1989 Vauxhall Astra GTE MkII 16v
The Eighties has never been more popular – take a look Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, which topped charts in eight countries 37 years after its release. Netflix’s Stranger Things TV series has thrust the Eighties aesthetic straight into the mainstream, with a younger audience warming to the fashions, music – and, of course, the cars.
We’ve assembled five icons of the era, each one defining a decade where more definitely meant more. The Vauxhall Astra GTE is a wheeled moralpanic pre-Lotus Carlton, while the BMW 635CSi E24 represents the upwardly mobile – for the brand and its customers alike. The Audi Quattro and Ford Sierra RS Cosworth brought peak-era motorsport to the high street, and then there’s the Ferrari Testarossa – a car only matched for bedroom wall poster appearances by Samantha Fox. So which car summons the spirit of the age most?
You might be surprised to see the Astra GTE here. After all, aren’t the truly great hot hatches of the 1980s such stalwarts as the Peugeot 205 GTi and VW Golf GTi, with the Fiat Strada Abarth, Ford Escort RS Turbo and Renault 5 GT Turbo compelling alternatives? Time has not been kind to the Astra GTE MkII, but then that’s seldom the case for Griffin-badged performance cars. Only rarely do Vauxhalls command respect, and even a legend such as the Lotus Carlton can still draw sneers from certain quarters. The Astra, however, has largely faded into the background, even if, arguably, it had the bigger impact – and we’re not talking about the one with some Armco in a now-legendary episode of Police! Camera! Action!
The first Astra GTE MkII used the MkI engine but in a bigger, heavier body. While the MkI GTE went from nought to naughty very quickly (according to the adverts), the MkII’s tepid performance meant it meandered to ‘meh’. That all changed with the 1988 launch of the 2.0-litre twin-cam 16v 20XE engine. Designed by Cosworth, the ‘Red Top’ engine pushed out 156bhp, laying waste to all other hot hatches and establishing a new benchmark horsepower figure for the front-wheel-drive hot hatch class that would last for a decade.
It still feels remarkably potent today – modern hot hatches may have more than twice the nags, but they weigh significantly more than the 997kg Astra GTE. This means that the GTE’s seven-second 60mph sprint feels so much more vivid than the bare numbers portray. Of course, going from 60mph to zero instantaneously would not be quite as survivable as a modern hot hatch, but once behind the wheel you soon forget about all that – the engine dominates the car, in the very best way.
The Peugeot 205GTI may be a beautifully nuanced handler and the Golf GTI 16v has a suitably Germanic solidity, but the GTE puts beaming grin across my chops. That’s the real point of a hot hatch, and why the Renault 5 GT Turbo and Ford Escort RS Turbo command such a premium and misty-eyed reverence – massive turbo lag and torque steer in a chassis that can’t really keep up always adds up to big fun. The Astra is similarly un-nuanced. It’s naturally aspirated, but there’s plenty of grunt right through the rev range, and revving it out is endlessly amusing.
The gearshift, in this car, is short, neat and precise – good job too, because I need my attention on the steering. It’s a proper wrestle on anything other than bone dry, uncambered surfaces.
A mess? Absolutely not – pretty soon I can’t help but giggle. On objective terms the light, vague steering should really be a mark against the car’s name, but subjectively feeling the GTE writhe with torque steer makes for a searing adrenaline rush. Huge dollops of understeer followed by snappy oversteer – death wish or delightful? Take your pick, according to personal preference.
Calming down (a bit) I notice the glorious LCD dash. Again, in objective terms it struggles to keep up with the fury metered out by my right foot, but once this far into the Astra GTE experience the nostalgia bath is overflowing. It’s glorious.
But will the ownership experience stem the flow of enthusiasm? You’ll need to check for crash repairs – while the GTE became the ultimate prize for tea leaves in the sub-Cossie class, even owners struggled to contain the GTE’s rampant nature. Rust can be similarly unrestrained, with replacement panels tricky to find. The biggest problems, however, will be actually finding a car – and then not acting like an utter loon when you do. The good news is that 2022’s tally of 94 cars was an increase on 2021’s 91, so more are being saved. You’d expect a car of such rarity to be excruciatingly priced, but the very best will set you back £12,000 – a fraction of the amount a slower Escort RS Turbo. will cost As for the other problem? Well, that Astra GTE smash is on Youtube if you need to be reminded of your own mortality…
Owning a Vauxhall Astra GTE
‘It’s very light and nimble, and the engine dominates the experience,’ says Nadeem Khalifa, Astra owner and the man behind YouTube channel VPower123. ‘The downsides are that it’s nowhere near as rigid as a new car, so you can feel the chassis flex.’ He paid £6000 for the car around a year ago. ‘I spotted this in Telford,’ he recalls. ‘It hadn’t been started for a year, but with a charged battery it fired up straight away. I drove it home to Luton, 230 miles away, in 37ºC heat and it didn’t miss a beat.’
He’s spent £500 on a service, fitting a new cambelt, water pump and alternator. ‘They’re easy to work on, so most owners work on them themselves,’ Nadeem runs his own body shop (kms-online.co.uk). He’s restoring another lower-mileage GTE 16v, but this one is still a favourite. ‘It’s on 168,000 miles, so I’m not afraid to drive it properly!’
TECHNICAL DATA 1989 Vauxhall Astra GTE MkII 16v
- Engine 1998cc inline four-cylinder, dohc, Bosch Motronic M2.5 fuel injection
- Max Power 156bhp @ 6000rpm;
- Max Torque 150lb ft @ 4800rpm
- Transmission Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
- Steering Power-assisted rack and pinion
- Suspension Front: independent, MacPherson struts, lower wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear:
- independent, trailing arms, torsion beam, conical springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
- Brakes Servo-assisted discs, ventilated at front
- Performance Top speed: 137mph
- Acceleration 0-60mph: 7.8sec
- Weight 997kg (2198lb)
- Cost new £11,776 (1988)
- Classic Cars Price Guide £4500-£12,000
Cosworth-penned ‘red top’ gives 156bhp. Nathan gets ready for a wrestling match. Grille badge induced Eighties moral panic.
‘There’s plenty of grunt right through the rev range, and revving it out is endlessly amusing’