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Impressive New Opel Astra Sheds Light On Chevrolet Cobalt
The Detroit News
By John McCormick / Autos Insider

March 25, 2004
St Tropez, France - Former Formula One driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen and I are doing our level best to upset the new Opel Astra. Stabbing the brakes and lifting the throttle mid-corner on an airfield autocross, we're trying every trick to make General Motors Corp.'s new European VW Golf fighter lose its handling composure. At one point while I'm driving Frentzen even grabs the hand brake mid-turn, but still the rear of the Astra refuses to break lose.

We're trying, without much success, to find flaws in the Opel's handling and stability systems, which are unusually advanced for a car in this class. This third generation Astra debuts a new integrated chassis control network which brings together adaptive suspension, stability control and continuous damping control in a uniquely capable package.

For hard-core users like Frentzen (who is now racing for Opel) and yours truly there is a selectable sport mode, which modifies the suspension settings and quickens both the steering and throttle response. The result is a crisp handling, compact five-door hatch that is already garnering enthusiastic reviews from European media. One of Germany's leading automotive magazines, Auto Motor und Sport, declared the Astra the winner in a comparison with the latest Golf; a battle that in the past has nearly always gone to VW. Even before the Astra started going on sale this month, advance orders to the car had topped 30,000 units.

Opel leader Carl-Peter Forster and engineering vice president Hans Demant are not surprisingly pleased with the initial reaction to the 2005 Astra, particularly as the car is a development of the existing platform rather than a completely new design. "The Astra class segment covers 30 percent of the European passenger car market," notes Demant, "so this car is one of most important vehicle lines Opel has." Demant reels off what he sees as the Astra's strong points; expressive design, excellent ride and handling, best in class interior space and segment-first technologies.

Forster is pleased too that the Astra comes to market with a full range of diesel engines, an essential factor in Europe and an area where Opel had been found lacking a few years ago. "Finally we are ideally placed in the diesel market," says Forster.

For US consumers the significance of the new Astra is that it bears a close relationship with Chevrolet's forthcoming Cobalt, which debuted at the last Detroit show. Though the two cars are technically founded on different GM architectures - the Astra on the T platform, the Cobalt on the Delta - they share quite similar suspension designs. So, insiders say, it's reasonable to expect the Cobalt to have the same, if not better, dynamic qualities as the Astra when the Chevy goes on sale late this year. In other words, we could be looking forward to one of the best small cars ever to emerge from a Detroit automaker.

On a separate note, Cadillac should be congratulated on its debut in production car racing at Sebring last weekend. The sight and sound of the CTS-V race cars scoring a one-two victory was inspiring
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