2008 Astra New Car Test Drive
The Saturn Astra is an all-new car. At least it's new to the American automotive landscape: Astra has been offered for years in Europe under the Opel flag, where it's been giving the VW Golf a run for top-seller bragging rights. The new Astra is so much better in every respect than the Saturn model it replaces that we've forgotten the earlier compact's name.
The Astra comes in two body styles, both hatchbacks designed for practicality and built on the same chassis. There's a three-door version that is lower in overall height than the five-door version, but otherwise they share the same outside dimensions. This package was developed on European roadways where performance is measured more by balance at speed than how fast it accelerates away from an intersection. It further benefits from German design and engineering, where you can get small cars as well-assembled and refined as some big ones, and where pointless vehicle fashion statements are dropped in favor of finding a place to park or affording a fill-up.
With frisky 1.8-liter engines Astras aren't fast, yet we found them brisk, smooth and flexible, happy to putter around town or beat the snot out of it, and that little engine is good on gas, routinely returning more than 30 mpg during our test drives. A five-speed manual or extra-cost four-speed automatic drives the front wheels, antilock brakes are standard, and the ride and cornering abilities didn't leave us wishing for more.
The Astra fits in the segment much like the Volkswagen Rabbit (Golf) and Mazda 3 in that it delivers realistic economy while feeling a little less like an economy car and more like premium small cars such as the Mini Cooper, BMW 1 Series or Audi A3. Pricing fits that aspect too, running from under $16,000 to about $21,000 for a fully loaded model.
It's also a good do-it-all kind of car: cart around a batch of kids, shuttle around town or cover big commuting miles, fill with a lot of school debris, or make a good basis for a pocket rocket like the GTI, Civic Si, or Mazdaspeed3. An Astra holds four adults and has surprising cargo space hiding under that pinched rear end, and it's one of few small cars actually rated to tow something, in this case enough for a personal watercraft or two.
We think the Saturn Astra is the best small car ever to roll out of a Saturn dealership and well worth considering.
The 2008 Saturn Astra comes in two five-door models, XE and XR, and one three-door XR. All are powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual gearbox, with a four-speed automatic available.
The XE five-door ($15,375) includes cloth upholstery in dark gray, CD player, and dual lighted visor mirrors, tilt/telescoping steering column, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry/security, cruise control, one-touch power windows, projector halogen automatic headlamps, power heated mirrors, oil life monitor (for maximizing service intervals). It comes with four-wheel antilock disc brakes (ABS) and electro-hydraulic power steering. Air conditioning is not standard. XE options include air conditioning ($960), automatic ($1,325), alloy wheels ($350), stability control ($495), two-panel sunroof ($1,000) and heated front seats ($250).
The XR five-door ($16,925) adds air conditioning, seven-speaker MP3 stereo with steering-wheel controls, alloy wheels and fog lamps. Except the AC and wheels, single options are the same as XE. However, the XR offers three equipment groups the XE does not: Premium Trim ($795) that includes leather-trimmed sport seats with manual lumbar, leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated front seats, trim and cabin lighting upgrades; Sport Handling ($695) that features a lowered sport suspension, quick-ratio steering, seventeen-inch alloy wheels and tires, stability control, chrome exhaust tip; and Advanced Audio ($595) that adds a 6CD/MP3 player, seven premium speakers, enhanced driver information display.
The XR three-door ($17,875) is the top price point and it has the most standard equipment. Sport seats and upgraded instruments join the other features in the XR five-door Sport Handling group. Options include the automatic ($1,325), 18-inch alloy wheels and performance tires ($495), and heated front seats. Package groups are the Premium Trim ($745) and Advanced Audio from the five-door.
Safety features standard on all Astras include frontal, front side-impact, and side curtain airbags, one year of OnStar Safe & Sound with accident notification, active front headrests, ABS, traction control, and tire pressure monitors. Electronic stability control is standard on the three-door and optional on five-doors; we recommend opting for it because it can reduce skidding. Most important, be sure to wear your seatbelts, which are your first line of defense in a crash.