By Jonathan Crouch
Vauxhall's Astra GTC, a coupe three-door hatch version of the 'J'-series MK4 Astra, offered couture styling with blue-collar underpinnings during a production run that started in 2011 and went on until just after the launch of the MK5 Astra 'K'-series design in 2015. The GTC offered a great combination of looks and practicality. Powerful engines were 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, you know, 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 car we're going to look at here, this one, 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 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', was different. Sharing not a single body panel with an ordinary 'J'-series MK4 Astra of the period, it was wider, longer, lower and more athletic looking. And though the engines would have been familiar to Astra folk back in 2011, a clever HiPerStrut suspension system meant that this GTC variant felt a bit sportier to drive.
This was, in short, a surprisingly desirable Astra. A 280PS petrol turbo VXR hot hatch variant joined the range in 2012. And shortly after, Vauxhall introduced a 200PS version of the petrol turbo 1.6, to bridge the gap between conventional variants and the VXR. When the MK5 'K'-series Astra range was launched in 2015, it didn't include a Coupe/3-door body style, so Vauxhall kept the GTC in the showrooms for another year in conventional form - and the VXR variant continued to sell right up to the end of the decade.
What You Get
You expect a three-door coupe to be smaller than the five-door Hatch it's likely to be based upon. But that certainly isn't the case here, this GTC longer and wider than the more ordinary five-door hatch it's based on (the fourth generation 'Astra J'-series design, which sold between 2009 and 2015). This coupe variant featured a longer wheelbase - which explains the remarkable amount of space it can offer for both rear seat passengers and their luggage.
We'll get to that in a minute. But let's begin with what will probably sell you this car in the first place: the way it looks. Stylist Mark Adams and his team created a shape that shares nothing but the roof ariel and the door handles with that MK4 5-door Hatch, the differences further emphasised by a wider track, front and rear, plus a lower stance and much larger wheels. At the front, a centreline crease is complemented by slim, 'eagle-eye'-style headlamps featuring wing-shaped daytime running light graphics.
From the side, it's a design based around three distinct curves. Most prominent is the signature Vauxhall 'blade', a crisp line that sweeps up from the rocker at the front of the door. A second line stretches through the door handle along the waist of the car, while a third follows the roof profile, guiding the eye to the sharply integrated rear spoiler. At the back, high tech LED lighting was only optional, but all GTCs look sharp, the rear lamps echoing the 'stretched wing motif' begun at the front.
Lift the tailgate and you'll find yourself gazing at a boot that at 380-litres is actually 30-litres larger than that provided by that MK4 five-door hatch model; fold the rear bench and you'll free up 1165-litres of total volume - a space nearly 20% bigger than you'll find provided by some obvious rivals from this period. This all comes courtesy of that lengthened wheelbase, something that also benefits rear seat passengers. Two adults will be more comfortable in the back than in anything else in the class - even on longer journeys.
Getting in behind the wheel means opening one of the huge doors that are needed thanks to the extended wheelbase and coupe body shape - and that might be an issue if you're tightly parked. Once installed behind the wheel though, it's all pretty user-friendly, even if it isn't very different from the layout you'd find in an ordinary MK4 pre-2015 Astra Hatch, despite Vauxhall's attempts to lift the atmosphere with faux aluminium inserts on the centre console, air vents and doors. What is different from that MK4 Astra Hatch is the rear screen - which is a pity as it's smaller in the GTC, slightly restricting rearward visibility.
Once you adjust to that though, mostly everything else about this car is user-friendly, once you've worked out what all the little buttons and knobs actually do. The chrome-edged instruments in their deep-set binnacles look nice and work well. Plus the British build quality seems solid and finding an ideal driving position is easy thanks to a reach and rake-adjustable wheel and a height adjustable driver's seat.
What To Look For
What to Look For
The Astra GTC seems to have a reasonable quality record, but we did come across complaints of cabin rattles in the interior. And the aerodynamic skirt was frequently caught on kerbs. As is always the case with mainstream brand hatch models, you'll want to keep a look out for thrashed company hacks or ex-hire fleet vehicles. Ensure that the car has been serviced on the button and that the mileage on the service record stamp tallies with what the odometer says. It's also worth checking the car for accident damage, as many cars will be de-fleeted early if they've had a prang and have been repaired. Ask the seller explicitly if the car has had accident damage and inspect the usual points for overspray and kinks in the under-bonnet flitch plates. The engines tend to be tough units with no serious problems to report.
(approx based on a 2012 Astra GTC 1.4 excl. VAT) Using the base 1.4-litre petrol model as an example, expect to pay around £4-£9 for an oil filter, around £9-£19 for an air filter and around £8 for a wiper blade. Front brake pads vary in price between £30-£61 for a set; for rears, think £16-£40. For front brake discs, think around £60-£103; for rears, think £43-£120. A radiator costs in the £135-£176 bracket. A headlamp costs in the £116-£130 bracket. A water pump is in the £44-£94 bracket; a thermostat is around £54-£66.
On the Road
You could be excused for approaching a drive in this GTC model with rather low expectations. After all, it succeeded a couple of Astra coupe models that were no more exciting to drive than the frumpy five-door hatchbacks they were based upon. And quick glance at the badge work 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 pre-2015 MK4 ordinary Astra. But that's only because engineering effort and investment here was directed into areas far more important to driving satisfaction. Sharper steering, a wider track and, most importantly, a completely different suspension set-up all combined to make this the most engaging driver's car Vauxhall made in the 21st century's second decade. In terms of Griffin brand models from the 2010-2015 era, only the 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 we drove this car, we didn't think it possible for an Astra - any Astra - to offer a more rewarding drive than a rival Megane Renaultsport or a sporty Focus ST from this period. But we were wrong. Better still, you don't have to get a GTC whose original owner spent 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 British roads. Those who do get a FlexRide-equipped model will get the option of switching from the standard set-up to a more comfort-orientated 'Tour' setting. Or opting for a 'Sport' mode, which stiffens up the suspension to a point you won't enjoy on your everyday commute. At the same time, selecting this mode adds more weight to the steering, sharpens the throttle response and changes the instrument backlighting from white to heartbeat-pulsing red. Each of these elements you can select or de-select via an on-board configuration menu.
If that's an option you're likely to be using often, you're likely to be one of those lusting over the frantic 280bhp VXR 155mph high performance version that sat at the very top of the range. If you can't stretch to one of those, then the only engine in the mainstream range likely to really get your heart pumping is the 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 the mainstream GTC models. All drive through a reasonably slick six-speed manual gearbox, with an auto gearbox option available on 1.4-litre petrol Turbo 140PS and 2.0 CDTi diesel models.
It would be easy to imagine many potential customers looking for a mainstream-branded affordable compact coupe model from the 2010-2015 period not even trying this car, seduced as they might be by the fun of a MINI Coupe, the quality of a Volkswagen Scirocco or the style of a Peugeot RCZ. And that would be a mistake. Unlike its direct predecessors, this Astra GTC was much, much more than just a three-door Astra Hatch in a dress. In fact, we rated it as arguably the best handling car in its class from this period, certainly the most practical choice and probably the most affordable too. None of which would count for very much in this market if this car didn't also look great. But it does.
It's true that the interior could be more exciting and that some of the lower-order engines are unremarkable. But then, that's also true of a number of obvious rivals. Ultimately, if you can get over the issue of buying into an Astra when maybe you'd started your search in this segment with an eye on something with an apparently more desirable badge, then this GTC is unlikely to disappoint. A performance car for the everyday.