Saturn's new tagline is "Rethink American." The idea is to convince shoppers normally set on buying imports to take a second look at Saturn's vehicles. To that end, the brand has completely revitalized its lineup in the past two years. For this year, a key addition is the all-new 2008 Saturn Astra. The Astra replaces the Ion, an unloved small sedan and coupe that, if nothing else, confirmed parent company General Motors' inability to build a really good small car. Unlike the U.S.-built Ion, the Astra is an import, coming directly from the factory in Belgium via GM's German-based Opel brand. (Suggested new tagline: Rethink Belgian.) The Astra has been a very popular nameplate for Opel (and its British sister, Vauxhall) in Europe, and the current-generation model, which has been on sale since 2004, is the car Saturn will be getting with only minimal changes.
There are two hatchback body styles, a four-door and a sharper-looking two-door. Compared to a Mazda 3 hatchback, one of the more established models in the small car segment, the four-door Astra is about 6 inches shorter. There's only one engine available for now, a 1.8-liter four-cylinder making 140 horsepower. (It's likely that Saturn will debut a more powerful Red Line version in the next year or two.) Thanks to its European heritage, the stylish Astra has a considerably better-looking and constructed interior than the Ion's, and its handling, particularly the two-door's, is better than what many other small cars are able to provide.
The new 2008 Saturn Astra is certainly a welcome addition to Saturn's lineup. It's a potentially compelling choice for a small hatchback or coupe, especially for those shoppers smitten by its sporty exterior styling. In terms of overall driving dynamics and interior design, we expect the Astra to match up well to top models like the Mazda 3, Honda Civic and Volkswagen Rabbit. It might not end up being the best in its class, but the new Astra just might make you rethink AmericanÂ…or Belgian.
The 2008 Saturn Astra is a compact car offered as a two-door or four-door hatchback. The four-door comes in a base XE or sportier XR trim level, while the two-door is XR only. The Astra XE comes standard with 16-inch steel wheels, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, a CD player, a trip computer, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel and full power accessories. The XR adds alloy wheels, air-conditioning, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, air-conditioning and an upgraded audio system. Most of these features can be added to the XE as options.
The two-door Astra XR is similar to the four-door but also comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, sport front seats, a sport-tuned suspension and a quicker steering ratio. These performance upgrades are optional for the four-door XR. Major options for the Astra XR include a premium audio system and a premium trim package (late availability) that adds leather seating, front seat heaters and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. A large sunroof is an option for both four-door trims, and 18-inch wheels with high-performance tires are offered for the two-door XR only.
The cabin is the Astra's strongest point, with the slam of the driver door alone feeling more substantial than that of some midrange Mercedes models. Like much of the car, Opel clearly had Volkswagen in its sights when it designed the Astra's interior, as the overall design is very reminiscent of the last-generation Golf/Jetta. The audio controls on the steering wheel and the combination of soft-touch materials, piano-black finishes and chrome-ringed dials give the cockpit a more upscale ambiance than almost all other economy cars -- much like the Volkswagen Rabbit. The only minor letdown is that the secondary controls are awkwardly placed and strangely labeled with acronyms and logos unknown on this side of the Atlantic. In fact, looking at the dashboard for the first time is like watching a foreign film without subtitles -- you'll understand what's going on eventually, but it'll take a few viewings. Also, unlike most other GM vehicles, the Astra is missing satellite radio and an auxiliary audio jack.
Both body styles have a 60/40-split fold-down rear seat, and the five-door has nearly 45 cubic feet of space with its rear seats down. However, the three-door's aggressively sloping rear quarters restrict cargo capacity and rearward visibility.
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.
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.
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.
The 2008 Saturn Astra is an all-new model. It replaces the Ion in Saturn's small-car lineup.