I have to keep switching the engine off to use the button on the key. Not ideal during a seven-hour shoot.
Another few issues mount up when you step inside. The centre console, all buttons and dials as it is, does look a little cluttered and dated in today’s touchscreen-heavy world. And given a number of plasticky panels on an admittedly stylish-looking centre console, one does wonder where the majority of your $36,600 has disappeared to. A few members of the team also wondered during our time with the Astra whether the manual gearbox was mounted too far back for comfortable shifting, though this didn’t prove an issue for yours truly.
Such criticisms fade when you sink into the OPC-spec sports seats, which not only look the cat’s pyjamas but also offer very impressive lumbar support. A comfortable driving position is not difficult to find, and though there is limited head and legroom, the rising centre console and sweeping design of the dash somehow make the layout feel sportier, the cockpit cocooning the driver rather than enveloping him.
When we’re finally underway, with the full beans Opel Performance Centre button already pressed, the kick from the turbo four-cylinder is tangible almost immediately. Once you’re out of first gear at least. Plant the right boot, keep the revs high, and off the line you may feel a little slip from the front tyres as 276bhp is ploughed through them. Although rivals have toyed with putting the drive through the back wheels (BMW 1 Series) and all four (Volkswagen Golf R), the Astra, like its main technical rival the Ford Focus ST, has decided that FWD is the acronym to go for. It saves weight and cost, but it does mean that traces of understeer are inevitable when you really hit the twisties. Compare that with say the GTI, which is never far from its rails through the turns, the Astra doesn’t feel as planted as perhaps it could have been.
Things improve though when you slot home second. Even with close to 280 screaming horses fighting for grip, there’s barely any torque steer (unlike in the Focus ST). The kick from the turbo soon calms to linear acceleration as you hit the higher revs, and though that starts to dwindle as you hit the 7000rpm mark, there’s plenty of poke to keep momentum up out of even the tightest corners. With 276bhp on-hand through the turns, the temptation to push the Astra is immense, and incredibly entertaining. Only very occasionally was this momentum stunted by missing fifth, possibly due to a well-used gearbox on our test model.
As well as sizeable wallops of grunt, a low centre of gravity and clever distribution of a 1550kg kerb weight means balance of the Astra OPC is very impressive. There’s little body roll, allowing you to feather the throttle through the sweepers without upsetting the equilibrium. Even under braking, with progressive squeeze on the discs and plenty of travel in the pedal, there’s no fear that the Astra is about to scythe helplessly into the cliff face, encouraging you to push the hatchback that much more. There’s also plenty of heft through the steering wheel, connecting the driver to the front wheels and emphasising that it is you – not the turbo – that is steering the front end. It’s a lot of fun, the chuckable nature of the Astra at home with the winding Jebel Jais asphalt.
Several hundred preceding kilometres with cack-handed Middle Eastern journalists mean grip from the front tyres is on its way out. And, given the almost hilarious amount of wheel wobble at highway cruising speeds, the driver-side front alloy has clearly received a whack at some point. Fortunately this doesn’t affect the handling too adversely during our run.
It may have taken us a while to get our hands on the Opel Astra OPC but it certainly hasn’t made the experience any less enjoyable. The Astra may not be as sharp as its hot hatch rivals, a slightly understeery front end and occasionally awkward gearbox proving an Achilles heel. But the grunt and balance on offer make the Astra good fun to chuck about, and you may surprised just how far you can push those 276 horses. Just expect ‘service issues’ to raise their ugly heads when you do.
- Technical specifications available on page 2