• Apr 8, 2008

2008 Saturn Astra – Click above for high-res image gallery

Enthusiasts here in the States have long wondered why they couldn't buy Ford and GM small cars from Europe, and at least part of the answer has been that Americans don't want to pay big bucks for premium small cars. Spiking gasoline prices have quelled that argument, and fuel economy is now towards the top of shoppers' lists when looking for a new car or truck.

While Ford is still more than a year away from bringing over the Euro Focus and Fiesta, GM has made the cross-Atlantic jump by importing the Opel Astra to our shores. The Astra is a hot-selling hatch in Europe with high-end amenities and very good fuel economy, and the model is shipping to the U.S. differentiated from its Euro twin by some Saturn logos and little else. We were itching to get our hands on an Astra to see if it were as good as advertised, and our tester came equipped with everything Saturn could throw at the vehicle. Hit the jump to see how the 2009 Saturn Astra fared in the Autoblog Garage.



All photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.

Our Salsa Red five-door Saturn Astra XR came equipped with 17-inch wheels, leather seating surfaces and an enormous dual-panel sunroof that brought the price tag to $21,955. Features like ABS and traction control, keyless entry, cruise control and moisture sensitive automatic wipers are sometimes optional in midsize offerings, but you get those features standard in the Astra.



Building cars in Europe and shipping them across 3,000 miles of ocean isn't cheap, and GM wants to make sure nobody mistakes the Astra for an economy commuter. By virtue of its rear hatch and athletic stance, the Astra looks the part of a Euro small car. Large, five-spoke wheels and rich-looking finish give onlookers the impression that the Astra is no run-of-the-mill econobox.



During our time behind the wheel of the Astra, people took notice -- young people especially. At one point I was stopped at a red light when I got the distinct impression that someone was staring at me. I looked to the right and saw three young ladies in a beat-up Pontiac Grand Am looking my way. Just as I grinned and thought, "Still got it!" it became obvious that their attention was fixed on the car. How many Saturns in the past five years have elicited that type of response from teenagers?



On the inside, the Astra XR is far better than any small car that GM has created in its 100-year history, at least in the U.S. Soft-touch materials; comfortable, supportive leather seats; and a terrific little steering wheel that feels like it belongs in something more expensive made us want to be inside the sporty little Astra for more than just running errands. Our favorite option was by far the monstrous panoramic moonroof that looks like it belongs in a Cadillac or Mercedes, not a $22,000 car. The retractable roof panel spans the entire length of the front seats, with the rear section reaching all the way to the back seats.



While Americans appear to be allergic to hatchbacks, we have no idea what the fuss is about. Not only do they often look great, their added cargo capacity is a real plus. From the outside, the Astra's hatch looks almost trivial, but pop the liftgate and there's a cavernous hole ready to swallow a bunch of your stuff. If more room is needed, simply fold the rear seats and you've got enough space for a trip to Costco.

At times while driving the Astra, we felt that the stylish hatch wasn't really designed with the U.S. in mind. While fit and finish is terrific, some features seem more European than Yank-centric. For example, how many $22,000 hatchbacks don't have a center armrest? The Astra is the only one we can think of off-hand. While it does have three cupholders, they're all within three inches of one another and the front-most drink cozy sits a couple of inches behind this blogger's right elbow.



The Astra also comes with a 3.5-inch display screen that provides the driver with information like fuel economy, stereo functions, and trip info. The two-tone display is easy to read, but the interface takes some getting used to. Redundant controls on the steering wheel also take some remembering, as there is no text to tell you which button does what. The first hour with the Astra was a bit of a headache, but we eventually caught on.



On the road, the Astra's European ride and handling were a real plus. Its quick-ratio electro-hydraulic power steering is crisp and well-weighted, which gave us the urge to drive the 2,900-lb hatch with more abandon than we probably should. A long, 102.9-inch wheelbase pushes the wheels to the far corners, which helps provide a sportier ride while also offering additional cabin space. The Astra's suspension is firm yet still comfortable enough for everyday driving, and we happily tackled corners and entrance ramps at speed. The Astra seems to prefer being driven vigorously since it doesn't protest with body roll and the tires found no reason to squeal. If you do wander across the line of good sense, the traction control system steps in and helps you regain composure.

