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CAPE TOWN – The South African compact hatchback market is stuffed to the gills with impressive contenders all vying for attention. Although, the newest Opel Astra has successfully stolen the spotlight by winning the coveted European Car of the Year award in 2016 and competes strongly against the likes of the Volkswagen Golf and Mazda3.

It certainly looks the part of an award-winning hatchback, with a sculpted front bumper and swept-back headlamps, clean lines running down the sides, and an Alfa Romeo-esque behind. It's definitely more visually appealing than the conservative Golf. The blacked out C-pillar design (that's all the rage nowadays) splits opinions, but overall the design is crisp and unlikely to age quickly.

Compared with the previous generation, this Astra is smaller on the outside yet bigger inside. The cabin, while a bit dark in this Sport trim level, is mostly a plush environment with soft-touch materials on the upper panels. The plastic trim found lower on the dash and on the doors, however, is quite scratchy and hard.

Space in the rear is more than enough, with adequate knee- and headroom despite the sloping roofline. The boot is also impressively sized, if not class-leading.

In Sport-specification, the Astra comes as standard with supportive leather seats that are heated front and rear, as well as part-electrically operated. Indeed, the test car comes with a plethora of tech goodies such as climate control, blind-spot alert, front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, active lane-keep assist, traffic sign recognition, as well as forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking.

The cabin controls are logically laid-out and it didn't take me long to get accustomed to the tech. It was also easy to find a comfortable driving position. The seven-inch IntelliLink infotainment system is a doddle to use and features Apple CarPlay as well as Android Auto, although the driver has to reach quite a bit to use the screen, which can become distracting.

Engine-wise, this version of the Astra doesn't disappoint. The newly developed, turbocharged 1 399 cm3 engine produces 110 kW and an impressive 245 N.m of torque from 2 000 to 4 000 r/min. It's a spritely performer in terms of both city and highway driving, but it does feel a tad lethargic when pulling out of junctions. But that could also be caused by the six-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, which, when pulling away, feels as if it struggles to decide on the correct gear for acceleration.

Round town, the car feels agile enough, with plenty of power on tap. Riding on 18-inch alloys wrapped in low-profile rubber, the Astra Sport has a rather harsh ride over any surface that isn't perfectly smooth. Other than that, the cabin is supremely insulated.

The Sport-specification also adds a rather nondescript sport button. Although its effects are barely noticeable when engaged, Opel says it sharpens the throttle response and adds weight to the steering.

The Opel Astra 1,4T Sport AT is arguably the sweet spot in the range, coming standard with myriad tech that makes driving less stressful, and it looks great to boot. If you're looking for a compact hatchback and can turn a blind eye to the harsh ride in this specification, then the Astra definitely deserves to be on your shortlist.

By Walter Hayward-Botha

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