Feel-good sensation with GTC

Vauxhall's Astra GTC.
Vauxhall's Astra GTC.
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Vauxhall’s Astra GTC is the most driver-focused model the brand makes. Jonathan Crouch drives it.

The GTC offers couture styling with blue-collar underpinnings. It’s a great combination. Powerful engines are available, but you don’t necessarily need them for the feel-good sensation that comes with GTC ownership. It’s a relatively affordable compact coupe that can stand wheel-to-wheel with apparently more exalted rivals - and often come out on top.

Wouldn’t it smarten your driveway? Many potential buyers will think so.

Vauxhall has quite a performance heritage. From the Prince Henry of 1911 to the fire-breathing Firenza models of the Seventies, the Eighties’ Chevette HSR rallycars or the Lotus Carlton super saloon, the last century saw plenty for the driving enthusiast to get excited about behind the wheel of something bearing the Griffin badge.

None of these models though, were cars that sporting motorists were particularly likely to want to use every day. Which was why in 1990, Vauxhall launched the Calibra, an affordable compact coupe based on ordinary underpinnings that was super-stylish, sensibly practical and, in its more potent forms, really very decent to drive. It was different enough from humbler Astras and Cavaliers to be desirable. Yet similar enough to remain affordable both to buy and to run. Curiously, the Calibra wasn’t replaced, nor was it really replicated in the Vauxhall line-up - until late 2011 and the launch of the the Astra GTC.

This Vauxhall made its debut on the UK market at a time when interest in compact coupes seemed to be on the rise, with all-new models like the MINI Coupe and the Hyundai Veloster arriving to join a revised version of Renault’s Megane Coupe, the still new and exciting Peugeot RCZ and perhaps this car’s toughest competitor, Volkswagen’s Scirocco. None of these cars would have been seriously troubled had Vauxhall done little more than dress up a three-door version of the ordinary Astra family hatch - as had been the case with the previous Astra Sport Hatch and Astra coupe models that tried and failed to replicate the old Calibra’s appeal.

But this GTC, this ‘Grand Touring Coupe’, is different. Sharing not a single body panel with an ordinary Astra, it’s wider, longer, lower and more athletic looking. And though the engines are familiar, a clever HiPerStrut suspension system means that it should feel very different to drive. It is, in short, a very desirable Astra indeed.

You could be excused for approaching a drive in this GTC model with rather low expectations. After all, it succeeds a couple of Astra coupe models that were no more exciting to drive than the frumpy five-door hatchbacks they were based upon.

And a quick glance at the badgework and under the bonnet might suggest that we’re again looking at something similar here. You might think that. Your friends might think that. But you’d both be wrong. It’s true that apart from the potent 2.0-litre petrol turbo used in the flagship VXR version, GTC engineware is identical to that you’ll find in any ordinary Astra. But that’s only because engineering effort and investment has been directed into areas far more important to driving satisfaction. Sharper steering, a wider track and, most importantly, a completely different suspension set-up all combine to make this the most engaging driver’s car Vauxhall makes. Only a £30,000 Insignia VXR gets its power down and turns into corners as sharply - and that’s only because it shares this car’s clever HiPerStrut suspension system.

Before I drove this car, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for an Astra - any Astra - to offer a more rewarding drive than a rival Megane Renaultsport or a sporty Focus ST. I was wrong.

Better still, you don’t have to spend extra money on Vauxhall’s hi-tech FlexRide adaptive damping system to really enjoy it, so well-judged is the ride and handling balance, especially tuned for our appalling roads.

If you can’t stretch to the frantic 280bhp VXR 155mph high performance version, then the only engine in the mainstream range likely to really get your heart pumping is the one I tried, a 16v 1.6-litre petrol Turbo unit developing a useful 180PS.

Its torque figure of 230Nm isn’t quite as impressive compared to obvious rivals, but this model’s still quick enough to flash past sixty from rest in just 7.8s on the way to 138mph. And there’s a lovely rorty engine note to go with it.

Most GTC customers though, will probably opt for something a little more sensible.

There are a couple of 1.4-litre petrol Turbo units developing either 120 or 140PS, the faster of which is still able to make sixty in 9.0s.

Or there’s a choice of either 1.7 or 2.0-litre CDTi diesel power which can get a bit clattery in the upper reaches of the rev range.

The 1.7 comes in either 110 or 130PS states of tune, while the 2.0-litre unit is altogether punchier with 165PS and 350Nm of torque. enough to make this variant feel probably the most potent of all.

Day to day running costs are not going to be markedly different from any other Astra model. In fact, when the higher residual values this GTC model will enjoy over a normal Astra hatch come into play, it’s likely that this car will be cheaper to run than its ordinary stablemate.