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- A very white slice of hot hatch nostalgia

Throwback Review: Vauxhall Astra Mk2 GTE

The 1980s was awash with hot hatchbacks such as the Volkswagen Golf GTi, the Peugeot 205 GTi, the Ford Escort RS Turbo, the list goes on and on. Recently I was able to have a quick spin in Vauxhall's offering at the time - the Astra Mk2 GTE. 

Erm, that's from the 1990s, not the 1980s Aaron...

Ah yes, those eagle-eyed amongst you would have spotted that this specific model is a H reg, meaning it's actually from the time Happy Mondays was urging you not to twist their melon, man. That's right, it's from 1990, the year of my birth as it happens. Ok, ok, but the Mk2 first went in to production in 1986, so this is of course a later model. 

This dashboard simply stinks of the 1980s (in a good way, of course)

The dashboard alone should give you a hint that this car originated from a time of big hair, bright colours and synthesisers as it has a beautifully retro digital dash. It looks like a display taken from an old video game and I'd like to think I'd never get bored of it. There is much more to this car than just a retro speedo though, so I think it's about time I move on to what propels this classic pocket rocket.

What's underneath the bonnet?

Powering the GTE is a 2.0 litre, naturally aspirated, four cylinder petrol engine, which pumps out 148bhp with 145 lb ft of torque. Originally though, the GTE had to make do with just 115bhp, but this was pumped up to around 125 following complaints about performance. That was the 8v version, however, whereas this model is the 16v, which is why it's got the extra oomph.

The XE engine is often referred to as the 'Red Top' - can you guess why?

This car may be 28 years old, but thanks to a 0-60 time of 8.0 seconds and a top speed of 134 mph, it's still respectable compared to the hot hatches of today. This power is mated to the front wheels via 5-speed manual gearbox, which feels desperately long compared to what you'd expect from today's sporty hatch, but at least it snicks in to place nicely enough.

Punchier than expected

The Astra GTE is a car I've been looking to get on my hands for quite some time and it's safe to say, I had pretty high expectations of it. One of the first things to strike on my first experience - other than the digital dash, of course - was just how punchy the 2.0 litre was. Yes, you need to give it a bit of work because of it's naturally aspirated nature, but it's rewarding, and it makes a pretty decent noise in the process. 

The throttle has got a decent weight to it and there's a good response from the engine, encouraging you to keep going until all 16 valves are getting ready to bounce out of the Glacier White painted bonnet. Even by today's standards the Astra GTE's engine is able to excite, and I'd urge you to have a go in one if you have the opportunity.

Does it handle well?

A hot hatch needs more than a peppy engine - it also needs to handle well. I'll start with the bad points; the steering although it has a good weight, feels vague on the initial turn in and there's not much communication to be had between car and driver. Thankfully, you do get a bit more sensation when you apply a bit more lock, but it's not as talkative as I was expecting. 

The chassis isn't quite as playful as the 205 GTi either, although it does mean it's less likely to rob you off your ego - and your driving license. Other reviewers have reported the GTE offers a bit of lift off oversteer, but I got no such sensation, although it's worth noting my drive was limited to the surrounding areas of Luton, so the car was never driven at full chat unfortunately. 

The grip is pretty decent, and thanks to the simplicity of its design (limited safety features and no infotainment systems, etc.) it feels agile in the corners. It weighs around 1,000kg, which is considerably less than its modern day equivalent the Astra VXR weighing in at 1,475kg. To put that in to some sort of respective, that would be like driving the GTE fully laden.

Despite the light weight, there is a little bit of body roll, although it's nothing alarming and the retro-rific sports seats old you in place nicely. Mind you, I did feel like I was sat a little too high than I would have liked in my short drive in the car. The ride is pretty compliant though, and whilst it's firm, it's never enough to shake the teeth out of your mouth.

Let's talk about the practical things

In fact, it's an easy car to drive, and I think you could drive it every day without any real issues, but that's the whole point of this car. It's got a decent amount of kit, considering the age, as when it was new it was able to boast a digital dash, electric windows, alloy wheels, sunroof and central locking. 

At the time of being brand new, the GTE would have cost you a very specific £7,344, which in today's money would be around £15,900, so it represents decent value. In case you're thinking about getting one on the used market, I can report after a quick look in the classifieds that the going rate seems to be around £10,000. Mind you, there was one on Auto Trader for £22,500, and that wasn't even for the 16v model, that was for the 8v version.

Final thoughts

The Astra GTE Mk2 is a car I've wanted to drive for a long time and I'm glad to report it met my high expectations. It may not quite have the allure of the 205 GTi or the Golf GTi as they the dynamic duo of the 80s hot hatchbacks, but there is plenty to like in the Astra GTE. It offers fun handling, tidy looks and a punchy engine, so I can see how the 16v is still a desirable car 30 years after its initial release.

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