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2008 Saturn Astra
Test Drive - Edmunds: No wagon or TwinTop, Sedan may come in '10
Date: Sept 27,
GM's World Car
Seeks to Conquer America
Date: Sept 26,
One letter. On paper, only one letter separates Frankfort, Ohio from
Frankfurt, Germany. In reality, the two cities could not be more
different. One is a small town with a blue-collar population of 1,045;
the other is a true international city of 650,000 with industries
ranging from biotechnology to banking.
Regardless, General Motors is betting the same small car will play in
both places. The car is the Astra, and history supports the theory. "We
sell the Astra everywhere," says Michael Harder of Opel, GM's German
subsidiary. "From Iceland to South Africa, from New Zealand to Moscow."
And it does so with great success.
Still, we can't help but think the little hatchback is about to embark
on its toughest challenge: America, the land of the free and the home of
the slow-selling hatchback. On top of that, the 2008 Saturn Astra needs
to make people forget the horrible Saturn Ion, the very worst car ever
sold in America. This won't be easy, even for the best selling
three-door compact in Europe.
But after a day behind the wheel we're confident the Saturn Astra has
We Drove the Three-Door
Flat-out on the autobahn just west of Frankfurt, the Saturn's
speedometer needle is creeping past 110 mph. Jon J. Lauckner, GM's vice
president of global program management, told us we would be impressed
with the Astra's high-speed stability, and we are. The road is
smoother than I-70 just outside Frankfort, but the Astra is undeniably
We knew it would be. In the past six months we've taken advantage of the
Astra's world car status and have driven the 2007 Opel Astra 1.8, which
is sold throughout Europe and Russia, and the 2007 Holden HSV Astra VXR,
which is a regular down in Kangaroo land.
This time we're in the three-door Saturn Astra XR, the hottest version
Americans will be offered. It rides on standard 18-inch Dunlop SP Sport
summer tires, which give the Astra plenty of road-holding. A quicker
14:1 steering ratio (optional on five-doors) is also standard, along
with sportier suspension tuning and a 15mm lower ride height.
Under the hood, however, is the same 1.8-liter DOHC Ecotec four-cylinder
that'll power every other Astra. It packs variable valve timing, a
6,500-rpm redline and an iron block. The compression ratio is 10.5:1 and
it runs on regular. With ratings of 138 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and
126 pound-feet of torque at 3,800 rpm, it's strong for the class,
especially for its size. The 1.8-liter in the Versa delivers just
Still, it's far from the class state of the art. The 2.5-liter in the VW
Rabbit makes 170 hp and it's backed by a five-speed manual or a
six-speed automatic. The Astra's standard manual also packs five gears,
but its optional automatic offers just four.
No Turbo, No Drop Top
Although the Holden HSV Astra VXR is powered by a turbocharged 240-hp
version of the Saturn Astra's engine, that engine is not U.S.
bound. We had hopes it would morph into the Saturn Astra Red Line,
but Lutz tells us it's not happening. "Too much emissions work,"
The wagon version will also be left in Europe because Americans
buy even fewer wagons than they do hatchbacks. Sadly, the Twin-Top
convertible Astra, which has a retractable hardtop, won't make it
because of the investment needed to make it meet U.S. crash test
Instead just two body styles, both hatchbacks, will be offered:
three-door and five-door. Trim levels? Also two. The five-door is
offered in XE or XR trim, while the three-door is XR only.
Pricing starts at $15,995 (including destination) for the five-door XE,
$17,545 for the five-door XR and $18,495 for the XR three-door. That may
sound like a lot for a car in this class, but the standard equipment
list is long. Even the XE comes with a tilt/telescoping steering wheel,
ABS, 16-inch wheels, OnStar, six airbags, stability control and a CD
Every three-door XR, like our five-speed test car, gets
steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, power door locks, power windows
and height-adjustable sport seats.
Nicely Finished but Noisy
Car snobs will check the Astra's chassis hardware and mock it for not
having an independent rear suspension. And they might have a point, but
the front-wheel-drive Astra XR is far more fun to throw around than its
hardware and 63 percent front weight bias would suggest. Although
understeer is definitely its preferred cornering attitude, on a
snaking mountain road it should outrun and out-fun most cars that cost
We also like the tight shift linkage and easy clutch take-up, but
had a hard time with the Astra's pedal placement. Heel-and-toe
downshifting is easier in a Peterbilt. Praising the Astra's
electrohydraulic steering is easy. It's a touch dead on-center, but it's
weighted nicely and properly quick, and the leather-wrapped
three-spoke wheel feels substantial.
Actually, everything about the Astra feels substantial. Unlike
the Ion, which had a bucket-of-bolts quality, nothing about the Astra is
tinny or cheap. From its overall structure down to its interior trim,
the Astra has a tight, well-assembled, upscale finish.
Still, things aren't perfect. There's only one cupholder, for
instance, and it's located where the missing center armrest should be.
Rear visibility is compromised by the low roof line, small backlight and
standard rear headrests and the 160 mph speedo writes a check the car
can't cash. Top speed is about 130 mph. We also wonder why there's no
engine temperature gauge.
Dynamically our wish list is limited to a 6th gear. The five-speed
manual is geared too short. It gives the car a spunky feeling around
town, but on the highway the engine is working for it. Eighty mph in
top gear equals 4,000 rpm on the tach. That's too high and it causes
quite a bit of engine boom to find its way into the Astra's cabin. If
you're road tripping in an Astra, bring aspirin.
At 170.5 inches long, 69 inches wide and 57.4 inches tall, the Astra
five-door is dimensionally very similar to the Rabbit. The
three-door is the same length and width but is almost 2 inches lower to
give it a more sinister squatted stance. The cost, of course, is some
Cargo volume also takes a small hit. The five-door offers a maximum of
44.7 cubic feet with its rear seats folded (a Nissan Versa offers 50
cubic feet), while the three-door offers 37.8 cubic feet.
GM says that's OK because the three-door is more about style and driving
fun than practicality. "The three-door shows the essence of the Astra
design family," says Uwe Muller, the car's designer. He points out the
car's wedge shape, dominant shoulders and arching greenhouse as its
highlights. And there's no denying it's quite butch compared to the
Versa or the Rabbit.
Exterior differences between an Opel Astra and a Saturn Astra are nearly
impossible to spot, although Saturn says the front and rear bumpers are
different, as well as the grille.
When the Astra hits Main Street this December, it'll conclude a
two-year-long product onslaught by Saturn, and it'll make the
still-fresh Saturn Sky the oldest car in the brand's lineup.
Trouble is, the Astra isn't really a new car. This version of the
hatchback debuted in Europe way back in January 2004, which means it's
fast approaching another redesign. Rumor is there's a sedan in those
plans that will find its way to America's 440 Saturn dealers around 2010.
In the meantime, the 2008 Saturn Astra is a real alternative to the
popular Honda Civic, Mazda 3, Toyota Corolla and VW Rabbit. Is it
perfect? Nope, it isn't even the best car in its class, but it is the
best small car GM has ever sold in the United States, and it's worth a