Why the Vauxhall Astra GTE 16v deserves your rose-tinted specs
The 16-valve Astra was one of the most powerful hot hatches of its time. Today, it’s still genuinely exciting to drive, as Alex Robbins finds out
1988, and the market for hot hatches is at its peak.
Hundreds of young, up-and-coming types are walking into dealerships flush with cash and ready to drop it all on something fast enough to thrill, but practical enough to carry all their mates – or perhaps a young family.
Manufacturers have, of course, cottoned on, and to keep up with the demand for better, more powerful models, have gradually been releasing a coterie of such things to supplant the first wave of hot hatches. Winning the power race so far – if you exclude the technically-a-hatchback-but-really-a-super-saloon Ford Sierra RS Cosworth – is the Citroen BX GTi 16v, its 158bhp knocking the 137bhp Volkswagen Golf GTI 16v and 130bhp Ford Escort RS Turbo into a cocked hat.
Into this fray wades the Vauxhall Astra GTE 16v. With 154bhp it isn’t quite as potent as the BX, but its power figure is still enough to make most other hot hatches quake in their boots. And its smooth, aerodynamic styling, laden with presence thanks to a chunky bodykit and pert boot spoiler, renders almost every rival either dated or uninspiring at a stroke.
Sounds good, you might think. But in fact, the GTE 16v started its life on the back foot. It came hot on the heels of the distinctly uninspiring eight-valve version of the same car, which was about as far removed from its hotter stablemate as it’s possible to get. Huge chunks of the powertrain and running gear were tweaked for the 16v; there were stiffer suspension springs and anti-roll bars, toughened steering rack mounts and modifications to the rear suspension geometry. Allied to this were brake discs all around, ventilated up front, and a completely new five-speed gearbox. And then there was the engine.
Vauxhall’s red-top 20XE motor has become something of a legend in recent years, beloved of modifiers and kit car builders alike. The reason becomes clear when you look at the specification: forged pistons, sodium-filled valves, polished ports and a four-branch exhaust manifold are the sorts of things you’d more usually find in a race-spec engine. Mind you, the 20XE also powered the Vauxhall-Lotus single-seater of the time, so perhaps its spec should come as no surprise.
Yet despite its engine’s fame, the Astra GTE 16v has remained comparatively underrated; rarely mentioned as readily as some of the other hot hatch greats of its era. Prices haven’t surged in quite the same way as some of its contemporaries’, either. So what is it about the Astra that’s made it less desirable?
The first thing that becomes apparent when you drive one is that the problem certainly isn’t that engine. What’s so fascinating is what a broad range of talents it has. The 16-valve XU that powers the BX is a true rev monster, with a VTEC-like ‘switch’ as you head up the rev range. Yet despite its similar layout and power figure, the Astra’s XE couldn’t be more different. Low down, it’s astoundingly muscular, leaping forward even with only a thousand or so revs on the clock. This constant, unstinting thrust continues the longer you keep your toe in, the engine note growing into a rousing snarl. It’s much less all-or-nothing than similar 16-valve engines of the time, and as a result, it’s refreshingly flexible, forgiving even, if you happen to find yourself in the wrong gear. What’s more, it gives you the option of changing up if the front wheels are starting to get a bit scrabbly.
And that they probably will, because the Astra doesn’t quite have the fluidity or feel of some of the best hot hatches of its era. The steering’s not quite as alive, the ride not quite as pliant, and the whole car feels ever so slightly nervy, at the tail end especially, meaning you never quite get the confidence you’d have in, say, a Golf or 309 GTI.
But this is still a fun car to chuck around. There’s a tonne of grip on offer; plenty enough that you can hurl the GTE into corners at quite some pace, gaining even more on the way out thanks to the considerable grunt of that wonderful engine. And in this way, you can cover ground remarkably rapidly, watching the speed flicker upwards on the digital speedo – yes, it is as cool as it sounds – as you pelt along the straights.
The Astra GTE 16v, then, certainly isn’t one of the most rounded of 1980s hot hatches, but it’s still a hard car not to be enamoured by. While its chassis can’t quite match the best in terms of outright fluency, the changes wrought by Vauxhall’s engineers mean it’s still a treat to drive fast – and fast it certainly is, with a muscular sweep of torque the like of which few of its contemporaries could match.
This is a car, then, that perhaps doesn’t deserve its place in the doldrums of hot hatch history; one that you’d have been sorely tempted to part with your cash for if you’d been lucky enough to be around when it was new – and one that still makes quite a savvy buy right now.
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