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The front-drive Saturn Astra is nimble, roomy, comfortable, versatile, thrifty, and affordable—but that’s not what’s really remarkable about this new compact hatchback.



What’s remarkable is that all these positive attributes come through essentially unfiltered from the Opel Astra, which is what you’d be calling this vehicle if you lived in Europe.

The only differences between the Astra built by GM’s German subsidiary for sale in Europe and this new Saturn edition are its badges, minor exterior trim, a rear-seat cup holder, and tuning for U.S. emissions standards.

Well, okay, there’s the matter of choices. The Opel Astra comes in more body styles and offers a number of additional powertrain options, including diesels.

Our Saturn Astra is available only as a hatchback—three or five doors—with one engine, a 138-hp, 1.8-liter Ecotec four, and a choice of a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission.

Nevertheless, the fact that a car attuned to European dynamic standards is hitting U.S. showrooms with no softening or other compromises imposed by product planners with some misconceived notion of what’s best for American drivers is a good thing. Not to mention rare.

We’d like to report that the reason for this restraint by Saturn was some new and enlightened perception of what’s really important in terms of ride and handling, but that’s not really the case.

The reason for this unexpurgated treatment—this naturalized American with a distinct German accent—was much more pragmatic. Saturn marketing execs wanted the Astra in showrooms ASAP, to shore up its small-car market presence in the wake of the ill-conceived Ion.

Consequently, haste, amplified by cost containment, was paramount. Getting a federalized Astra ready for market took less than 21 months, and it follows that any tinkering with the car would only add to the lead time, as well as the project’s cost.

This explains the single engine choice. The Saturn people knew they’d need an automatic-transmission option for the car in the U.S., but the only engine that offered that choice in Europe was the 1.8-liter. End of discussion.

That leaves the Astra at a power disadvantage versus its target hatchback competitors, the Mazda 3 and the VW Rabbit. (Saturn would like us to forget the Pontiac Vibe as a competitor, for obvious reasons.)

The Mazda 3 is similar in mass to the Astra (about 2800 pounds), but the Mazda’s 2.3-liter four delivers 156 horsepower.

The Rabbit is heavier—more than 3000 pounds—but its standard 2.5-liter five-cylinder is rated at 170 horsepower.

Saturn’s 0-to-60-mph forecast for Astras equipped with manual transmissions is 9.7 seconds, which is nearly a second slower than the cheaper Honda Fit. With the four-speed automatic—the Astra’s major competitors offer five- and six-speeds—the same sprint will take almost 10.5 seconds, according to Saturn. This isn’t a huge drawback in urban traffic, but it does add a little unwanted drama to passing on two-lane highways.

However, if power isn’t a huge priority, the Astra measures up quite well. For example, fuel-economy ratings—24 city and 32 highway with the manual transmission (30 highway with the four-speed auto)—are a couple mpg better than those posted by the Mazda and Rabbit.

More compelling, the Astra’s Euro suspension tuning keeps cornering attitudes level and responses eager, particularly in the sporty three-door XR, with its lower (by just over a half-inch) static ride height and 215/45 Pirelli P Zero tires on 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels. (The base Astra—the five-door XE—wears 16-inch wheels, and the uplevel five-door XR rolls on 17-inchers.)

Braking performance, via a good-sized set of discs at all four corners with standard ABS, also seems to be better than average.

The XE—from $16,615—comes only as a five-door and does not include air conditioning; that’ll cost you $965 extra. But it does have lots of nice comfort and convenience features: power windows, power locks, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, height-adjustable seats, illuminated vanity mirrors, and dual reading lamps.

Along with standard ABS, the XE’s safety features include front side airbags, curtain airbags, breakaway foot pedals, active front head restraints, and tire-pressure monitoring.

However, it’s just a $1550 step up from the loss-leader XE to the better-equipped XR version, which includes air conditioning. Major Astra options include a $1000 dual-panel sunroof that’s the biggest in the compact segment, a $695 Sport Handling package for the XR five-door (standard on the three-door), stability control ($495, standard on the XR three-door), and a premium six-CD/MP3 player ($595).

The bottom line: After struggling with the lame-duck Ion, Saturn will finally be back in business in the compact-car segment.

The Astra won’t be the quickest, particularly with an automatic transmission, and its hatchback-only range may limit market appeal. But it’s priced right, it looks good, its assembly feels solid, materials are high quality, and its European road manners give it an enjoyable edge in the fun-to-drive department.

For drivers who want something a little different, that may be enough.

Opel Shown In Photos

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NEW: 2009 SATURN ASTRA: YAY OR NAY?

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