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Opel launches the five-door Astra in March 2004

Russelsheim. The new Opel Astra will be in German Opel dealers' showrooms by March 2004, Opel president Carl-Peter Forster told Automobilwoche.

First of the many varieties of the Astra to become available will be the five-door hatchback. The Caravan station wagon version is scheduled to follow in October 2004, while a three-door coupe-like derivative will be on sale at the end of 2004 at the earliest, according to reports in Russelsheim.

An Opel manager who did not want to be named said: "Design and dynamics will be our strongest selling points."

The Opel Astra will sport electronically controlled damping -- a novelty for this class of lower-medium car. Engine and chassis management will be controlled by a CAN-bus system instead of a normal cable harness. Opel will also upgrade its Astra engine lineup with a 150hp diesel and a 200hp turbo gasoline engine.

The same three plants that are manufacturing the outgoing model will also be building the new Astra: Bochum, Ellesmere Port in England and Antwerp in Belgium.

In Eisenach, the present Astra will be discontinued in August. In future only the Corsa supermini will be built there.

The three remaining Astra plants will be buidling a total of 640,000 cars per annum, according to unofficial sources.

Forster said no decision has been made yet if the Astra also will be built in the Gliwice, Poland plant.

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