Desired, stolen, thrashed and crashed: the Astra GTE has now made it into the classic world
Choose a later GTE and you’ll get the impressive digital dashboard display.
It works well and the 1980s graphics are a constant reminder of the car’s heyday. You can admire it while you sit in comfortable Recaro buckets.
All GTEs are brisk, but the 16v is positively scintillating. With 60mph coming up in less than eight seconds, you can certainly surprise much more modern cars, although the brakes and handling are likely to be pushed a bit too far. After a few high-speed stops, the brakes begin to suffer.
Similarly, the handling is a bit of a struggle at speed. Understeer will kick in strongly if you try entering a bend too quickly, but the tail can snap out when you then ease off the throttle. Aftermarket goodies can aid handling, but this doesn’t mean you have to ‘slam’ the car into the ground. Overall, though, this is a very practical car that is always a pleasure to drive and is becoming a much less common sight on the roads and at shows.
1990 Vauxhall Astra GTE 16v
Top speed 131mph
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Check the bodykit for damage and fitment, and check it isn’t hiding corrosion. Astras rot everywhere: the body kit can hide horrors. Check around the front suspension strut tops and the bulkhead – especially around the brake servo; any rot here should be an MoT failure and repairs are tricky. The steering rack can be ripped out of the bulkhead by the power, especially on the 16v. With the car stationary, go from lock to lock and see if the pedals move – if they do, walk away. Door locks may be repaired from ‘screwdrivering’ theft entries.
Check the sills and rear wheelarches. The extra trim here can make inspection difficult so you ideally need to get under the car. Rear arches are often bodged, but repair sections are available. While underneath, check the rear suspension mounting areas. Many an Astra is uneconomical to repair due to rust here.
Get underneath the back end and check the rear bumper apron isn’t hiding rust, especially around the chassis. If a sports exhaust is fitted, check that it isn’t too loud and that you can live with the noise. The GTE has a different tailgate to other Astras; the wiper mounts directly on the glass above the rear spoiler.
The original powerplants were 1.8-litre or 2-litre four-cylinder 8v, but the real tyre-scorcher was the 2-litre 16v. Engine swaps are very common – it’s not something for purists, but if an upgrade has taken place, make sure it has been done well; messy wiring and bodged pipework are not good signs. Whatever the engine, watch for blue smoke from the exhaust which suggests worn internals. Camshafts can get clattery with age and neglect, and the timing belt should be changed every 40,000 miles or five years.
Make sure your GTE is the genuine article and not simply a tarted-up Merit with a bodged engine swap. Check the VIN and engine numbers against the V5 for a start. Do they match? A genuine GTE should have a 43 VIN code prefix. The 16v has a much-modified bodyshell with a raised transmission tunnel and a full crossmember in front of the engine.
Wheel, tyre and suspension modifications are common, so make sure the result isn’t an ill-handling mess – the right mods will improve the handling. Check the wheels for damage and the tyres for condition; a budget brand suggests penny-pinching. Make sure the braking is strong and even. The 16v has rear discs rather than the drums of the 8v.
Examine the seat bolsters for damage and cigarette and ‘blim burns’ on seat fabrics. If the later digital dashboard is fitted, make sure it all works. Analogue dials could be specified even later in the GTE’s production life, so don’t be surprised if a digital dash is not fitted. Check the headlining for condition and make sure the electrical equipment is functioning. Electric windows get slow with age. Pre-1988 GTEs have fewer toys.
All interior trim is hard to find.
The majority of GTEs were three-door hatchbacks, but a few were built as convertibles and there are a handful of five-door GTEs too. A desirable variant is the Champion of 1990, a 16v in deep metallic red with leather interior; only 500 were built.
Vauxhall created a fine hot hatch with the GTE. The 115bhp 1.8-litre version is now very rare, as most people want the extra performance of later models. However, you still get more than 120mph and a 0-60mph time of just under 10 seconds. Don’t rule it out – especially as some might find the 150bhp 16v just a bit too lairy – it did expose the handling weaknesses of the car. The 123bhp 2-litre is a good compromise.
Vauxhalls always had engines that sounded pleasantly gruff, and they’re very tough, too. Tune-up options are plentiful – if that’s your thing – although the market is already giving priority to cars that are untouched. Genuine, unmolested cars are getting very rare.
The Astra GTE is proof that the hot hatch market was not just limited to the Golf or 205 GTI arena. It’s an impressive car with enough robustness to be used regularly. As classic hot hatches go, you’d be a fool to rule it out.