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The Astra OPC looks great and goes like stink but it's practical, too, and feels well-built. It isn't cheap, but it's well worth investigating. Sarah Dea / The National
The Astra OPC looks great and goes like stink but it's practical, too, and feels well-built. It isn't cheap, but it's well worth investigating. Sarah Dea / The National
The interior of the Astra OPC, which looks great and goes like stink but it's practical, too, and feels well-built. It isn't cheap, but it's well worth investigating. Sarah Dea / The National
The interior of the Astra OPC, which looks great and goes like stink but it's practical, too, and feels well-built. It isn't cheap, but it's well worth investigating. Sarah Dea / The National

Road Test: Opel Astra OPC

Opel's hot hatch, the fastest car in its class, is deeply impressive, writes Kevin Hackett.

Four hundred Newton metres. No matter what the horsepower statistics are of that hot hatch you're currently lusting after, a torque figure of this magnitude, channelled through the front wheels, is a recipe for either fun with a capital "F" or unmitigated disaster. But it positively demands your attention.

The Opel Astra OPC is, undeniably, the fastest car in its class. It's a riot, a hooligan, a madman. But it manages to be those things without sacrificing everyday usability or the refinement that befits a German car manufacturer. And when it comes to choosing a replacement for my own trusty Volkswagen Scirocco, this model will be on the "definitely maybe" list. It really is that good.

If you can ignore the canary yellow paintwork of this test car, I assure you that this is one incredibly good-looking machine. You can specify it without the rear spoiler, or with smaller-diameter alloys if you wish to remain a bit more incognito, but that's probably missing the point somewhat. Cars like this are supposed to be fun, and part of the appeal should be their abundance of attitude. In any case, if an Astra OPC is being driven by someone who knows what they're doing, you're unlikely to even catch a glimpse of its sinewy curves.

The amount of grunt on offer here is incredible. From a 2.0L, four-cylinder engine, 280hp and the aforementioned 400Nm of twist shouldn't really be a possibility. But it is, thanks to turbocharging and some deft tuning by Opel's OPC (Opel Performance Centre) division. And to ensure the front wheels are able to steer as well as put down all that power, a trick differential has been fitted, and it does a remarkable job of smoothing progress once you stab at the throttle.

Start the engine and there's a definite boom that settles to an idle not dissimilar to that which a Ferrari V8 might make if it lost half its cylinder count. It sounds buzzy and full of promise. Pity, then, that it loses this sonic character once you're on the move. Not that you have much time to notice such things, because the Astra OPC makes it abundantly clear from the word go that it wants to go fast. Very fast.

On the right roads, there are very few cars that could worry this Astra. The suspension is just stiff enough to keep it composed when cornering hard, yet compliant enough to not dislodge your teeth on uneven surfaces. But it's once you're out of the corners that the OPC really struts its stuff. There are three buttons on the centre console, marked "Eco", "Sport" and "OPC". The sport mode tightens things up a bit, but there's still a bit of lag when you stamp on the accelerator before it wakes up entirely. Don't bother with that - instead, just use the OPC function.

Once depressed, the dials glow red, and the car simply devours and demolishes anything that you care to throw it at. The turbo starts kicking in at 1,400rpm, and the wave of torque that comes with it makes the Astra feel like it could take on mid-engined Italian exotica and win. The gearbox is a traditional, six-speed manual, and this just adds to the sense of excitement. It also means that you tend to drive it in short bursts and flurries of acceleration - change gear, get your hand back on the wheel and unleash that pent-up fury. It's addictive stuff.

But there's more to this performance car than initially meets the eye. It also makes a sound purchase for those who want practicality from their wheels. The cabin, while blighted by the occasional piece of hard plastic trim, feels incredibly well-built, and the hugging seats are supremely comfortable and supportive. There's plenty of headroom (940 millimetres) in the rear, there's 800mm of legroom back there, too, while boot space is a decent 380 litres.

Downsides are unfeasibly large doors that make egress and access in the UAE's tightly packed car parks a bit of an issue, along with brakes that, while immensely powerful, feel oversensitive at the top end of pedal travel - something that you'd no doubt just get used to.

All in all, though, this is a car that excels on just about every level, and it deserves to do well in this region. When Jeremy Clarkson tested the UK equivalent (known as the Vauxhall Astra VXR), the Top Gear kingpin couldn't fault it against its peers, and he's been nothing if not vocal in his hatred for this manufacturer over the years. It managed to fend off the Ford Focus ST and the Renault Megane RS 265, rendering the notorious motormouth practically speechless. Enough said, if you ask me.

THE SPECS

Price, base / as tested Dh120,000 / same

Engine 2.0L in-line four-cylinder

Transmission Six-speed manual

Power 280hp @ 5,500rpm

Torque 400Nm @ 2,500rpm

Fuel economy 8.1L/100km

khackett@thenational.ae

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