Saturn Astra — A fresh face from Europe

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

You don't have to visit your nearest Volkswagen store to buy an affordable European-spec car.

American-as-apple-pie Saturn now has European style and driving dynamics in its showroom in the form of the new entry-level Astra three-door and five-door hatchbacks. Manufactured in Belgium, the Astra is the best-selling car in Europe and it reaches our shores basically intact. The only major changes are a Saturn grille and Saturn badging on the rear end.

The European Astra is a well-built and fun-to-drive compact starting at under 16 grand replacing the Ion, perhaps the worst small car sold in North America in the 21st Century.

This is a strange turn of events for the General Motors' brand that started from scratch around 1990 as America's answer to the foreign invasion with an all-new plant in Tennessee, building an all-new car loaded with import-fighting ideas such as ding-resistant doors.

The original Saturn concept was generally well done and caught America's imagination for five or six years. But interest in its one-segment lineup began to wane when it came time to redesign its original vehicles and when many of its original owners found the need for a bigger sedan, a sport utility or a minivan. Saturn had nothing beyond compact entry-level vehicles to offer its faithful.

With the help of parent General Motors, Saturn began to branch out into other segments using rebadged GM products that had little to do with the original Saturn concept. The likable Saturn quirkiness was gone replaced by mediocre, nondescript products. Early in the 21st Century it was clear the bold Saturn experiment was in the tank.

Then a strange thing happened. Saturn re-invented itself building on superior vehicles from General Motors' European Opel division. You might say Saturn, once the antithesis of foreign, has become the European arm of GM in North America.

This transformation has never been more evident than in the final piece of the brand's transformation, the Astra. In fact, the Astra may be too European for some American tastes. But it is without question a giant leap from the now-departed Ion.

We were surprised and pleased during our first spin in a three-door Astra over its solid feel and superb handling traits. We found the driver's seat near perfect for our taste and the audio — once you figured out how to use it — emited pleasant sounds as background for our drive. In a few words, the Astra was simply fun to drive.

We had other more expensive vehicles in the driveway during our test week, but we found ourselves fumbling for the Astra keys each time out the door.
We think Saturn has a winner in the Astra, but unfortunately not all is perfect.

Some European interior elements don't translate well into the American market. If Saturn had done a bit more work — spent a little more money — we would consider the Astra the equal of any compact sold in the U.S. But, alas, perhaps because of budget constraints or simply the need to get the Astra to American shores as quickly as possible, at least one American necessity was overlooked.

Specifically, there are no front cupholders.

We can hear some readers right now thinking, picky, picky, picky. And yes we managed nicely over seven days without a place for our big gulp. But are the people who buy this car going to be willing to drive four or five years without a place to put their morning coffee or their extra-large diet Coke from McDonald's? Are Astra owners going to willingly change their driving and drinking habits?

There is a small cutout in the door pockets big enough to put a 12-ounce soft drink can, which is not easy to reach while hurtling down the highway, and there is one cupholder at the rear of the center console, presumably for a rear-seat passenger. We couldn't reach it from the front without performing contortions our old body can no longer manage.

We don't think would-be buyers should pass on this remarkable small car because of a lack of cupholders, but if they do we completely understand.

The audio system controls are also a bit befuddling. But we can defend the European influence here. Once you have mastered the controls, which won't take long, they are very intuitive and a center-mounted screen offers other useful information in addition to the audio setup. It's an upscale setup for a car selling for under 20 grand. But, here again, Saturn should have gone one small step further. Missing is an auxiliary input jack for an iPod or MP3 player, which may be more offputting than the aforementioned drink holders.

That being said, the Astra has a load of neat features, especially if you stay away from the bottom trim level, including tilt and telescoping steering wheel,
steering-wheel mounted controls and rain-sensing wipers.

Perhaps most important, all Astras come with an impressive array of safety features including stability control, antilock disc brakes, front seat side airbags, full-length side-curtain airbags, anti-whiplash front head restraints, the OnStar commuication system and tire pressure monitoring.

Exterior styling on its own may be enough to sell the Astra, especially in coupe format with swoopy lines and wheels pushed to the corners. It looks modern and athletic.
While sport-tuned suspension makes the Astra fun to drive on the winding back roads, not so much fun is a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine making 138 horsepower. It's the only available engine, mated to either a five-speed manul or a four-speed automatic. Perhaps a turbocharged version will be an enticing option in future model years.

For now, the 4-cylinder gets the job done, sans excitement, while realizing excellent fuel economy. And for most potential buyers 24 mpg city and 32 highway with the manual and 24/30 with the automatic will be a strong selling point.

The Astra comes in the two hatchback formats and in base XE and upscale XR trim levels in the five-door and just the XR in the three-door. We recommend you skip past the XE starting at $15,995 including destination. By the time you add on an automatic transmission and air conditioning the price skyrockets to $18,280.

The XR trim level comes with air standard and adding on an automatic takes the price to $18,870. The thing is you get other featues as well that don't come on the XE.

We drove the sporty coupe XR starting at $18,495. It comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, a sport-turned suspension and sports seats. Eightten-inch wheels are a $495 option. The only option on our test car was a premium sound system for $595 bringing the bottom line to $19,090.

For those wanting the sportiness of the two-door, but who need occassional room for two or three passengers, we found that the rear seats have scads of headroom, but legroom needs to be negotiated with the front-seat occupants.

The Astra has what we consider some minor shortcomings. But if you want a stylish compact machine with decent gas mileage you need not look beyond your nearest Saturn store. It can hold its own against products from Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and Nissan.


Base price: $15,995; as driven, $19,090

Engine: 1.8-liter 4-cylinder

Horsepower: 138 @ 6,300 rpm

Torque: 125 foot-pounds @ 3,800 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Drive: front wheel

Seating: 2/2

Wheelbase: 102.9 inches

Length: 170.5 inches

Curb weight: 2,833 pounds

Turning circle: 34.4 feet

Luggage capacity: 12 cubic feet

Cargo capacity: 38 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 12 gallons (regular)

EPA mileage: 32 highway, 24 city

0-60: 8.6 seconds (Road & Track)

Also consider: Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra

The Good

• Upscale interior with quality materials
• Head-turning styling

• Excellent fuel economy

The Bad

• Lacks American necessities such as cupholders, MP3 jack

The Ugly

• Only one engine choice