While we would have liked a little more pop at the pedal, the Astra's 138-hp 1.8L four-cylinder was more than adequate for most driving conditions. The optional four-speed automatic transmission was smooth and capable, but as usual, a five-speed manual would have been more fun and probably more fuel efficient. That said, fuel economy was an impressive 28 mpg in mixed driving conditions, which is the best fuel economy this blogger has had in any car over the past year. While the standard four-banger was sufficient, the Astra's lively driving characteristics beg for the 260-hp direct-inject turbo 2.0L found in all manner of SS, GXP and Red Line vehicles here in the U.S. Short of that, we'd happily accept the 240 horses offered in the Euro-spec Astra OPC.



The Saturn Astra isn't going to be a sales volume leader and it's far from being the least expensive small car on the block, but the Euro five-door has the looks, quality, handling and charisma to compete with the best brands in the small car arena like VW and Honda. Enthusiasts have been begging for a hot European small car here in the U.S., and with the Saturn Astra, GM has finally delivered.



All photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.


I'm reporting this comment as:

Reported comments and users are reviewed by Autoblog staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination.


    • 1 Second Ago
  • 74 Comments
      • 6 Years Ago
      Was looking forward to these until I sat in one at a car show. Disappointed with the interior. Going from the Mazda3 directly to this the Astra felt like a cut price version, like a Korean copy.

      If it was a cheap Hyundai I think it would do very well, but it doesn't justify premium pricing.

      And for those going on about how cheap it is compared to Europe, in the US the Astra is going against a German built VW Rabbit that sells for $15,600 with a 2.5L 170hp engine, air, and power everything, ocean shipping included.

      That same car VW slaps a Golf badge on, bolts in a 150hp 2.0 L engine, and sells for $35,000 in Germany.
        • 6 Years Ago
        To be fair, the $15,600 Rabbit is a 3-door model, bump up to the 5-door and it's almost $18K. The 3-door model of the Astra is almost $19K. VW admittedly sells the 3-door at a loss. It's an awesome car with tons of features for $15,600. But, it's a subsidized price.

        That said, while I like the Astra, I'd buy a Rabbit before it. Particularly due to the 2.5L 170HP engine, which itself was upgraded and offered 150HP previously. Both are premium compacts though and not really meant to be the cheapest ones. You do get what you pay for though.

        If the Astra comes as a Red Line model, it would be a great competitor to the MS3, both would have similar power.

        As it stands now, the Astra is a good car for GM and competes well in the segment, they just need to advertise it more and offer a lower-cost version of the 3-door, like they do for the 5-door version.

        MyerShift
        • 2 Years Ago
        The Astra's interior is well done. If it looks like a supposed copy of anything, it would be the interior of the Mk IV Golf.
      • 6 Years Ago
      No small car with a torsion rear beam suspension should be labeled as "premium". Sorry GM, but this is the 21st century, and it's time to move beyond torsion beams and solid axles on passenger vehicles.

      This is as lame as Ford not even offering 4 wheel disc brakes on the Escape at any price. The days of drum brakes on a vehicle should be history. This continued cheapness on late model vehicles makes it impossible to respect the automakers who perpetuate it.

        • 6 Years Ago
        You get disc brakes all around on the Escape Hybrid.
      • 6 Years Ago
      a more ugly, cheap-looking center stack might be found in the ghetto-blaster department at Wal-Mart. maybe.
      David Ederer
      • 6 Years Ago
      I'm getting 24MPG with a Honda accord for nearly the same price. its bigger and the performance is very good

      I would expect that this car would cost substantially less if it was made in the US. GM needs to move production to this side of the Atlantic. It looks nice, I'd consider it at a lower cost.
        • 6 Years Ago
        @David Ederer
        I love it when Americans say 24mpg is good economy... sounds funny to us Europeans. 24mpg is terrible to me, most of us aim to own cars that do at least 35mpg, hell, even a Lotus Elise can average that or better! We like our cars to get say 50mpg, or at LEAST 45mpg, thats why Diesels are so popular. Petrol and Diesel is roughly $8 per gallon here of course... so we have to be careful! :)
        • 6 Years Ago
        @David Ederer
        As stated above me, 24MPG is not good, and keep in mind that bigger isn't always necessarily better.

        I'd personally rather have more 'car' in a smaller package - I've priced out a fully loaded 3-door Astra XR (leather, Premium Sound Package with 6-disc CD changer, heated seats, 18-inch wheels, even tinted windows and an armrest) that came to be CHEAPER than my base Mazda3 Sport GS.

