The Saturn Astra is an all-new car. At least it's new to the American automotive landscape: Astra has been offered for years in Europe under the Opel flag, where it's been giving the VW Golf a run for top-seller bragging rights. The new Astra is so much better in every respect than the Saturn model it replaces that we've forgotten the earlier compact's name.
The Astra comes in two body styles, both hatchbacks designed for practicality and built on the same chassis. There's a three-door version that is lower in overall height than the five-door version, but otherwise they share the same outside dimensions. This package was developed on European roadways where performance is measured more by balance at speed than how fast it accelerates away from an intersection. It further benefits from German design and engineering, where you can get small cars as well-assembled and refined as some big ones, and where pointless vehicle fashion statements are dropped in favor of finding a place to park or affording a fill-up.
With frisky 1.8-liter engines Astras aren't fast, yet we found them brisk, smooth and flexible, happy to putter around town or beat the snot out of it, and that little engine is good on gas, routinely returning more than 30 mpg during our test drives. A five-speed manual or extra-cost four-speed automatic drives the front wheels, antilock brakes are standard, and the ride and cornering abilities didn't leave us wishing for more.
The Astra fits in the segment much like the Volkswagen Rabbit (Golf) and Mazda 3 in that it delivers realistic economy while feeling a little less like an economy car and more like premium small cars such as the Mini Cooper, BMW 1 Series or Audi A3. Pricing fits that aspect too, running from under $16,000 to about $21,000 for a fully loaded model.
It's also a good do-it-all kind of car: cart around a batch of kids, shuttle around town or cover big commuting miles, fill with a lot of school debris, or make a good basis for a pocket rocket like the GTI, Civic Si, or Mazdaspeed3. An Astra holds four adults and has surprising cargo space hiding under that pinched rear end, and it's one of few small cars actually rated to tow something, in this case enough for a personal watercraft or two.
We think the Saturn Astra is the best small car ever to roll out of a Saturn dealership and well worth considering.
The 2008 Saturn Astra comes in two five-door models, XE and XR, and one three-door XR. All are powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual gearbox, with a four-speed automatic available.
The XE five-door ($15,375) includes cloth upholstery in dark gray, CD player, and dual lighted visor mirrors, tilt/telescoping steering column, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry/security, cruise control, one-touch power windows, projector halogen automatic headlamps, power heated mirrors, oil life monitor (for maximizing service intervals). It comes with four-wheel antilock disc brakes (ABS) and electro-hydraulic power steering. Air conditioning is not standard. XE options include air conditioning ($960), automatic ($1,325), alloy wheels ($350), stability control ($495), two-panel sunroof ($1,000) and heated front seats ($250).
The XR five-door ($16,925) adds air conditioning, seven-speaker MP3 stereo with steering-wheel controls, alloy wheels and fog lamps. Except the AC and wheels, single options are the same as XE. However, the XR offers three equipment groups the XE does not: Premium Trim ($795) that includes leather-trimmed sport seats with manual lumbar, leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated front seats, trim and cabin lighting upgrades; Sport Handling ($695) that features a lowered sport suspension, quick-ratio steering, seventeen-inch alloy wheels and tires, stability control, chrome exhaust tip; and Advanced Audio ($595) that adds a 6CD/MP3 player, seven premium speakers, enhanced driver information display.
The XR three-door ($17,875) is the top price point and it has the most standard equipment. Sport seats and upgraded instruments join the other features in the XR five-door Sport Handling group. Options include the automatic ($1,325), 18-inch alloy wheels and performance tires ($495), and heated front seats. Package groups are the Premium Trim ($745) and Advanced Audio from the five-door.
Safety features standard on all Astras include frontal, front side-impact, and side curtain airbags, one year of OnStar Safe & Sound with accident notification, active front headrests, ABS, traction control, and tire pressure monitors. Electronic stability control is standard on the three-door and optional on five-doors; we recommend opting for it because it can reduce skidding. Most important, be sure to wear your seatbelts, which are your first line of defense in a crash.
