Opel pins compact car comeback on Astra's posh comforts

Available features on the latest Astra compact hatchback include a massaging driver's seat, a perfume diffuser and high-end LED adaptive headlights, made up of 16 ultrabright bulbs.

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- Mainstream brands have been nuzzling closer to their luxury counterparts in recent years, adding everything from heated steering wheels to high-end sound systems and high-tech safety packages.

But General Motors' Opel brand has reached a new level of luxury incursion with its redesigned Astra, a cousin of the Chevy Cruze.

Available features on the compact hatchback include a massaging driver's seat, a perfume diffuser and high-end LED adaptive headlights, made up of 16 ultrabright bulbs.

A media test drive here showed how each bulb can automatically deactivate to reduce the glare for oncoming cars without shutting off the brights entirely. It's a feature you'd be hard pressed to find on anything but German luxury vehicles.

Of course, only a small fraction of Astra buyers will pay up for those features -- the headlights alone are an extra $1,500 or so. But offering such aristocratic touches in the Everyman compact segment -- Europe's largest -- will help set the Astra apart. Or at least that's the idea.

Opel must find ways to stand out as it continues a revitalization effort, says marketing chief Tina Mueller, who was recruited more than two years ago from the cosmetics industry.

She wanted those features in part because they are unavailable on the segment-leading Volkswagen Golf, which outsells Astra by a 3-to-1 ratio. Once the segment leader, the Astra has fallen to No. 4 in Europe's compact car segment (117,513 in sales through July).

"As the challenger brand, you have to offer something more," Mueller said.

She isn't shy about letting people know it. A commercial for the redesigned car shows an Astra driven by a stunt driver jumping over a row of Mercedes, BMW and other vehicles with the tag line: "Astra upsets the luxury class."

Mueller expects the car to command $1,000 more in transaction price per car vs. the previous Astra.

GM isn't only counting on pricey features to sell more Astras at higher profits. The redesigned car rides on a lighter and more nimble platform, the same one that will underpin the next-gen Cruze due out in early 2016.

Its engine lineup spans from a three-cylinder, 1.0-liter, which provided adequate pull through twisty mountain roads here, to a turbocharged 1.6-liter that delivers 200 hp.

GM needs the car to be a hit in order to get Opel back into the black after nearly two decades of losses. It accounts for more than one-fifth of the brand's overall sales.

You can reach Mike Colias at autonews@crain.com

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