It's getting somewhat tiresome starting every Opel-related story with some background information on the troubled situation this brand finds itself in, so for once I'm going to skip all of that and begin with some good news.

Firstly, Opel is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year - quite an achievement for a company that started out making sewing machines and bicycles. Secondly, General Motors South Africa acknowledges that it has made a proper hash of things the past few years when it comes to this brand, and appears to be once again committed to giving it some welcome attention. I still believe more should be done, but at least the local range is growing again and there's (some) marketing spend.

The Astra GTC you see here was recently added to the line-up, along with the very funky Meriva MPV. It fits very well with GMSA's new positioning of Opel as an upmarket, sporty brand.

Priced at R287 000 the Astra GTC 1,4T Enjoy goes up against such rivals as the Volkswagen Scirocco 1,4TSI (R302 800) and Renault Megane Coupe 1,4T GT-Line (R259 900). I spent much of last week driving the Opel, and it makes a pretty strong case for itself.

Stylish good looks

Much of that has to do with its "pretty" styling - both the Scirocco and Megane are love/hate kind of cars, while the Opel doesn't generate such strong emotions, either way. I find it quite attractive, especially from the rear. Visually, you'd expect it to have much in common with the Astra five-door hatch it is based on, but that isn't the case - only the exterior mirror housings and antenna are shared! It is a squat, purposeful-looking car, the result of a lower roofline, stretched wheelbase and wider tracks. I'd advise you to go for a bold colour, and not the dour white and greys that GMSA decided on for the launch vehicles. I've seen bright red and yellow examples driving around in Europe, looking far more striking. The 1,4T Enjoy rides on 18-inch alloy wheels as standard.

Comfort and safety high on agenda

Though the Astra GTC is aimed at the more fashion-conscious buyers out there, it is quite a practical proposition, too. The boot is usefully large (Opel claims 380 litres of space) and I was quite surprised by rear seat comfort, too. There's plenty head- and legroom, with the only issues being limited footspace and side windows that can't open.

Up front, there are no such problems, and the Astra actually offers such a wide range of adjustment for the seating and steering wheel that you'd have to be of a particularly odd shape not get comfortable.

All-round fit and finish is of a high standard - an upshot of Opel chasing the more premium end of the market in Europe. There are two - admittedly small - niggles. In the Astra hatch we complained about the fiddly electronic park brake (I myself had to do a Mr Bean to catch a car running out of my driveway), so I was happy to find a proper handbrake in this model. However, when you push it down you are likely to squash your fingers against the gearlever surround. It is poorly positioned.

Secondly, this is an upmarkted, advanced car... So why the old-fashioned red typeface digital readouts on the centre display? Even the new Hyundai i30 we currently have on test has more sophisticated displays. Come on GMSA... if you want to play the upmarket, near-premium game, then this car should have modern infotainment interfaces.

Except for those slip-ups, the GTC is well-specced. Standard items include dual front/side airbags, rear ISOfix mountings, CD/MP3 front-loader, USB input and BlueTooth, rear park assist, cruise control and automatic headlight control. Cloth upholstery is fitted, but I usually prefer cloth to leather, as long as the kids don't get near it.

Performance and handling

Under the bonnet is the same turbocharged 1,4-litre engine that so impressively does duty in the Meriva. It delivers 103 kW at 4 900 r/min and 200 N.m of torque from 1 850 to 4 900 r/min. Opel claims a 0-100 km/h sprint time of 9,9 seconds and a 201 km/h top speed. In reality it feels punchier than those figures suggest, with strong pull from low-down. A six-speed manual 'box is fitted and it possesses that typically clunky Opel shift feel that you'll either love or hate. Opel claims a combined-cycle fuel consumption figure of 5,9 L/100 km. In reality, as with all cars, you'll struggle to match that, but our Fuel Index figure for this model is a still impressive 7,08 L/100 km, and THAT is more easily attainable. The GTC features auto stop/start, too, as well as a gearshift indicator.

According to Opel the GTC features a development of its HiPerStrut front suspension, first introduced on its Inignia OPC. It uses, "the Astra’s original suspension pick-up points but reduces the kingpin inclination angle by 44 per cent and shortens the spindle length by 46 per cent compared to the McPherson strut system fitted to other Astra models." So, what are the advantages? According to Opel, improved ride and handling, as well as more direct steering feel.

I can't say I picked up a massive difference compared with the normal Astra hatch, but yes, the steering does have a "weighty" feel to it, and generally the car's handling behaviour is benign. Then again, this is only a 1,4, so torque steer was hardly going to be a major issue.

No, overall, the car is a pleasure to drive, with just enough power to exploit the underpinnings, and a relaxed, smooth character when not pushed. Even though it has large alloy wheels, the sidewalls of the tyres are quite substantial, contributing to a good ride quality.

Summary

The Astra GTC is a nice addition to the local line-up. It's a niche model that won't sell in droves, but that's ok... its rivals don't do either. It offers a nice balance of performance and comfort, style and practicality and is seemingly well-priced between its two main rivals. If you're looking for something sleek and different, but don't want to sacrifice too much in terms of space, this is well worth a look.

It comes standard with a 5-years/120 000 km warranty and 5-years/90 000 km service plan.

Specifications:

Model: Opel Astra GTC 1,4T Enjoy

Engine: 1,4-litre, four-cylinder, turbopetrol

Power: 103 kW/4 900 r/min

Torque: 200 N.m/1 850 - 4 900 r/min

Fuel consumption: 5,9 L/100 km

CO2: 139 g/km

Top speed: 201 km/h

Acceleration (0-100km/h): 9,9 sec

Price: R287 000

* All Manufacturer's claims