Good: massive grunt and noise, good looking, practical
Not so good: only average to drive, brittle cabin, pricey
I can still hear it - the first time I ever drove an Opel Astra OPC, it made noises and did things that forever imprinted themselves on my brain. It was actually at an event for the old Vectra saloon, but there was an Astra OPC sitting in the corner and a quick inquiry about the keys soon saw myself and another journalist haring up the road in a car few others had at that stage driven. Bugger me it was fast, and bugger me the noise it made. When you flattened the throttle and the boost really came on it sounded like someone emptying a tipper-truck's worth of nails down a steel pipe. Whooosh-rarrrrrrgh-crattle-brattle-whooooosh it went as the hedges whipped past our ears and the heavily-stitched gear lever bruised our palms. One thing was for certain - the Astra OPC in its original incarnation wasn't subtle, but it was a very particular sort of uncouth fun.
Fast forward to 2015 and we've grown up, the Astra OPC and I. I've put on weight, lost a little hair and gained a house, children and a mortgage. The Astra OPC has gained power and much more handsome looks, but has it lost its old faster-and-furiouser fun side?
Well, it's certainly gorgeous. I've really rather been taken with the current Astra GTC shape since it was launched and the extra muscle tone deployed by the OPC's body kit, wheels and rear spoiler just make it look ever better. It's subtle - unless you're a crashing car bore, you'll need to seek out the small blue-and-white OPC (Opel Performance Centre) badge on the boot, or clock the high-backed leather bucket seats inside, with their slots cut for racing harnesses that, presumably, none but the most foolish will actually fit.
That extra handsomeness outside is reflected in a much more sophisticated mechanical specification. The old Astra OPC was basically a massively powerful engine in a pretty simple car. The new one has tricks up its wheelarches, especially the HiPer-Strut front suspension. Essentially, it's like a split suspension arm, which allows for stiffer location of the front springs and dampers, while still allowing more wheel rotation for better steering. That's backed up by expensive magneto-rheological dampers (iron filings in the suspension damper fluid that stiffen or soften at the flick of a switch) and massive Brembo brakes. Both struts and dampers show off their best work early on - in spite of the massive (and gorgeous) 20-inch alloy wheels, the Astra OPC's ride is surprisingly supple. Even when you toggle the OPC button on the dash for maximum attack mode, it's more controlled than crippled.
Then there's the engine - the 2.0-litre Ecotec petrol unit carries an extra 30hp over its predecessor, making it much more powerful than the Golf GTI or Focus ST and knocking on the door of beings as well-endowed as the mighty Golf R. It's bonkers fast when you get the taps fully open too - Opel claims a six-seconds-dead 0-100km/h run and a top whack of almost 250km/h. It feels every bit as fast as those numbers suggest too. This is a quick car, quick with a capital F.
Inside, aside from the seats, it's basically a standard Astra cabin and this is both good and bad. Good: the main dials (which switch to red backlighting when you go for Sport or OPC modes) are clear and classy. Bad: there are just too many buttons on the centre console and the IntelliLink infotainment system can feel a little fiddly at times. Good: it's reasonably spacious, even despite the bulky sports seats in the front. Bad: the cabin of our test car was exhibiting some noticeable squeaks and creaks - fair enough, it's a stiffly-sprung car on Irish roads, but surely Opel can do better quality than this?
You would think that Opel can do better when it comes to the handling too, because while the Astra OPC is sure-footed and competent, it's never actually all that much fun. It does what you want it to do, and never feels scary or overly intimidating, but there's none of the sheer involvement that you get in a Golf GTI or a Focus ST. On the plus side, it's actually a surprisingly refined cruiser and very comfortable on a long journey (epic tyre noise apart), but that's surely not the point - a car like this should be tempting you out of bed early for a back-road blast and the OPC just didn't do that for me.
It is also very, very expensive. That €40k price tag puts it close to Golf R money, but it is undone by more affordable rivals for fun. There's even some internecine rivalry from lesser Astra GTCs - the 2.0-litre CDTi 163hp GTC, for instance, isn't an awful lot less fun to drive and with its similar torque figure would probably be barely any slower across country.
It's an odd thing - in chamfering off the old OPC's rough edges, Opel seems to have taken away much of its character. It's still fast, better looking than ever and still practical, but it's just not as much pure fun as it should be.