After testing the Holden Astra R, we don't miss the letters S and V at all
Saying the cheapest model is the best in a range of new cars is such a motoring-writer thing to do.
There's often an undercurrent of arrogance there: "Yes, you might think the more you spend the more you're getting, but trust us - we know better."
But bear with me, because the cheapest model in Holden's Astra hatchback range is the best. It's called the R, and sits at the bottom of a three-tier line that also includes the RS (another $3000 up the ladder) and RS-V ($3k again).
No, really. There are good reasons.
The main one is under the bonnet. The Astra R is powered by a brand-new alloy 1.4-litre turbo engine. It's down on power and torque compared with the 147kW/300Nm 1.6-litre mill in the high-spec models, but well up on crisp power delivery and zing factor.
More so when combined with the six-speed manual transmission, which is something Holden New Zealand still offers across the Astra range.
Now, writing enthusiastically about three-pedal gearboxes in mainstream cars is another motoring-writer thing to do that might make you groan. Yes, we get it: Kiwis hardly buy these any more, so what's the relevance?
Well, driving a car like this really does help you isolate and evaluate the engine, because you're taking the machinations of the gearbox calibration and torque converter out of the equation. Important to test those too, of course, but driving a car in its "pure" form is really valuable. The six-speed automatic is also superb, by the way.
And of course a good car, any good car regardless of market position and price, is a lot of fun with a manual gearbox. So we won't stop banging on about them because it's our last hope of convincing the broader public the driving can be fun, before we all descend into electric autonomy. But I digress.
The Astra is a beaut and more of a beaut in entry-level form. The powertrain has verve and it gives that excellent chassis a chance to shine on Kiwi backroads.
I'd argue the Astra R is also more price-appropriate. Holden NZ has slightly uncomfortable aspirations to pitch Astra as a true European small-car - hoping you'll think of stuff like the Volkswagen Golf and Mercedes-Benz A-class. It's there in some respects, especially styling inside-and-out, but some of the cabin materials are a bit low-rent. Once you're getting up towards $40k with the higher-end versions, you start weighing up the value equation a bit more.
For $31k the Astra is a high-quality bargain. It also arguably looks better, with black grille and body detailing instead of the chrome used on other Astras. Less pretentious, more sporty.
What the R does lack is the so-called Holden Eye camera-based active safety equipment fitted to the RS and RS-V. You can rectify that for $1500 with an option pack.