AFTER a desperately bleak few years, two of the most iconic badges are thrust into the limelight again… and this time it seems the playing field is more level than ever before. Both Volkswagen’s new Golf GTI and the Opel Astra GSi are powered by turbocharged and intercooled 2,0-litre engines producing 147 kW. Both have sixspeed manual gearboxes. And, most importantly, both have badges that will make us want them to be rip-roaring good fun, no matter how “grown up” the marketing men will tell us they’ve become...

Comparative Test: DESIGN

Astra GSi               4 stars
Golf GTI                  4.5 stars

In our first road test of the new Astra (Nov 2004), we said it is a more interesting looking car than its direct Golf rival. And we remain convinced that in terms of basic design, the edgy and futuristic Astra is sportier than the rounded, grown-up Golf. However, when it comes to GSi versus GTI, we’re forced to think again. Opel has done almost nothing to distinguish the GSi from its smaller-engined Astra models. In fact, if it weren’t for the badges and larger (17-inch) wheels, there would be no way to tell! Volkswagen, however, has given the Golf a much more aggressive grille with a red lip, a deeper, hungrier front airdam, and, in the case of our test car, truly spectacular 18-inch ninja-star alloy wheels. The Astra remains a pretty car, but the new GTI attracted far more attention, which for some will be a big plus.

It is much the same story on the inside, where the Astra looks identical to its smaller-engined siblings, whereas the Golf has benefited from racy add-ons. The Volkswagen has drilled pedals, heavily bolstered Recaro bucket seats, a steering wheel with a squared off bottom and the obligatory sporty bits of trim. The Astra also has sportier pedals, leather upholstery and, erm, that’s it.

The basic facia design of the Astra is bolder, but this form-overfunction approach works less well in the cabin (as opposed to the exterior) because some of the controls (especially for the climate control system) end up being poorly positioned very low on the facia. The Astra has no air-con on/ off button on the facia – instead, the driver has to enter a menu on the display screen by pressing the centre knob of the ventilation system, and then ticking a box on the screen. You could call it Opel’s version of BMW’s iDrive, and it is just as horribly clumsy to use.

The Golf’s facia could just as well have been fitted to an MPV. Its controls are mounted higher, within easier reach, and are more clearly marked. You may ask why we are harping on about control placement – this is, after all, a hot hatch shootout – but it really matters when you have to adjust something when enjoying the twisties!

The Golf’s instrumentation is also different – the dials have a 3D effect, and the speedo optimistically extends to 300 km/h. The Astra’s instruments are identical to the 1,8 Sport model’s.

Build quality on both cars is very good, but we noticed more squeaks and rattles on the GTI than on the Opel. This will still surprise some people, but the latest generation Astras are very well-built cars.

Comparative Test: POWERTRAIN

Astra GSi               4 stars
Golf GTI                  4.5 stars

Never before have the GTI and GSi been this closely matched. Both have 2,0-litre, turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engines. The Astra’s engine is the same unit that did duty in the previous generation OPC (tested in March ’04), and the Golf’s engine is shared with some Audi models (see A4 test, elsewhere in this issue).

Both powerplants kick out 147 kW, with the Astra developing its maximum at 5 400 r/min and the Golf at 5 100. The Golf has more torque – 280 N.m all the way from 1 800 to 5 000 r/min – and the Astra’s 262 N.m peaks at a fairly high 4 200, but the torque curve is also relatively flat.

Both cars channel their power to the front wheels via six-speed manual gearboxes. The GTI’s has that typical chunky Volkswagen feel with clearly defined gates. The Opel’s is not bad either, and certainly much better than the five-speeder in the 1,8 Sport, but it still doesn’t like snap-shifts.

Interestingly, both cars idle roughly, leading some onlookers to ask whether these new hot hatches are turbodiesels! However, they smooth out impressively at higher revs. In the Golf, gearshifts are accompanied by a typically turbo pfftpfft sound, whereas the Astra barks during downchanges.

The biggest difference between the powertrains is how the power is delivered. In the Golf, the excellent spread of torque is evident in the almost continuous strong push in the back, whereas in the Astra the driver sometimes has to wait a while. However, this feeling is misleading, because the two cars are very closely matched in terms of overtaking punch. In fact, a good description of the GSi’s power delivery would be “elastic” – you put your foot down, and don’t immediately get the response you’re looking for, but then it starts picking up... dramatically!

Comparative Test: COMFORT AND FEATURES

Astra GSi               4.5 stars
Golf GTI                  4.5 stars

Let’s face it, this is a hot hatch battle, so you’re hardly going to base your decision on which car has the more sophisticated central locking system… Still, Opel is keen to push the very extensive standard features list of the Astra GSi. This car is laden with equipment. From AFL (Advanced Forward Lighting) headlights that follow the direction of the steering, to adaptive dampers (basically an active suspension system), heated seats, electronic climate control, one-touch up/ down for all windows, auto-on headlights and wipers, and a tyre pressure monitor system. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

However the cheaper Golf is almost as extensively packaged – cruise control, electronic lumbar support for both height-adjustable and heated front seats, electronic climate control, rain sensing wipers etc.

Unfortunately for Opel, the Astra’s gadget count doesn’t automatically make it the more comfortable car. The first problem is its seats. They provide almost no lateral support around the upper body area, and have a backrest that pushes into the occupant’s back. No amount of twiddling with the lumbar support can change this. And although the driver’s chair is height adjustable, it doesn’t go low enough. Making the driver’s seating position even more problematic is the positioning of the gearlever – too low, too far away from the driver.