From the windshield forward both the three-door and five-door Saturn Astra models appear identical, with projector headlamps in housings that echo the lower corner trim and deliver a crisp light pattern, a Saturn family chrome grille split, and a sloping hood that melts into the windshield. White parking light bulbs belie the European heritage, as do simple yet stylish side signal repeaters that appear chrome jewelry until switched on when a signal can be seen anywhere on the side of the car, not just ahead of more vulnerable mirror-mounted devices.
The lack of visual clutter and cladding should be welcome by all from the Rust Belt to the southern border; excess chrome is reserved mainly for badges and the horizontal trim front and rear.
Rear panel styling echoes the front with a recessed panel in the hatch split by trim and the license plate in another recess in the bumper; since they're all hatchbacks, all Astras have rear wipers for better wet weather visibility.
On the three-door, the window line arcs downward from about two-thirds through the front door; the earlier Ford Focus hatchback will come to mind as similar. The window line is continued just beyond as the leading edge of the taillight housing in profile, yet the roofline carries well rearward and the hatch sweeps in from the sides; were you viewing it in the dark from overhead you'd be hard pressed to say whether the car was coming or going.
Five-door models are almost two inches taller than the three-door, the primary benefit being rear seat headroom. The five-door has a similar look to the ends, although the rear is more upright to make full use of the footprint. The rear-door opening angles up and rearward from the wheel and, instead of reversing direction at the glass line, it keeps going up and aft to the top of the glass. Since the door opening matches the seated position of rear seat riders, this pays big dividends in getting into and out of, and seeing out of, the rear seat.
Perhaps not as stylish or unique as the Saturn Sky roadster, the Saturn Astra is still distinctive and has visual appeal. This is further heightened on any version by simple alloy wheels, and on the three-door by that arcing windowline which might make you wonder if this is the most attractive three-door gas-saver around.
With silver trim along the doors sweeping into the dash and onto the center controls, the Astra's dark gray interior is bisected by a large, silver T-shaped panel. A lighter headliner and lots of glass keep the cabin fairly light and airy for the primarily dark color scheme. Everything looks quite good for what begins a $15,000 car, and while everyone uses plastic these days the Astra hides it well.
There are no ergonomic problems for the Astra daily driver nor any when you swap driving chores. American drivers might have to make two minor adaptations, one using the icon BC, which stands for on-board computer for trip data, the other being electronic controls of wipers and signals that always have the stalk at its default or standard resting position. Lift the signal lever slightly and you get an automatic three blinks for lane changes; lift it a step further for regular signal operation, and lift again if you change your mind and want to turn the signals off; this can be vexing until you get used to it. Same for the wipers, including the rear, so never assume there is a glitch with the car or a broken switch; it does what you tell it to do.
The only potential downside we found was a lack of storage areas for the front seats. True, the two-level glovebox and door pockets are useful and there is a small bin next to the lighter, but apart from the tray the handbrake rides in where your fingers will scoop out the contents, there aren't many places convenient to throw wallet, extra keys, phone, or MP3 player and handily retrieve them.
All Astras have good cabin space for their footprint, including footwells that won't make you sit artificially canted.
The front seats are covered in cloth and adjust manually for cushion height, reach, and infinite recline, and use a bolster shape that keeps you supported but doesn't pinch wider waistlines. Both front and rear seat cushion length are generous to avoid putting your behind to sleep.
The three-door has sportier front seats more in keeping with its style, mission, and firmer suspension, and they do a commendable job keeping you in place, even with the optional leather.
The rear bench seat in both body styles is broad with three belts. The back seat is better used for two adults or three children. The five-door will accommodate six-footers front and rear simultaneously. An optional twin-panel sunroof covers both rows in glass and an opaque shade; only the front panel opens yet all will benefit from the light or night views.
The three-door, with easy access front seat sliders, has somewhat less rear headroom but you'll still be surprised by how much space there is. Reading lights and outboard cupholders for back-seat riders complement the pair that pop forward out of the seat cushion. The center headrest is low-profile for rear vision but adjustable for safety. Coat hooks are provided, useful for picking up dry cleaning.
Dual outside mirrors are heated and power-adjustable on all models and narrow forward pillars contribute to excellent forward visibility yet all quarters are easy to see. The three-door's sloping rear windows are far enough from the driver they don't compromise lane-change vision, and the rear window is a bit shallower than the five-door. The rear wiper obscures rearward visibility on both models.