        Guess what I'm leaning toward when my lease expires in 6 months...
      • 6 Years Ago
      I sat in one at the Toronto auto show, and was very disappointed. It's priced like a Golf/Rabbit, but is a much smaller vehicle and the interior materials are really poor in comparison.

      I've read numerous reviews that lauded this car for its interior quality, and this raised my expectations even further, only to have them dashed.

      We test drove a Mazda 3 a few weeks ago, and it's STILL the car to beat in this segment.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I agree, felt the same way about the Aura. I guess these new Saturns photograph pretty well, on the plus side.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I'll have to agree, also sat in the same car at the Toronto show. I was disappointed and had expected more. After four years and over 100,000 km., we'll keep our Mazda3.
        MyerShift
        • 2 Years Ago
        The interior IS very well finished.
      • 6 Years Ago
      This old wrench made a 3 hr round trip just to test this vehicle, cause I,m hung up on sqbacks. It comes off to me as an econobox with holes in the floor. The 2dr is gorgeous, but they are under powered & cheap feeling. And did I mention one would have to stay on smooth pavement?
        • 6 Years Ago
        I,ve put 36k happy miles on my 06 HHR, but road surface noise got to be a little distracting.Autoblog said I needed to see the Saturn,so I did.
        Then I test drove & ordered an HHR SS. deleted everything but the important stuff.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Does the three door come standard with the sport suspension? I drove the XE model and thought the suspension was nice but fear that the sport suspension might be a bit too stiff, especially for a daily driver over pothole filled streets. I was planning on test driving a sport package equipped car as that seems to be the only way to get Stabilitrak on an 5-door XR, but may just skip it.
        MyerShift
        • 2 Years Ago
        You have never driven an Astra, then.
      jj
      • 6 Years Ago
      Lost its Euro-touch.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Re: "I agree a 5-speed auto seems like a good idea. But 6-speeds? Name a car under $25,000 with a 6-speed auto. The only one I can think of that even comes close is the stripper version of the BMW 1-series."

      The VW Rabbit offers a six speed auto.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I came within inches of buying a Saturn Astra. And here's why I did not: No incentives. At all. An XR manual 5-door would have been at $360/month 60 month purchase (at a bank rate, GMAC had no financing special), or a $391/month LEASE for 36 months. (Both of those with a GM supplier discount built in). Dealers in Michigan said that the vast majority of Astras sold were going to GM employees in January - March.

      Mazda easily offered me a lease price on a 3 S-Touring 5 Door that WAY undercut the Astra prices.

      The 3 certainly is not that great in the MPG department. However, we have come to expect that GM cars are going to be a deal. In this case, the Astra is not.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Exactly, you have to be in a positive equity situation to trade in a vehicle or have no trade in at all. 'tis a shame :(
      • 6 Years Ago
      Is that silver on the console and dash just paint? if so thats going to look wonderful in a year or two. I just love those black scratches that stick out like a sore thumb on silver painted plastic.
      • 6 Years Ago
      My 06 Mazda3 cost $19,000 has everything this car has and is BA! This Saturn is nice and the 3 door looks great but the lack of cup holders, that lame info screen and the price is going to ruin it. No one is going to buy this car. Maybe the 3 door.
      • 6 Years Ago
      GM cannot really afford to properly promote all their brands and products. Right now the Malibu, G8 and Cadillac are getting the lion's share of their ad money which is a shame.

      Astra owners are reporting around 30mpg city on these cars so it's not a stretch to say that open road consumption will be better than the EPA rating.

      Also, this car only weighs 2,700 lbs. 138hp may not sound like much but it doesn't have much to move. They feel much zippier to drive than the numbers suggest, perfect for city slickers. Even the four speed automatic feels fine in normal driving, I don't think anyone would notice an extra gear if it had one.
        • 6 Years Ago
        2700lbs, really?
        http://media.gm.com/us/saturn/en/product_services/r_cars/r_c_astra/index.html
        It seems like GM needs to update their media site.

        Yes, people will notice an extra gear (or two)
        My cousin's wife just bought a Lincoln MKZ. She can definitely fell how much better the 6 speed auto performs over the four speed auto in the Towncar. (and she is in her sixties)
        • 6 Years Ago
        The German Opel spec sheet comes in at about 2730#. I'm sure they could back another 100 pounds in there somewhere.
    • Load More Comments