PH Heroes: Vauxhall Astra GTE 16V

Ancient Chinese philosophy states that everything has an opposite. If this is the case the Astra GTE 16v was the complete antithesis of the Volkswagen Golf GTI 16V. Where the VW was subtle and grown-up, with the emphasis on agile, sure-footed handling, the Astra was brash and boorish, with alarming straight-line speed and screw the handling.

If the looks of the GTE are anything to go by it was no wonder the MK2 Astra was once Britain's second most stolen car. It couldn’t have stood out more if it had tinsel hanging from the bumper and so it attracted thieves like a silver ring to a magpie.

The GTE had been around since the MK2’s launch in 1984 and had 130bhp but just 999kg to haul around. It sold well, thanks mainly to its handsome, well-proportioned looks, but towards the end of the eighties it was clear that more power was needed if the GTE was to have a crack at the dominant 16-valve Golf.

The Astra 16v looked almost identical to the 8v when it was unveiled in 1988 apart from subtle red badges on the front and back, but underneath the bonnet sat the ubiquitous ‘red top’ 2.0-litre, that packed 150bhp. Baring in mind this car weighed around a tonne it was no surprise that it gave the Astra serious performance. Some journalists reported a 0-60mph sprint of just 7.5 seconds and the 16v could easily hit north of 120mph, usually with a 15-year-old behind the wheel down the M6.

There was a time when you couldn’t move for this automotive equivalent of a white stiletto, but sadly most have now rusted away from the rear arches upwards. This is sad because even though the styling was lairy, and in white more Eighties than a neon shell suit, somehow the Astra pulled it off. Whatever way you look at it the GTE is an icon of the hot hatch glory days, the perfect antidote to the smug VW.

Today I am standing inside the Vauxhall Heritage Centre admiring the brilliant white 29,000 mile Astra 16v in front of me, in virtually showroom condition. It looks fantastic and brings back a flood of memories from my teenage days. Only when you see a car like this do you remember how long it is since you’ve seen one on the roads.

Inside it is mint, familiar, and surprisingly modern. Being a Vauxhall there is a smattering of goodies inside, including sunroof, electric windows, Recaro seats, and of course the digital dash that has ‘LCD ELECTRONICS’ proudly written across it. Push in the timewarp immobiliser key and then the key, before the 16v unit bursts into life immediately.

The leather-rimmed wheel only adjusts for rake and the positions available are knee-scraping and bus. As is traditional when testing a PH Hero it is raining outside, which should sort out that freshly-cleaned, glistening white bodywork in no time.

The 16v is easy to drive and doesn’t feel anywhere near its 24-year-old roots. The view down the road is underlined by the white bonnet with twin vents sunk into it. Feed in the power and you’ll notice that the Astra will light up its front tyres with no qualms on these greasy roads in both first and second, but stickwith it and you will find third. And this is where things start to get a little absurd.

Once the 16v has decided to transfer its power into the road rather than the thin layer of grime sitting on top of it, the car starts to accelerate at an alarming rate. Most old school hot hatches feel quick, but not that fast, but the Astra really gets going over 4,000rpm. The 16v lump revs freely all the way through the rev range and by the time you are half way through fourth you start to wonder where that initial feel from the steering has wandered off to.

Although the wheel feels fairly well weighted around town the steering lightens when you don’t need it to, leaving you with a feeling of vagueness the more speed the GTE happily piles on. How much speed exactly is unclear because the LCD dash doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with the velocity, throwing up numbers that probably relate to a different section of road.

The gearbox is a little agricultural but it is light and snicks into gear easily and suits the low-tech character of the car. Thankfully my thumbs haven’t yet been sheared off by the rampant torque steer so it is time to attack my first corner. The GTE has a reasonably hard ride and from the sweeping curves I have encountered out of Luton body control seems half-decent. I’m starting to wonder whether the countless tales of woeful handling were perhaps a little unkind and the GTE is better round the twisties than I’ve been led to believe.

This is not so. Faster bends can be taken with caution, dialling in the power progressively, but roundabouts expose the unresolved chassis that is clambering to control the huge wedges of power being thrown into it.  The problem is unpredictability. You’re never quite sure what the car is going to do next, with all four corners having a mind of their own.

The weight shifts around the car almost randomly and pushing the accelerator causes the nose to scrub out wide, but lift off for a second and this turns into oversteer without warning. This isn’t helped by the wet conditions but it’s almost like there is a slightly different damper on each corner, and also the fact the steering could do with being a lot quicker.

Later I find out that the dampers and tyres on the car are probably the originals, which may go some way to explaining the handling, but driving the car quickly takes nerves of steel. My recommendation is to go slow into the corners and ease the power in, before booting it in the straights to make up for lost time. It may sound unlikely but despite the idiosyncrasies of the handling this is still a fun car. It’s scorchingly rapid in a straight line and trying to get the best out of it in the corners requires guts and concentration.

Perfect it may not be, but the Astra is still a hero. It harks back to a time when fast cars were rough and ready and didn’t pander to all levels of driving ability. It never was as good as the Golf, choosing to be an underachieving rebel instead of teacher’s pet, but at least it had a go. 

Comments (179) Join the discussion on the forum

  • dpbird90 25 Sep 2008

    For some unknown reason to me, I am attracted to this almost as much as I am attracted to a 205 GTi.

    In white it is a symbol of British 80's cool

  • paul26982 25 Sep 2008

    owned a red j reg one, loved it to bits, also love them in silver

  • Tonto 25 Sep 2008

    Had a red 16v. Fantastic performance for the day. Handling was not what you would call good! VX ran out of cash developing the handling, so they put 65 series tyres on to give the ride some additional compliance.
    They should really have stiffened up the bendy body. Maybe then, I wouldn't have stuffed mine backwards into a hedge !eek

  • theturbs 25 Sep 2008

    A lovely car for the reasons set out above, yes, but a PH Hero? I'm not so sure.

    Good write up though.

  • chris_w666 25 Sep 2008

    Had an E reg 8v for about a week, was great to drive but some bd knicked it and I went of vauxhalls for good.

    The 16v was always seen as the ultimate trophy for council estate car theives.

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