Saturn Astra Disappoints

I wanted to like the Saturn Astra. I like the brand. I liked driving the Opel version. It’s a cool design. It has European roots. So, what happened?

I drove the manual transmission version of the car for the better part of a week. The first thing I felt was a car with a flabbier suspension than I expected or hoped for. I was hoping for a taut handling sub-compact to replace the Ion rental special Saturn mercifully discontinued. Not so much. My top choice in this segment is the Nissan Versa, followed by the Honda Fit.

And the manual tranny? Is this really the one Opel uses in Europe, or did they dumb it down? Unless you buy an up-market car in Detroit, the manuals you get in cars like the Saturn and Ford Fusion feel like a chicken leg moving through a cup full of marbles. Contrast that with tight notchy sticks found in Mazdas and Hondas.\

I should note that my assessment on the suspension, stick and handling differs from that of my colleague Thane Peterson and his review. But, hey, we don’t have to agree, not even at the same magazine.

The radio controls are confusing and over-engineered. I’m sure if I owned the car, I’d get used to it, but I’d never really be happy. There was one cup-holder in the front, and it’s in a bad spot, way back in the center console, and too small.

The 1.8 liter, 140 hp engine is a bit punky. There are two trim levels: the XE, which starts at $15,995, and the XR, which starts at $17,545. The base model comes with options you don’t expect on low-priced GM vehicles: power locks, rain-sensitive wipers, six airbags, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel and a trip computer. The XR buys alloy wheels, AC and premium audio.

I also want a Saturn small car to have good fuel economy. The Astra is rated at 24/30. I’m not impressed. Not in 2008.

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