Saturn's Hip Little Hatchback

GM's Saturn division is on a roll. Now it is bringing its popular European hatchback, the Astra, to the States. But will Americans buy it?

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Crisp handling; decent fuel economy; attractive styling

The Bad: Only one engine choice; not enough cupholders

The Bottom Line: A big improvement over the Saturn Ion, but is it too European?

Up Front

As gasoline prices continue to soar, U.S. drivers will probably start buying more small, European-style cars. However, I'm not sure how many of us will be in the market for a 2008 Saturn Astra, a made-in-Belgium compact based on various models sold overseas by General Motors (GM). The new Saturn is virtually identical to the Continental European Opel Astra, the British Vauxhall Astra, and the Australian Holden Astra.

That's a good thing when it comes to handling. This car's driving dynamics are a huge improvement over those of the Saturn Ion, the unlovable staple of rental car fleets that the Astra is replacing. Under the hood is a 1.8-liter, 140-hp, inline four-cylinder engine coupled with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The Astra comes as either a two-door or four-door hatchback, and, particularly in the two-door style I test-drove, the steering is tight, the suspension sporty, and the fuel economy excellent (24 mpg in the city and more than 30 on the highway). In 208 miles of mixed driving, I got 25.4 mpg.

However, the Astra doesn't exactly cater to prevailing tastes on this side of the Atlantic. First off, hatchbacks, though hugely popular in Europe and very practical, have never caught on very well in North America. The Astra also has a noticeable paucity of cupholders. There are two in the back, but the front seat area has only one cupholder to speak of, and that one isn't very big and is inconveniently positioned at the back of the center console, forcing you to twist or reach behind you to get at it. This may seem like a small thing. But for Americans who are accustomed to having bottle holders in the doors and multiple Big Gulp-size cupholders within easy reach, it's worth mentioning.

By American standards, the Astra is also underpowered. In Europe, there are a number of engine choices; in the U.S., with only one small engine to choose from, I suspect many shoppers are going to prefer the Volkswagen Rabbit or the Mazda 3, which have more powerful engines, or Honda's (HMC) Civic, which also has a 140-hp four-banger under its hood but weighs less than the Astra and feels quicker.

On the plus side, the Astra is far better designed and built than GM's previous small cars. It's also reasonably priced, especially considering how much standard equipment it packs. There are two trim levels: the XE, which starts at $15,995, and the XR, which starts at $17,545. Even the base model comes loaded with gear you don't necessarily expect to get on a low-priced GM vehicle: full-power accessories, rain-sensitive wipers, six airbags (including head-protecting, side-curtain bags), a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, and a trip computer. Moving up to the XR gets you alloy wheels, air conditioning, and a better sound system.

There's also a sporty two-door version of the Astra, which starts at $18,495. It comes only in the XR trim, and adds 17-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, sporty front seats, and stability and traction control. Those features can be had on the four-door as optional equipment.

The Astra first hit U.S. showrooms in January, so it's too early to know how well it will do. However, early indications are that the new model has major appeal for women, who account for 57.9% of all purchases, according to the Power Information Network. That's a much higher percentage of female buyers than the Civic (46%), Mazda 3 (40.8%), and Rabbit (36.2%). Only one other comparable compact—the Nissan (NSANY) Sentra, at 52.5%—breaks the 50% barrier, according to PIN, which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).

With the arrival of the Astra, Saturn has just about completely renovated its lineup. Partly as a result, it was GM's best-performing U.S. division last year, with sales up 6.1% to 240,091 units. However, sales have been slow lately, falling 16.1% to 30,160 in the first two months of this year.

Behind the Wheel

The Astra's big appeal is in the way it drives. The steering is precise, the brakes superb, and there's virtually no body roll during hard cornering. The sporty suspension keeps the car on an even keel, yet smooths out potholes and rough pavement during more sedate driving. The stick shift has a tight, European feel to it. All in all, it's hard to believe this car is made by GM.

However, for a vehicle being touted for its European-style drivability, the Astra is pretty pokey. In accelerating from zero to 60 mph, I clocked it at about nine seconds, which is O.K. for an economy car but hardly quick enough to get your heart racing. GM should offer a second, more powerful engine for buyers who want a car with a bit more zip.

The Astra's interior isn't particularly fancy, but it has a neat, upscale look to it, with good use of tasteful, muted tones to increase the attractiveness of the dash, doors, and seating materials. The sport seats in the two-door have extra side-bolstering that makes them very supportive. The front seats slide and tilt forward, making it relatively easy to get into the back seats in the two-door model. The rear seats in all versions of the car fold down, creating extra cargo space. The four-door model can be had with an optional dual-panel power sunroof ($1,000) that Saturn says is the biggest in this class of vehicles.

Head, shoulder, and hip space is about the same as in the Civic, Mazda 3, and Rabbit. Rear legroom is limited, though no more so than in the Astra's rivals.

Evidence of the Astra's European roots is found throughout the car. The dearth of cupholders and the available stick shift are both testaments to European tastes. The Astra also has a VW-style switchblade-style key that pops out of the key fob at the push of a button, and you can turn the traction control off and on at the push of a button. That's a feature demanded by European (and American, for that matter) driving enthusiasts who like to be able to put a car through its paces without traction control.

One feature I don't like is the odd, sculpted shape of the Astra's rear hatch. It looks nice, but a rectangular hatch would be more practical for loading and unloading bulky cargo.

Buy It or Bag It?

The Astra's selling price so far is $18,565, according to PIN. That's about average for its segment and almost exactly the same as the 2008 Civic ($18,524) and Mazda 3 ($18,480), and only a bit more than the Rabbit ($17,780).

The Astra's problem is that it's just as expensive but not as quick and sporty as those rivals, yet more expensive and less fuel-stingy than some pure economy cars. If all you want is an economy car that gets great mileage, the Toyota (TM) Corolla ($15,557), which has been redesigned for 2009, is a good bet. Otherwise, be sure to test-drive the Astra against the Civic, Rabbit, or Mazda 3. My favorite is the Civic, which is fun to drive yet averages well over 30 mpg, even in lead-footed driving. If you can afford to splurge, consider the sporty Honda Civic Si.

Click through's slide show to see more of the 2008 Saturn Astra.

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