he most significant thing about the new Saturn Astra that the warm-and-fuzzy division of General Motors is to unveil at the 2007 Chicago Auto Show is that it is not the Saturn Ion.
We’ll be getting to the specific merits of the Astra in a paragraph or two, but we don’t want to let pass the opportunity to step on the neck of the Ion, a vehicle so uninspired, so awkward-looking that when a couple years ago GM took the wraps off it, the assembled media fell completely silent — at least until we heard the fat guy seated behind us snicker. The media reaction after driving the thing was less polite.
But it’s a new day at Saturn and the Astra, as a sort-of European GM take on the Mazda 3, is the latest in an astonishingly quick remake of the brand. Once the Astra goes on sale in the fall, the oldest car in Saturn’s lineup will be the Sky roadster. The Sky debuted in March of last year.
Saturn has done this by simply rebadging Opels from Europe. The company hasn’t even bothered to rename the new small Saturn, which is sold by the same model name as an Opel and a Vauxhall (in the U.K.).
Saturn reckons that the Honda Civic, Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Rabbit are the Astra’s main competitors, or the high end of the compact market if you’re willing to slice the small-car market that thinly. With a 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter DOHC four as the only available engine, the Astra comes in at the low end of the class for power. The base Civic makes the same amount. But the Rabbit makes 10 hp more and, depending on the engine, the Mazda makes either 8 or 16 more. Like the Nissan Sentra and previous-generation Volkswagens, the Astra rides on a strut front suspension and a torsion-beam rear. All of the Astra’s stated competitors use fully independent rear suspension.
With a wheelbase of 102.9 inches and an overall length of 171.1 inches, the Astra is just about smack in the center of the market in terms of size — smaller than a Civic or 3, but a little bigger than a Rabbit. Yet Saturn is claiming a slight advantage in rear-seat space compared to its competitors, for both three- and five-door models. No sedan will be available.
The five-door Astra will be the base model, with 16-inch wheels and optional stability control. The three-door is to be the sporty model so it gets 17-inch wheels standard (18s will be optional), a quicker steering ratio and seats with bigger bolsters.
We expect Saturn will produce a Red Line performance version in about a year’s time, similar to the performance versions in Europe that use a 2.0-liter turbocharged motor.
When the Astra goes on sale this fall, expect prices to be similar to those of the Mazda 3 — figure around $19,000 or so to start and $21,000 at the higher end.
The front-wheel-drive Astra comes with a 1.8-liter engine that produces 140 hp and 126 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard and a four-speed automatic is optional. With the manual, the two-door Astra will go from zero to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds. Fuel economy is 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway for manual-transmission models and 24/30 with the automatic.
Standard safety features include stability control, antilock disc brakes, front-seat side airbags, full-length side-curtain airbags, whiplash-reducing front head restraints and the OnStar communications system.
Compared to most economy hatchbacks, the 2008 Saturn Astra is pretty fun to drive — particularly the two-door — thanks to its European-influenced suspension tuning. In our instrumented testing, the Astra performed superbly, matching the handling and grip numbers achieved by more performance-oriented nameplates. Its growling four-cylinder may not produce the quickest car out there, but what the Astra lacks in straight-line go, it supplants with twisty-road fun. The car’s European feel also extends to the taut steering, which provides plenty of feedback and quick action. In other words, forget everything you ever learned or assumed about Saturn.