We've all heard the story before. You know, the one that goes something like, "I just got back from Europe and boy did I have a great little rental car. It was so peppy and roomy inside, and the hatchback was really useful. I wish they sold small cars like that here. I'd buy one in a minute."
Well the next time one of your annoying friends makes this claim as they hop into their full-size SUV on the way to the gas station, tell them to hold on a second, because now you get to call them out on it.
The Saturn brand was created by General Motors in the 1980s as an import-fighter, building small cars to compete with the best from abroad. Apparently it lost that fight.
After giving up on the plastic-bodied homegrown cars that endeared themselves to a small but fanatical group of owners, Saturn has now replaced much of its model lineup with vehicles originally designed and engineered by GM's German-based brand Opel. For the 2008 Astra compact, it decided to cut out the middleman altogether and import the car straight from the source.
It didn’t even bother to change the name.
It’s a good name.
Assembled in Belgium with parts from countries all over Europe, like Austria and Hungary, the Astra is so European that it could be the villain in a James Bond film. From the light clusters sheathed behind housings that look like raised eyebrows to the strong, crisp shoulder line that gives it a slightly tough guy appearance, the three-door Astra looks like one too, inasmuch as a compact car can be villainous.
Everyone who passes by stops to ask what it is, and if you just tell them it’s an "Astra," they assume it's a new brand about to swoop in and take away American jobs. Say it’s a Saturn, and you get a lot of "What!? Nah, no way. Really?"
It is such a far cry from Saturn’s previous compact cars that we’re not even talking about a young Elvis/old Elvis thing; it’s more like comparing Fat Elvis to Madonna — the British version.
Inside, you’ll find more of the same. Even more so. Apart from replacing Opel’s lightning-bolt logo with Saturn's stylized planet and rings, the car sneaks through customs practically unaltered. For those who reminisce about their vacations in Europe, this is a good thing; less so for people who don't have passports.
Despite the very tight and tidy exterior, the Astra says "willkommen" with ample room inside. Backseat passengers get plenty of space for their heads and legs, though the flat triangular rear windows make it feel cozy in there, or claustrophobic, depending on your predisposition to such things. It’s the perfect place to sit if you need to elude the paparazzi or slip through a border checkpoint.
Up front, you'll be forgiven if you start speaking in a phony accent while driving, as long as you're good (at the driving, we're not in the car with you so we could care less how irritating you are, just don't run into us). The dashboard and controls have a decidedly German look and feel to them that seems very clear and orderly at first glance. Start trying to do things, however, and it all gets a bit confusing.
On the steering wheel there are two buttons with symbols on them that don’t translate into any language other than Germancarengineer. One looks like a box with a neutron bomb going off inside, while the other appears to be a stretcher for an injured stick-figure man. If you can figure out what they do by sight alone you deserve to win a new car, but it’s a sucker bet.*
Our test car was also equipped with something called a Board Computer. No, not an Onboard Computer, though we suppose that's what they mean, but Board Computer. There's even a button marked BC that you hit to operate it. You will do this a lot.
Every time you turn on the stereo you need to go into the BC to decide if you want the dial to change the channels one frequency at a time, scroll through the presets or just limit your choices to the stations that have the best signals, if not music. All of the functions are useful, but if there is a way to program the BC to default to the one you prefer, we couldn't figure it out.
The BC also gives you other information like fuel economy, outside temperature — all that fun stuff that you don’t really need — and does a good enough job of it. Unfortunately, the display screen is collection of black and sickly orange pixels that looks like one of those $5 handheld games you buy in the airport gift shop to keep your kid occupied on the flight to Frankfurt. The effect is disposable and unpleasant. Thankfully, the same can't be said about the way the Astra drives.
Myth: Small cars sold in Europe are faster than small cars sold in America.
Fact: Your car is probably an automatic which makes the manual you rent in Europe seems faster than it is.
Fact: The Astra is not fast, but it does drive very well.
Compared to the Japanese and American compact cars on the market, the Astra is near the bottom when it comes to acceleration. The 138-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is not quite up to the task of lugging around its on-the-heavy-side 2,800 pounds. Get up to speed, however, and you'll be glad your car was designed for people who live where twisty mountain roads are connected to each other by things called autobahns.
In true Euro-compact fashion, the ride is stable and sure, with a high comfort level over bumps, but excellent composure through turns. On the freeway, the Astra rolls along as straight and sure as a high-speed train, and does a nice job of keeping the wind noise at bay while it does. The trade-off is that you notice the moan and drone of the tires and the engine, which works very hard at highway speeds, buzzing along near 3,000 rpm in fifth gear.
If your commute involves a lot of time driving on toll roads, you'll be wishing Saturn found a way to put a stronger engine up front. If sales take off, don’t be surprised if they do. But to reach the mainstream American buyer, they may have to anyway.
In the meantime, the Astra is a refreshing alternative to the other compacts sold by American automakers, and with gas prices doing what they've been doing, an EPA rating of 32 miles per gallon highway comes along at just the right time, if not necessarily the right price.
Our top level Astra XR has a base price of $17,875 and checked out at $19,090 with an upgraded stereo and shipping. Add another $1,325 if you need an automatic transmission, but that would kill the illusion of a foreign liaison, if not your budget. A five-door is also available starting at $16,495.
Of course if your friend really wanted a European compact, he could’ve already bought the one that’s been on sale here since the 1970s, the Volkswagen Rabbit. The three-door version is cheaper, more powerful, and as good, if not better than the Astra in just about every objective way, save fuel economy. If he doesn't already own one of them, he will probably not want an Astra either.
Saturn loyalists can rejoice, however, as they finally have the car they deserved way back when. That is, if they don’t mind going over to the dark side to get it.
*The bomb changes radio stations and CD tracks while the stretcher is used to shuttle through CDs in the 6-CD changer. They may do other things as well, but we were scared to try.
2008 SATURN ASTRA 3-DOOR XR
Base Price: $17,875
As Tested: $19,090
Engine: 1.8-liter inline-4 cylinder
Power: 138 hp, 125 lb-ft torque
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive w/5-speed manual transmission
MPG: 24 city/32 hwy
What do you think of the Saturn Astra?
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