NEW FOR 2008:

All-new model

The Astra may be brand new to Saturn for 2008, but it’s already familiar to much of the world: it’s the latest generation of the Opel Astra, which has been on sale in Europe since 2004 and holds second place in overall European vehicle sales next to the Volkswagen Golf.

The Astra arrives almost unchanged from its European version, and most of the changes necessary to meet North American standards will be invisible to the buyer, save for the front and rear fascias, which meet our bumper standards and have styling cues that identify the vehicle as a Saturn.

Available only as a hatchback, the Astra comes in two- or four-door configuration (which the company calls three- and five-door). Four-door models come in XE or XR trim, while the sportier two-door is XR only. Unlike most cars in this category, the two-door is pricier, but is a sport-suspension version rather than the model’s entry-level offering.

All Astra models use a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine, with five-speed manual transmission or available four-speed automatic.

Features on the XE include 16-inch steel wheels, heated mirrors, tire pressure monitoring system, rain-sensing wipers front and rear, charcoal metallic interior trim accents, cruise control, floor mats, power locks with keyless entry, power windows with express down, tilt and telescopic wheel, 60/40 split folding rear seat, CD stereo, and OnStar with one year of Directions & Connections plan.

The XR adds 16-inch aluminum wheels, air conditioning, fog lamps, silver metallic interior trim accents, leather-wrapped wheel, up-level seat fabric, and fog lamps.

The two-door XR adds 17-inch aluminum wheels and StabiliTrak stability control.

Available features on the Astra include heated cloth or leather seats, a dual-panel panoramic sunroof and six-CD stereo; both four-door models can be optioned with StabiliTrak, and the four-door XR can be optioned with a sport handling package.

The Astra is an extremely satisfying vehicle to drive, with a strong engine, and exceptional handling and steering feel for the price. It has a great number of features for the segment, but tall drivers may find it a tight fit, and visibility can be limited with the small rear windows. Cross-shop it against vehicles such as Mazda3, Honda Civic and Volkswagen Rabbit.

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