The Wheeler Dealers Astra GTE fetched big money at auction recently, so it’s the perfect time to remember this great hot hatchback.
Last December’s Classic Car Auctions sale saw the Mk 1 Astra GTE that had been carefully restored by Mike and Elvis sell for a whopping £25,650. It was the first Vauxhall to appear on Wheeler Dealers, and with the car having sat unused for the best part of thirty years the boys had their work cut out with the restoration.
The result was stunning – hence that impressive price – but with 2023 marking 40 years since this brilliant hot hatchback was launched it’s the perfect time to take a look back at the GTE badge that still beguiles enthusiasts today. But first we need to head back to 1980 and the appearance of the Vauxhall Astra.
The Astra was a thoroughly sensible family hatchback, one that blended smart looks with plenty of space and practicality. It wasn’t exciting, but then it wasn’t mean to be; what it needed to do was go head-to-head with big-selling rivals such as the Ford Escort and VW Golf. Vauxhall shifted them in their thousands, but the early part of the 1980s was a time when buyers wanted their practicality served with an extra dollop of entertainment. And that meant the hot hatchback.
Keen to grab a slice of the action, Vauxhall launched the Astra GTE in 1983 and it proved an instant winner. Not only did it look the part thanks to a body kit and distinctive alloy wheels but it also introduced car enthusiasts to the whole lot being colour-matched. Well, it did if you wanted your GTE in white – red, black or silver were the alternatives – and it was reckoned to be a motoring first.
But a hot hatch needed go as well as show, and the GTE delivered thanks courtesy of a fuel-injected 1.8 engine making 115bhp. The result was 0-60mph in 8.5 seconds and a top speed of 115mph, both of which were more than enough to compete with rivals. So it was no slouch, but it also handled well. Strong grip was combined with a ride that was decently supple given the sporting brief, and if the low geared steering was a bit heavy at low speeds it lightened up on the move. In all, it was a fine effort that still feels fun today.
A new Astra was around the corner, though, with the Mk 2 adopting an impressively aerodynamic shape that set it apart from the staid styling of mainstream rivals. But it, too, was ripe for the GTE treatment and it duly arrived, borrowing its engine from the Mk 1. More punch was quick to arrive, though, thanks to a 2.0-litre unit making 124bhp; it had been thoroughly developed by Vauxhall and featured lighter internals than the earlier engine and a new Bosch Motronic engine management system.
Oh yes, and the Mk 2 bought some extra excitement to the Astra GTE thanks to the use of digital instruments. It barely merits a mention today, but in the mid-‘80s this was the stuff to impress enthusiasts young and old alike. And you could even have your hot Astra as a convertible. Handling-wise, the new model didn’t disappoint even if it did still lack power assistance for the steering – you needed to stump up around £350 for that option – but for all its ability the hot hatchback game was moving on, and Vauxhall knew it.
They were now some very quick turbocharged challengers to turn buyer’s heads, and the answer for the GTE was the 16-valve model. Arriving in 1988, it was powered by the famed ‘red top’ engine, a DOHC unit that boasted the likes of forged pistons and sodium-filled exhaust valves. It was a significant development, and with 156bhp on tap it shoved the Astra to 60mph in 7.0 seconds and on to 135mph.
Vauxhall also took the opportunity to completely overhaul the suspension, turning the GTE into a very impressive package. In fact, Autocar magazine summed up their road test by saying “…for sheer ability and out and out performance there is no other non-turbo hot hatch that will touch the Astra 16v”. High praise indeed, although there’s less than a hundred still on the road today.
The 16v also marks the end of the GTE story, the third generation Astra that arrived in 1991 turning to the GSi badge to denote the performance variant. It was fun while it lasted, though, and as the Wheeler Dealers car demonstrates this is a hot hatchback that’s still very much in demand.
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