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Holden Astra TS

The Astra TS was made between 1998 and 2004. The Australian cars were all made in Europe, unlike previous versions made available by Holden. They come in the form of a 3 door and 5 door hatch, a 4 door sedan and a 2 door convertible. Most of the models used a 1.8 litre four cylinder engine, while the SRi and convertible models were given a 2.2 litre. There was a small number of cars imported with a 2.0 litre turbo engine, placed in the SRi Turbo and convertible turbo.

Test subjects

I have tested two of these models: the CDX sedan and the convertible turbo. Both of these have more options than the rest of the models, like leather seats, climate control, ABS braking and stability control. Both test cars had more than 140 000kms on the clock. The convertible has actually been my daily driver for a while, and has now done an impressive 255 000kms.

The drive

General driving in these cars is quite pleasant. The seats are comfortable and supportive, without feeling restrictive. Some of the softness in the padding has subsided after so many years, but that is to be expected. The ergonomics are pretty good, as one might expect from a European designed car. Road holding is better than average in the sedan, much better than average in the turbo, thanks to the low profile 17 inch alloys and slightly lower stance.

The drive is pretty smooth for a small car, although it is a little bumpy in the turbo. Cornering does not exhibit any significant body roll and the cars feel very safe, even under hard driving. There can be a little understeer when pushed, but it’s easily managed. I tested the ABS on both cars in the wet, and both performed perfectly. Likewise, the stability control does a fabulous job of keeping things under control in the wet. Cruising on the motorway is effortless and overtaking is easily done, especially with the turbo. Both of these cars had electronic cruise control, which worked perfectly. I find the steering is a little lighter than most, thanks to the electric steering pump. After having driven the car for some time, I actually prefer the lighter steering, and the feedback couldn’t be any better.

Performance from the 1.8 litre engine is more than satisfactory and it gets the car moving quickly when required. The 2.0 litre turbo on the other hand, is in a whole different category. It has impressive torque, and when the turbo really gets going, you really feel it. It’s lot of fun if you’re an enthusiastic driver. Even after 15 years and 250 000 kilometres, it still likes to get going with enthusiasm. You will need to have a manual license for the turbo though, as there was no automatic option.

The good

The general quality of the Astra is pretty good. The European influence is very clear in the materials that are used and the general design principles of it’s construction. The interior fascia and centre console are solid, with the plastic clips that hold things together lasting through the harshness of our climate. All the controls, knobs, switches and levers are still functional, with one exception being the mirror adjustment button.

In general, the electrics have proven to be of good quality. The electric windows have not showed any signs of wearing out, the radio is still functional and the speakers still produce amazing sound, although the rear speakers did need replacing after about 12 years.

Other mechanisms like handles and latches, have not needed too much attention. The steering does not appear to have worn at all and is still straight and true.

The engine has showed remarkable resilience to the adversity of the environment and my somewhat enthusiastic driving style, although there have been several repairs where items have worn beyond repair. I give a lot more detail about the repairs later on.

The fuel consumption is still very good, not having changed in more than 100 000kms. The 1.8 litre gets around 8 litres/100k, the turbo a bit more at 9 litres/100k.

The air conditioning still works well, although the air conditioner pump is leaking fluid so will need replacing.

The bad

The CDX did not exhibit much in the way of faults or failures. It’s a much more subdued version and as such, has held up well mechanically. This is true for most of the model’s line-up, and if there is any major concern, it’s usually visibly (or audibly) noticeable. One thing that absolutely will go bad is the multi-function display on the centre dash. Every one I have seen has dead pixels, some have failed completely. This may not be a major problem, as it is mostly informational. It does however display errors or faults, and with older cars this can be an issue. Having said that, the display on the CDX and convertible is slightly different to the other models, which may not be as susceptible to this problem. The display is not cheap to replace either, at over $800 from Holden, if you can find one. The only other options are junk yards or eBay, and you really don’t know what you’re getting until you’ve got it in place.

