Inside Story: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four door  saturn inside story
Inside Story: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four door  saturn inside story
Inside Story: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four door  saturn inside story
Inside Story: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four door  saturn inside story
2008 Saturn Astra XR four-door. Click image to enlarge

Manufacturer’s web site

General Motors Canada

Review and photos by Michael Clark

Photo Gallery:
2008 Saturn Astra

Here’s a familiar tune from the General Motor’s box set. When the noggin dents in the North American design offices start to become noticeable, the formula for relief, since the late Fifties, has been to call upon the Opel division. Whether in the form of unique Opel-branded products, such as the ‘Baby Corvette’ GT, or the re-badged Cadillac Catera, you might be surprised to learn just how much Opel you’ve been riding on over the last 50 years. The tradition continues, with the arrival of the Opel Astra, sanitized for public consumption with the Saturn logo. This week, Inside Story pokes its Flying Fickle Finger of Interior Debate at the top-line XR four-door, weighing in at an MSRP of $24,570. (Pricing shown does not include freight or regional incentives.)

The Cockpit

The Astra’s interior is definitely not like those of other North American GM cars, which is immediately evident as you embrace the Astra’s tilt/telescoping three-spoke wheel. Steering wheel controls include audio access, as well as a trackwheel for the centre stack driver information display. Headlamps receive an Auto setting, with a pop-out dimmer dial for instrument illumination.

The driver’s door pod uses a unique no-guess toggle for the direction correction of the exterior power heated mirrors, while all window panes incorporate power express-down. The Euro-Weird starts with the turn signal-mounted cruise control rocker switch, quickly followed by the wiper control stalk. The turn signals do not possess a traditional park/cancel feel. Simply tap for passing, or depress past the detent for full turns.

The wipers get rain sensitivity, though knowing where exactly you are in the sweep suite takes some getting used to, much like the turn signals. The system appears to be intelligent enough to throw in a rear wiper swipe, when the front wipers are engaged, and the Astra is in reverse. Instrumentation is definitely not GM-flavoured, unless you count the fact that the engine coolant temperature is still something you have to search for with a switch.

The four-speed automatic shift position is displayed in a dedicated quadrant. As you proceed through the forward ranges, the quadrant display flips to the next gear, which seems highly useless when there is no manu-shift mode to be had.

The Centre Stack

The single-CD audio system provides an impressive seven-speaker punch, with no auxiliary audio player input. Stabilitrak and central locking switches are found where they should be, at eye level.

Inside Story: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four door  saturn inside story
Inside Story: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four door  saturn inside story
Inside Story: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four door  saturn inside story
Inside Story: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four door  saturn inside story
2008 Saturn Astra XR four-door. Click image to enlarge

The HVAC is tailored through manual dials. A spring-loaded door below the HVAC array reveals the only 12-volt DC powerpoint. The automatic transmission includes a unique snow-mode switch, starting off in a higher gear for slippery conditions. The centre stack display has all the love of a solar-powered roadside information sign. (Expect delays?)

Cubbies!

Normally, this section can be quite involved. Not so with the Astra, where the question that seems to be posed is why do you need all that stuff in your car in the first place? The non-locking glovebox gets the sensibility of two compartments, keeping literature organized and out of the way. The inside of the glovebox door adds a coin holder, pen/tire gauge clips, and a cup holder indent best reserved for stationary beverage enjoyment.

The front door pockets get uber-tight water bottle holders, while the rear doors employ smaller cubbies, with no bottle provision. Rear seatbacks receive storage pockets, and a slide-out twin cupholder on the front of the bottom rear seat cushion. The primary cupholder seems to be more destined for rearward use, so practice your blind grabs from the front seats. The rubber tab cinch system only achieves a solid grip when the cup size is approaching ‘Bucket’.

The Overhead

Finally some North Americana! Nothing says stateside more than the OnStar-equipped rear-view mirror, with manual day-night positioning. The optional dual panel sunroof includes a retractable sunshade, which unfortunately can not be used as a screen against insect intrusion. Visors receive dual lighted vanity mirrors. The roof reveals robust anchor points for future racking systems. This is a good time to point out the cavernous opening of the dual panel sunroof, as well as the screen-mesh wind deflector’s ability to add to your entomology collection. A flip-down sunglass holder is found above the driver.

Seat treat

Inside Story: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four door  saturn inside story
2008 Saturn Astra XR four-door. Click image to enlarge

Both front seats employ the annoyance of a twist dial for reclination. The driver position adds a height adjustment lever. There’s a heat treat, with three-step toasting for the front seat passengers. Speaking of passengers, say hello to the new Inside Story Comfort Dummy, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the author. The well-fed dummy measures 5 feet 8 inches in height.

There are no driver positioning issues, with the height control lever easily allowing for taller pilots. An abundance of leg room greets the rear passenger, perfect for catching up on your reading. The IS Comfort Dummy did not come equipped with a tape measure, however we were able to jam three Elmore Leonard paperbacks between the top of his hairless noggin’ and the roof panel.

Cargo embargo

Inside Story: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four door  saturn inside story
Inside Story: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four door  saturn inside story
2008 Saturn Astra XR four-door. Click image to enlarge

Many five-door configurations fall short in the cargo hold sizing. Not so with the Astra, with should easily swallow console television sets with the seatbacks flipped. The removable cargo cover uses anti-rattle/squeak tabs, which meet with soft rubber tabs on the inside of the hatchback door. Cargo hooks (28) are easily located. The trunk floor material seems to rely mostly on the spare tire for support.

Spare care

The temporary spare tire uses Styro-Biscuits for anti-squeak, as well as containment of the jacking tools. Saturn will change it for you, during the first five years or 160,000 kilometres of ownership.

The mill

The 1.8-litre DOHC 138-horsepower four is a snug fit, especially at the rear for access to fuel delivery systems. Fluid levels are easily accessed. A single gas-charged strut holds the hood aloft. Note the wild underbelly of the hood reinforcement: your motorhead friends will appreciate it. A plug-in hybrid?!? Not quite. The Astra’s oil pan heater gets its own removable power cord. An unseen bonus would be the fact that the cord should pop out clean if you forget to unplug it, instead of dragging along behind you to amuse the morning commute this winter.

The Verdict

Let me begin by stating that I am thrilled to see the arrival of global products on these shores from global manufacturers. The fit and finish of the Astra is exactly the shot in the arm needed to pique the interest of those ready to leave the General’s leaky lifeboat. GM needs more Astra’s, more Holden’s, (The Ute! The Ute!) and maybe the odd Latin American roller skate to incite a rarity from Detroit these days known as “buying frenzy.” At the same time, the General needs to cut loose the black sheep, AKA GMDAT. Keep what works, ditch what doesn’t. Okay, so the Astra may require a little more reading in the owner’s manual department to embrace the differences. The only thing that it lacks, that North American customers sorely need, is more internal storage solutions.

Score: a solid four-Star showing, with five on the horizon.

Next week: 2009 Pontiac Vibe




About Paul Williams

Paul Williams is an Ottawa-based freelance automotive writer and senior writer for Autos. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).