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 a shot.lat-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 locked in.
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 122 hp.
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.
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,” he said.
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 standards.
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 player.
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.
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 under $20,000.
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 rear-seat headroom.
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 look.
To complete Saturn’s product overhaul, the company will add the compact, sleek-looking Astra (above) in late 2007 as a 2008 model, replacing the unloved and unlovely Ion (below right) that was introduced for 2003.
0612_sation_sdn_07_245Making its official debut at the Chicago auto show, the Astra is the latest in Saturn’s product synergy between European Opel and U.S. Saturn products, and this one doesn’t even get a different name for North America. It will be nearly identical to the 2007.5 Opel Astra (below left) and sold in the U.S. and Canada in both three-door and five-door configurations.
Five-door models come in two trims, XE and XR, while the three-door comes only in up-level XR trim. 16-inch wheels are standard (17s optional) on five-doors, while 17s are standard on three-doors with an 18-inch option. Welcome safety gear includes standard anti-lock brakes and available stability control (standard on the three-door, optional on the five). Supposedly the handsome and expensive-looking interior is unchanged from the Opel’s, which was not the case in the Opel Vectra–to–Saturn Aura transformation.
0612_opeast_5dr_07_245All models will be powered by a 140-hp 1.8-liter Ecotec four-cylinder connected to either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. The new, much stricter ‘08 fuel economy ratings should put the Astra’s numbers around 23 city and 31 highway (roughly equivalent to 27/34 by ’07 fuel economy standards). Unfortunately, we don’t get the 200-hp 2.0-liter turbo and the six-speed manual that are available in the Opel.
Prices should start around $16,000 for the Astra when it goes on sale this fall.
* Astra XR three-door
* 1.8L Ecotec DOHC four-cylinder with approximately 160 horsepower, via exhaust header, cold-air intake and modified throttle body
* Five-speed manual transmission
* Lowered ride height
* New front and rear fascia extensions
* New grille surround finish
* Tinted headlamps, taillamps and windows
* Rear center-outlet exhaust
* Production side moldings deleted
* High-performance Recaro seats
* Unique interior trim
* Unique sill plates and parking brake handle
GM Accessories (production and concept)
* OPC 19-inch wheels (concept)
* OPC rockers (concept)
* OPC rear spoiler
* GMA pedals (part number 93183691)
* Blaupunkt sound system