Fleet News

Special feature: Astravan migrates to Eastern Europe for gap year

THE automotive world is a crazy place indeed. The Nissan Primera is perceived as a Japanese car but is made in Tyneside while the Ford Mondeo is generally thought of as British but is in fact built in Belgium.

At least we all know the Astravan is a true Brit, haling from the Vauxhall factory at Ellesmere Port. Well, actually, no...

Since June, the Astravan has been rolling off the production line at the Opel factory at Gliwice in Poland as the Ellesmere Port plant clears the decks for the new Astra car. When a van version of this new incarnation is finally available in 18 months or so, it will be made in Cheshire. But until then, our Astravan will be a Pole through and through.

But being built in this emerging Eastern European country does not mean second-rate build quality, as I discovered on a trip to the factory.

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Poland has been rapidly metamorphosing into a competitive business environment. Chic bars and cafes are springing up in towns and cities, while Trabants and FSOs are making way for more familiar European cars and vans.

International companies such as Opel, Volkswagen, Tesco and McDonald’s are moving in too, taking advantage of cheap labour rates and land prices, while local councils are giving incentives to attract firms that will in turn provide work for local people.

The Opel plant at Gliwice was opened in 1998 after the company invested £440 million and it currently builds the Vauxhall Agila and old Astra models for eastern European markets, alongside the Astravan.

The plant employs some 2,000 people and pays them above the average £100-per-week wage in order to attract the best workers.

The plant is proud of its achievements so far. Opel was voted Employer if the Year two years running in Poland, Company of the Year in 2000 and Investor of the Year in 2003 by the American Chamber of Commerce.

During my factory visit, I was able to see vans being built from scratch. The body panels, for example, start as sheets of steel and are pressed on site and fixed together with 4,000 spot welds.

Each week, a vehicle is taken off the line and each weld is pulled apart in a painstaking exercise that tests the quality of the operation. Meanwhile, ultrasonic checks are made to detect any hidden faults.

In the paintshop, I discovered that the quality control on vans is even higher than for cars, because body panels are larger so any faults in the paint will show up more. Another discovery was that yellow is the most difficult colour to produce as it requires more coats than other hues.

After the bodies are baked dry in huge ovens, they are mated to ready-prepared engines and drivetrains and then all the other bits such as seats and wheels are added at the end.

The Astravan continues to sell well — 8,539 have been bought in the UK in the first nine months of this year — in a market that has largely ditched the car-derived van in favour of specially-built models such as the Citroen Berlingo and Ford Transit Connect.

At 1.6 cubic metres of loadspace and 610kg of payload, it can’t match the new contenders. But it does have true car-like drivability that the others lack and is proving an attractive bonus for some buyers.

Astravan is now powered by either a 1.7-litre Euro IV-compliant common rail diesel unit offering 80bhp or a 1.6i petrol powerplant offering 105bhp, which allows for a dual-fuel option.

Three trim levels are available — Envoy, LS and Sportive. ABS brakes are standard and in the cargo area, the Astravan has a half-height bulkhead and half-height sidewall panelling. Manually-operated rear suspension levelling is optional on Envoy and LS.

The top-of-the-range Sportive boasts 15in alloy wheels, low profile tyres, roof rails, foglights, body-coloured mirrors, metallic paint and optional front spoiler and side sills.

Prices range from £10,893 to £12,498 ex-VAT. Service intervals are 20,000 miles and the van has a three-year warranty.

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