The turbo on the other hand, has had a much more comprehensive set of problems. This is in part due to the fact that it’s a 'performance' engine, and so this should be expected to some degree. Add to that, the problems with the convertible mechanism, and you’re in for a bumpy ride.

The turbo itself started having issues around 190 000k, noticeable by white smoke emanating from the exhaust when idling for a while. This is caused by wear in the turbine bearing, and can only be rectified by replacing it. As you can imagine, this can be rather expensive at over $1200, probably more from Holden. I took a chance with a replacement 'cartridge' on eBay for $260, which is only the central core of the turbo. It’s done about 50 000kms with this and has been fine.

Other things that have failed are the vacuum box at the rear of the engine, the crankcase breather valve (twice) and the gearbox. The gearbox failure is most likely due to the high power output of the engine (also my driving), so is much less likely on other versions.

The convertible mechanism is by far the biggest problem on this car. It’s not likely to be from over-use either. I generally have certain long-haired individuals with me, who don’t seem to appreciate passing wind quite like I do, so the top doesn’t go down as frequently as I would like. The locking mechanism on the front that latches on to the windshield is prone to failure. One of the two latches was replaced just before I got the car, and both have since failed. The repair cost at Holden is a minimum of $2500 each! There are aftermarket ones floating about that are very nicely made, but they still cost around $800 a piece, and you would have to fit it yourself. This on it’s own makes the car a very risky prospect for purchase. Fortunately for me, I’m pretty good with my hands and was able to repair them at practically no cost (yes, it is possible). More recently, the actual hydraulic pipes have ruptured, so the roof is now unusable, and the pipes are very difficult to find.

The ugly

As with all cars, these engines do have common faults. If the dash is showing a 'check engine' warning light, it’s better to avoid it. In this particular car, it’s likely to mean expensive repairs, and is fairly common on cars found in the current market.

The timing belt needs to be replaced every 90 000kms, at a cost of $800-$1200. Check the log book to make sure that this has been done. If there is no record, assume that it hasn’t.

Most rubber pipes will have to be replaced after about 10 years, as will the radiator and probably the alternator too. The air conditioner pump needed replacing after about 13 years.

General things like gas lifters on the boot, radiator overflow and oil filler caps, CV boots, brake disk rotors, thermostat and clutch (manual only) will all need to be replaced over time.

The centre panel of the dashboard also became tacky fairly early on. Unlike the rest of the dash, it’s coated with a textured covering, which doesn’t seem to like the Australian climate very much.

As with most cars in this age group, the paint is starting to degrade and peel. This cannot be buffed out as it has a laquered finish, and the problem lies beneath. A re-spray or vinyl are the only options to get it looking good again.

The low-down

When all is said and done, the Astra TS is a good car. The base models are pretty solid and reliable, if not inspiring. They will need a little more care and attention than some other cars in it’s class, but if they are well maintained you can’t go wrong. The engines used in all models will happily keep going for many more than 200 000kms without needing a rebuild, but are not as reliable as the Toyota and Nissan engines in similar cars.

The Astra constitutes about 2.5% of the total used car market for the years of manufacture, second only to the Toyota Corolla in the same class, with the majority of them being 2002 or newer. They make up about 15% of the Holden line-up for the same period, second to the Commodore.

If you can find one in good condition with no issues that appears to have been well cared for, it should provide you with a good runner for a while, as long as you look after it.

Because of the known problems with these cars, they can actually be found for much less than they are worth. Average prices sit at around $2000 for the majority of the variants, about 40% less than comparative Toyota Corolla variants, and 10% to 15% below the Ford, Nissan and Mazda equivalents.

The convertibles tend to hold more value, as does the SRi Turbo, but you would have to spend real money on these to make them reliable, dependable cars. They are fun cars though, so some will feel it’s well worthwhile in the long run.

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