The Golf feels the sportier car from the moment you drop yourself into the heavily bolstered seats. There is no problem with side support here; they hold you tightly on even the twistiest roads. Bigger bodied people may have a problem though, because those side bolsters are almost rock-solid. The biggest advantage in the Golf, from a driving position point of view at least, is that the seat can go lower and that the gearlever is mounted higher and falls more easily to hand.

Comparative Test: PERFORMANCE AND BRAKING

Astra GSi               4 stars
Golf GTI                  4.5 stars

Although Volkswagen claims a 0-100 km/h time of 7,2 seconds and a 233 km/h top speed in Europe, the company’s local press representative informed us that these figures would be impossible to achieve on our local fuel. Also, the acceleration times are very probably based on a 0-60 mph time (97 km/h). On our test strip, the GTI managed to reached a frustrating 99 km/h in its second gear, necessitating a further gearshift (and lost time) to reach 100 km/h. Our best time was 7,67 seconds, and we reached a top speed of just over 220 km/h.

Opel is surprisingly vague about the GSi’s estimated 0-100 km/h sprint time, simply stating it is sub-eight seconds. We managed to come close, and achieved 8,07 seconds, as well as a 230 km/h top speed. Both cars’ traction control systems can be cancelled out, but when activated both systems allow for some wheelspin before cutting the power. Away from the test strip, these figures translate into a clear advantage for the Golf. It feels keener to maintain its pace after gearshifts, compared with the Astra which takes a while to build up steam again.

Although the GTI’s brakes (312 mm vented discs in front and 286 mm at the rear) are considerably upgraded from the ones used in the rest of the Golf range, it was the Astra that performed best in our simulated emergency stopping routine, clocking an excellent 2,68 seconds average. The Golf also performed well, with a 2,77 seconds average.

It was, however, the Golf’s brakes that felt easier to modulate under hard driving (as opposed to emergency stopping) conditions. Where the GTI’s brakes retard progress smoothly and in relation to the amount of pressure on the pedal, the Astra’s brakes initially feel grabby, with the result that the driver may release the pedal a little, only to again have to apply pressure to achieve the desired result. It doesn’t instil as much confidence.

Comparative Test: FUEL ECONOMY

Astra GSi              3.5 stars
Golf GTI                 4.5 stars

The calculated fuel index figure for the Astra came to 11,2 litres/100 km (8,9 km/litre), while the Golf proved to be more frugal, clocking a figure of 9,84 litres/100 km (10,16 km/litre). The Golf has a slightly larger fuel tank (55 litres versus the Astra’s 52), so it can go quite a bit further between fill-ups (559 km as opposed to 491 km).

Comparative Test: RIDE AND HANDLING

Astra GSi               3.5 stars
Golf GTI                  4.5 stars

Here comes the crunch. As you may have noticed, the GTI is in the lead thus far. However, dynamics play such an important part in the hot hatch package that a comprehensive victory for the Astra here could still see it emerge as the winner. Sadly, you don’t have to drive far to realise it faces an uphill battle.

The big difference between the two cars’ underpinnings is that the Astra rides on a more old-fashioned torsion beam rear suspension whereas the Golf has benefited from a multi-link set-up. By definition, a multi-link suspension is likely to work better for a sporty car, because the lateral and longitudinal forces that act upon a car under braking, cornering etc. are separated. This should result in the GTI being more stable under cornering… and it is. A lot, in fact. The huge difference in body control came as a surprise to us. After all, the Astra has the muchpublicised IDS-Plus “active” suspension with CDC (Continuous Damping Control). By pressing the Sport button on the facia, the GSi’s throttle response, steering and, importantly, suspension settings, are all modified. It doesn’t help much though, because the Astra has poor body control during cornering – in quick direction changes the GSi initially feels unwilling to respond, then the car’s nose lazily wobbles into the intended direction, followed by an equally rubbery feeling rear end.

Volkswagen says the only major changes over the normal Golf’s set-up are 20 per cent stronger stabiliser bars and firmer springs and dampers. The electro-mechanical power steering has been reprogrammed to provide a firmer feel. OK, so there’s not a whole lot of feedback through the steering, but it certainly is precise and fast. More importantly, the Golf’s wheels go where you point them, and the rest of the car follows without the reluctance displayed by the Astra. The GTI has very impressive body control, and this absence of pitch and roll movement makes it a very easy car to drive very fast.

Comparative Test: VALUE FOR MONEY

Astra GSi               4 stars
Golf GTI                  4.5 stars

If you’re after a lot of kit for the money, then the Astra (R252 730) won’t disappoint. But does that mean it offers good value for money? We’re not so sure. Most of the items the Astra lists as features are gimmicky, and we feel the Golf has everything you really need – certainly in a hot hatch. And don’t forget, the GTI is very likely to hold its value much better than the Astra. The fact that the Golf is also notably cheaper (R240 000) seals its victory.

Comparative Test: VERDICT

Astra GSi               4 stars
Golf GTI                  5 stars

One of the most anticipated match-ups of the year has turned out to be a decidedly one-sided affair. On paper, the new Astra GSi seems to be a seriously impressive package… if only it wasn’t for the existence of the new Golf GTI. In all areas the Golf feels the more honed, more complete and more entertaining hot hatch. It wins. Easily.