The Buick From Europe?

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When the previous generation of Astra made it to American shores — dressed in leather, wood and Buick Verano badges — it wasn’t a foreign invasion. Instead, the Astra-cum-Verano was a good soldier coming home; the Astra J always felt like a Buick.

The brand-new Astra, now wearing the K designator, is lighter, more agile and stuffed with lots of new-fangled tech. Europeans love it, as shown by its European Car of the Year award. But will Americans love the next Verano, which is bound to be based on this European compact?

Opel Astra 1.4 Turbo Front, Image: © 2016 Viola Procházková/The Truth About Cars

Opel is much more American than most people in Europe realize. Not only did it make almost-American cars in the past, but even Opel’s current offerings show more than a few traces of its American parent. Take the Astra J: A competitor to Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf, the J always felt at least half-a-size larger (though not in a good way). It was a bit cramped on the inside, yet felt massive from the driver’s seat — both in its maneuverability and on-road manners.

The new generation of the Astra is set to change that.

For starters, the new Astra rides on General Motors’ new D2XX platform, which the company says is “completely new” and — by managing to save 260-400 pounds (depending on engine, body style and trim level) — should do away with the tank-like ride of the previous Astra J. Opel’s claim of a completely new platform sounds a bit fishy, though. For one, GM is said to have spent $220 million on developing the new and supposedly modular D2XX platform. That’s facelift money in the car manufacturing world, not we-built-this-thing-from-scratch money. For context, Volkswagen allegedly spent north of $50 billion on its MQB platform.

Opel Astra 1.4 Turbo Taillight, Image: © 2016 Viola Procházková/The Truth About Cars

I spent a week looking at the Astra quite closely. As someone with a well-developed visual memory, plenty of experience with the previous Astra, and access to Google Images, I don’t buy the notion that the Astra K is as new as Opel purports. Much like the Corsa, the car is made to look new enough thanks to superficial lines and details. But when you concentrate to the hard points — doors, windows or rear hatch opening — the general body lines and their relationships with the wheelbase make the Astra look like the old model hidden with new sheetmetal. Most owners won’t notice, though, as the design tweaks are real enough to make the new Astra look much more modern and visually lighter.

Unlike the exterior, which hints at the bones of an old Astra underneath, the cockpit feels properly new. Where last year’s Astra tried to drown you in a sea of grey plastic and a mind-numbing ocean of buttons, the current model offers flowing lines and a snazzy touchscreen infotainment system. Additionally, you no longer feel like you’re trapped in some dystopian armored car as exterior visibility is vastly improved.

Opel Astra 1.4 Turbo Center Console, Image: © 2016 Viola Procházková/The Truth About Cars

The biggest difference comes to the Astra’s driving experience. The idea that this is a European’s interpretation of a Buick is mostly gone. The car feels light on its feet, its steering response is quick and agile, and its suspension is more supple than it used to be. It feels as if Opel removed the Astra’s concrete boots.

Don’t get me wrong. This still isn’t a Mazda3 or a Ford Focus. The Astra lacks the joyful engagement of those cars. And it doesn’t offer nearly the same driving precision as the Golf. Steering is nowhere near as tactile and linear as the Volkswagen. The Astra’s manual transmission can be a bit notchy, and its throws are certainly longer than one would expect from a premium product. It still can’t run with the best, but at least it’s nipping at the heels of its rivals now.

Being only slightly behind can be enough, so long as you have something to make up for it. In the case of the Astra, that something comes in the form of technology. Opel brags about being able to offer the luxury options of a premium car at an affordable price in its compact. And it is true. Kind of. If you consider the Golf or a Škoda to be a premium car.

Opel Astra 1.4 Turbo Interior, Image: © 2016 Viola Procházková/The Truth About Cars

Another highlight — the ventilated, massaging seats — wasn’t equipped at the reviewed example, so we can’t compare it with premium brands. And with exception of Citroëns fake “massage seats” (lumbar support moving back and forth), no competitor offers massage seats, and I don’t know of any direct competitor with ventilated ones, either. The seats themselves are “Aktion Gesunder Rücken (Campaign for Healthier Backs) certified,” which supposedly means they are approved by the Association of Healthy Back—Better Living and the Federal Association of German Back Schools — whatever that means. The seats are super comfortable. Considering the importance the seats play in comfort, these are probably more than worth the extra cost as an option. Shame that it’s unlikely they’ll make it to the potential future Verano.

What will surely make it to North America is the comprehensive package of driving assists. You get the usual fare from today’s better-equipped cars — lane assist, front collision warning and traffic sign recognition — but despite the presence of the front radar, adaptive cruise control isn’t available, nor is it possible to order automatic parking. The systems also lag a bit behind competitors. Lane assist only reacts when you cross the line, unlike VW’s equivalent, which is able to keep inside the lane and basically drive itself — so long as you keep your hands on the wheel.

Opel Astra 1.4 Turbo Instrument Panel, Image: © 2016 Viola Procházková/The Truth About Cars

And then there’s the Astra’s traffic sign recognition, which deserves its own paragraph, and its own place in hell. Unlike the system on the previous generation Astra — or, for that matter, on any competitor — it does not settle for showing tiny traffic signs somewhere in the instrument panel’s display. It feels obliged to inform you — no, warn you and alert you — each and every time you pass any speed limit sign, with a window that covers the display. Ran past another “50” sign? The window pops up. And then again. And again. Basically, the whole 4-inch-or-so display in the dash, otherwise useful for sat nav instructions or trip computer, becomes a place to display traffic signs — and it can’t be turned off.

Once again, it seems Opel’s knowledge of ergonomics is limited to the wonderful seats, as the Astra’s many controls for various in-car systems are decidedly lacking in their usability. While the touchscreen infotainment is surely a huge step forward compared to incomprehensible button hell of the previous generation, it’s still a bit behind competition when it comes to logic and ease of use. Some issues, like commands that are not immediately clear, may just be a matter of familiarity. Others, like the fact that you must go back to the “home” screen almost any time you switch between infotainment sections — such as media, phone or navigation — are maddening.

Opel Astra 1.4 Turbo Front Closeup, Image: © 2016 Viola Procházková/The Truth About Cars

Verdict

The earlier Astra was an also-ran in the segment. It wasn’t a bad car, but it had some annoying features, felt obese, and mostly lacked anything to really make you like it. In today’s market, that spells failure.

The new Astra still isn’t perfect. The ergonomics are often weird, the much-bragged-about tech gadgets lack the finesse of competitors, and — while the car drives pretty well — it can’t play with the best in class. The overall package, though, is now much more compelling than it ever was. Its unique selling point is now “affordable luxury.” You can have features like ventilated, massaging seats and heated steering wheel, lots of assists, LED headlights from larger cars in a compact package. A well-optioned Golf may be a better car, but it’s also so expensive that it ceases to be a real competitor. Against the aging Focus, or even the new offerings from France, the Astra is a formidable opponent.

Will it be a good Buick?

All the qualities that make Astra an interesting offering on European market are those traditionally connected with American cars. For the price, it’s bigger, better equipped, and comes with fairly powerful engines well suited for automatic transmissions. It has lots of features. It’s comfortable. Sure, it’s not made like a premium European car, and some of the features are not the best in business, but it will make a wonderful Buick with an added splash of European agility and flair.

To be a Verano, all it needs is a trunk, some beige leather, wood trim and an automatic transmission.

 

This post originally appeared on The Truth About Cars 

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