THE OPEL ASTRA Turbo is an attractive, German-made hatchback with a six-speed manual gearbox and 200-brake-horsepowered engine. And the word 'turbo' earns immediate respect. But can it top the Volkswagen Golf GTi, a car with similar credentials, and my 2005 drive of the year? The Opel Astra Turbo's smaller brother, the Astra 1.8 steered and ran well, but was let down by a lacklustre 125bhp engine. And it's an automatic. But the Astra 2.0 Turbo is more my kind of car. Still, the 'Astra' lacks the 'Golf GTi' cult status in Hong Kong. But then it's newer. And if the Astra looks less sporty than the three-door GTi, the Astra Turbo's more versatile, with two extra doors for similar poke. Opel gives you large front and rear lights, a taller cabin, and the Turbo has the same electric panoramic roof as the 1.8-litre version. It's a beautiful glass structure that extends to the rear, with its own sun blind. When the roof is opened, a mosquito net-like wind deflector pops up. It works well, but looks like a bicycle picnic basket from the outside. Opel lets you tell Hong Kong that you've gone turbo. The chrome pieces of the base Astra's front grille are blackened and the 'Astra 2.0 Turbo' nameplate (with 'Turb' in red) advertises your oomph. You get 17-inch, five-spoke alloys with sports Continentals (an inch bigger than the 1.8) and a wide exhaust pipe. The Astra Turbo also has bi-xenon headlights and a racier-looking rear spoiler. Our test car looks like Darth Vader ready to take on Luke 'GTi' Skywalker. The Turbo's interior is interesting, too, with a darker dashboard with horizontal maze chrome trims. You also get a leather steering wheel, aluminium pedals, body-hugging sports front seats, and a stubby manual gear shifter. The Astra seems airier than the GTi, and less claustrophobic with its panoramic roof. The driving seat and steering column are easily adjustable and the steering wheel feels racy with the perforated sections right on your palms. I'm a sucker for beautiful gauges and dashboards; and was dazzled by the Golf GTi's. The Astra Turbo's binnacle seems plainer, but the display's as legible and the centre console looks fine. The stereo and air-conditioning controls are clearly marked and easily reached. The Turbo's 'Sport' button lurks under a big orange LED display, next to the hazard light. Press it, and the Astra's Interactive Driving System (IDS) stiffens the suspension and quickens the steering ratio and engine response. You can really feel the smooth, light German runabout's transformation into tight, responsive and lusty autobahn hot hatch. That button will get pushed a lot in Hong Kong. The manual Astra Turbo has the handy Hill Assist function that the Astra 1.8 lacks. This system automatically applies the brake for three seconds when you start uphill, so your left hand can be free from the hand brake. The Turbo can shift, and I'm pushed back into the seat with its thrust. I'm really surprised that the engine has almost no detectable turbo lag. The Golf GTi's turbo lags in a big way. You press the Volkswagen's gas pedal and you wait for the revs to climb to about 3,000rpm for the turbocharger to spool up enough pressure and 'bang'... off you go. But the Astra Turbo feels as if it's normally aspirated. The engine delivers power in a linear fashion from start-up to the 6,500rpm redline - probably the result of its integral turbocharger concept, which combines the exhaust manifold, turbine housing and other components in one compact unit. It may not be as dramatic as the GTi, but the Astra Turbo's smoother and more predictable. Although both cars have the same horsepower, the Golf GTi has higher torque at 28.6kg-m/1,800rpm, than the Astra's 26.7kg-m/4,200rpm. The Astra's as fast as you'd expect from a hot hatch, but memories of the Golf GTi's eagerness are more lasting. The Astra is also equipped with the Electronic Stability Programme, and Cornering Brake Control, which proportion brake pressure to individual wheels according to the directions of travel. The Astra is an advanced machine, and its handling potential comes under the microscope on Shek O Road. As expected, leaving the IDS in normal mode makes the Astra Turbo too soft for cornering. In the Sport setting, the Opel returns with a more stable body control, lightning-quick steering reactions and snappier throttle response. The car gently chirps its tyres when it's pushed hard, while remaining perfectly poised. But the Astra's chassis doesn't feel as stiff as the Golf GTi's and the steering column jitters when the road gets rough. But I'm still impressed with the Astra Turbo. It's fast, the engine's smooth and so is the shift linkage. The interior will impress, the panoramic roof's fantastic and there are lots of electronic gadgets for the driver to play with. You get a family and sporty hatchback in one, and it looks even more discreet, and costs a lot less than the Golf GTi, which starts at $293,000. At a reduced $248,300, the Opel Astra Turbo gives you good value, lots of respect, and the back-up of dealers who are working hard to establish the Opel brand. AT A GLANCE Opel Astra 2.0 Turbo What drives it? A turbocharged, 2.0-litre, Ecotec four-cylinder engine with 200bhp/5,400rpm and six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive How fast is it? 0-100 km/h in 7.9 seconds. Top speed: 232 km/h How thirsty is it? 9.4 litres/100km on average in the city How safe is it? Six airbags: ABS, electronic stability and cornering-brake systems and active headrests Available: $248,000 at Metro Motors (tel: 2760 8668). Models first sold for $273,300. Deliveries in 'about 10 working days'.