Instruments and driving controls are shared by the three-door and five-door versions. However, the three-door includes a large tachometer and speedometer flanking a small fuel gauge, all in amber illumination.
The comfortably thick steering wheel tilts and telescopes for good driving position and clear gauge viewing, and there is nothing hidden behind it. This is a nice feature because many compacts have only a tilting wheel. The light switch is to the left, and an information screen is in the center dash stack for radio, outside temperature, and trip computer data; when Instant Consumption is selected and the car is not
The Saturn Astra is a mildly entertaining car to drive. While you may equate speed to entertainment, the Astra delivers a nice overall balance, with balanced brakes, steering and handling that invite you to really drive if you wish or just get there as easily as possible if that's your preference. And at about 30 mpg taking the winding road, why not?
Power comes from a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder that drums up 138 horsepower at 6300 rpm and 125 pound-feet of torque at a bit more than half that speed. Those are nearly identical values to Honda's Civic 1.8-liter. Idling or pushed to the limit it is smooth and lacks any annoying buzzing; you'll hear the noise but it will never scare you into shifting early and, given what Europeans can and do do to their engines we'd have to call this GM's best small engine in the American market. Opel has a long history of engineering fine small cars that are enjoyable to drive, and the Astra is no exception.
The Astra pulls evenly from any speed without peaks or jumps and it is geared realistically so you needn't downshift any time you encounter a grade; the 3300-rpm engine speed at 70 mph won't grate on your senses and is often masked by radio or road noise.
EPA fuel economy numbers are 24/32 mpg City/Highway, and we managed almost 30 mpg in commuting in our Astra three-door with the manual gearbox. Automatic transmissions often cost a couple more miles per gallon on the highway.
Clutch and shifter are both light, the former progressive and the latter direct, with a lockout collar for reverse. The manual is easy to drive in traffic, with smooth throttle travel and good programming to keep launches from lurching.
Brakes are all disc with antilock and plenty capable of halting an Astra in short order. There is no sponginess in the pedal, effort is moderate and the car stays planted under heavy braking without burying its nose or throwing the tail in the air.
Steering is nicely weighted rack-and-pinion so you know where it's pointed and you needn't work hard at keeping it that way. Since there isn't a lot of torque, torque steer is well-managed and even full throttle acceleration can be managed with one hand.
Astras rely on MacPherson-strut front suspension and a torsion beam rear axle with coil springs. The torsion beam design is neither as sophisticated nor expensive as fully independent multi-link setups and allows for minimal cabin intrusion, meaning more back seat space. You may find on particularly bad roads or heavy braking into a bumpy corner that a full independent system is a tick better, and you may also find that for $16,000 this is some good stuff already.
There is some adjustability in how much fun you want to have with an Astra. The five-door XE rides the softest and its sixteen-inch steel wheels will best fend off potholes and those curbs your kids are so adept at finding. On the XR five-door you can add a sport handling package that, at just $200 more than stability control alone, is a good value adding firmer suspension settings, quicker steering, stability control, and 225/45-17 tires on clean five-spoke alloy wheels. On our tester these were Michelin Pilot HX and with a footprint as wide as the three-door's top setup plus some ride comfort, they might be the best compromise for those in Pennsylvania or on the eastern I-40 corridor in Arkansas The only drawback of fat tires, not unique to these tires or this car, is some tendency to tram-line and follow grooves in the road like a bloodhound's nose.
The driver's suspension is standard on three-doors and those owners may opt for 18-inch alloys with 215/45R16 sticky tires; we're used to seeing Pirelli PZero Rossos on things like Mercedes AMG cars or supercharged Jaguars and welcome them on the Astra. Naturally, these deliver the crispest response, most tenacious grip, and not coincidentally a bit more road noise; perhaps not ideal for pockmarked
Saturn Astra brings one of GM's more popular cars stateside without losing any of the good qualities in the trip over the pond. And it has plenty of good qualities to choose from, not least being an economy car that doesn't feel like one.
G.R. Whale filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after test driving Astra models in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Germany.