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.
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.
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