2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door. Click image to enlarge
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2008 Saturn Astra

Second opinion, by Greg Wilson

Ottawa, Ontario – Saturn sold its first cars, the S-series sedan, wagon and coupe, in 1991. That same year, GM Europe’s Opel division debuted its Astra compact. Do you suppose anyone knew that, some 17 years later, the Astra would become a Saturn?

Probably not, but the 2008 Astra is the Saturn that everyone has been waiting 17 years for. Originally conceived as GM’s “import fighters,” those first Saturns never made the cut against established compacts from overseas.

To say expectations of the Astra were high is a massive understatement. With Saturn finally getting the point that the best way to beat the imports might be to join them, the hope was this might be the car to unseat the Mazda3 as the reigning king of the compact segment. Not because the Mazda3 doesn’t deserve to be at the top; rather, because having more good cars for consumers to choose from is better.

2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door. Click image to enlarge

The Astra certainly is good. The day after I picked up my tester – an XE four-door model – I hit the road for Toronto. The initial impression was of a small car that goes over the road like a larger one. Road noise is surprisingly hushed, and this in a car shod with very aggressively-treaded winter tires. Engine noise is muted at highway speeds too, despite relatively short gearing that had the motor spinning around 2,800 rpm at 100 km/h.

When James Bergeron tested the Astra for his Day-by-Day review a couple of weeks ago, he noted that the car felt slow to him. While my automatic-equipped tester certainly was no stoplight racer, the engine’s 138 horsepower feels adequate. My complaint has less to do with the engine than with how its power is transmitted to the road.

The Astra’s four-speed automatic performs nicely, but I think an extra gear would be a nice touch. Also, the transmission is slow to kick down until the driver gets deep into the throttle, making an indelicate mashing of the go-pedal the best way to gain speed for passing. Another side effect of this is the tranny’s tendency to stay in third gear until the car is nearly stopped.

2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door. Click image to enlarge

Get back on the gas to accelerate away and you’re treated to a harsh downshift as the car reacts to your right foot. I’ve driven an Astra with a manual transmission, and it changes the character of the car significantly, making it a lot more fun.

The autobox’s “neutral stop” feature is cool: a fuel-saving concept, it shifts the transmission into neutral when the car is stopped for more than a few seconds. In reality, fuel savings will be negligible, but it’s better than nothing.

Ironically, neutral stop aside, the transmission might be the reason for the Astra’s underwhelming fuel economy. At 8.4 L/100 km (city) and 6.6 L/100 km (highway), the automatic Astra’s NRCan fuel consumption numbers aren’t much worse than those for the manual car. Despite that, the best I could manage on a four-hour highway drive was an average of 8.0 L/100 km, and this by employing a light right foot and an average speed very close to the 100 km/h speed limit. Let’s say I expected better of a car that calls Europe home;

2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door. Click image to enlarge

naturally, the Astra can be had with diesel power overseas, something I hope might eventually become an option for the North American Astra, too.

Ride and handling are where the Astra’s European roots really show up. The steering is nicely weighted and very quick, with sharp turn-in and a fairly small on-centre dead spot. The Astra can feel a bit darty on the highway, particularly if you have to make frequent corrections in strong crosswinds. The trade-off, though, is a car that feels very willing to be tossed into corners. Even with those knobby winter tires, my tester hung on eagerly in curves. The Astra feels heavy compared to the Mazda3 but, surprisingly, a 3 Sport GS weighs in exactly the same as the Astra, at 1,325 kg (2,921 pounds) with a manual transmission.

The ride is firm, but rarely is it harsh. Body motions are well controlled: the firm shocks quell rebound nicely and the cabin is well-isolated from bump noise. The brakes are strong, with the sort of firm pedal you want in a car that encourages spirited driving.

Inside, the Astra’s seats are comfortable, but it took me a day or so to get used to the odd contour of the backrest. Space is good front and rear, but the large dual-panel sunroof cuts into headroom, particularly in front.

Cargo space is good even with the rear seats in place, and the seatbacks fold almost completely flat. In the passenger cabin, though, there are few spots to stash small items. There’s a little well at the bottom of the centre stack, next to the power point, but aside from the usual map pockets in the doors, that’s it. The space between the front seats could have been better used for a covered console bin, rather than a single cupholder that requires a gymnast’s flexibility to get at. The rear seat gets two drink holders, which slide out of the centre of the bottom seat cushion.

2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door. Click image to enlarge

The Astra’s interior design features a few Euro-quirks. There are the telephone dial-esque radio preset buttons and the somewhat cryptic “BC” button, which simply calls up trip computer information on the display screen atop the centre stack.

No complaints here about how the controls work – everything is easy enough to figure out – but the climate controls are set low on the dash and are a bit of a reach from the driver’s seat. Another quirk is the lack of an auxiliary input; that could prove to be a turn-off for many 20- and 30-somethings cross-shopping the Astra against, well, just about anything else in the compact segment.

The sunroof is a bit pricey as a $1,295 stand-alone option, but the fact that it turns the Astra into a rolling observatory is pretty cool. Unfortunately, it only tips open, offering no slide feature. It was also the source of an annoying and persistent rattle in my tester. Of curious note is the rather large plastic panel in the headliner, which houses the sunroof controls. It’s a lot of blank space that, in most cars, would incorporate some sort of storage compartment; James Bergeron and I came to the conclusion that the size of the sunroof forced designers to use the space behind that panel for the roof’s motor and mechanics.

My XE tester was fitted with the 1SB option package, which adds air conditioning, heated front seats, alloy wheels and $3,415 to the basic Astra five-door. What Saturn’s website doesn’t specify up front is that this package also throws in the automatic transmission. Thankfully, you can apparently build an Astra just like my tester, but with a manual transmission instead.

2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door. Click image to enlarge

The Astra XE five-door starts at $17,900. Add in the 1SB group ($3,415), stability control ($635) and sunroof ($1,295) on my car and you’re up to $23,245. Add in the $100 A/C tax and $1,300 freight, and the as-tested price rises to $24,645.

For about $175 less (including freight), you could get a Mazda3 Sport GS with air, five-speed automatic transmission, a more powerful 2.3-litre engine and steering-wheel audio controls (which I thought were conspicuous by their absence in the Saturn; you have to move up to the Astra XR to get them). In turn, the Mazda leaves out heated seats and stability control at this price point.

In the big picture, this really is the small Saturn we’ve been waiting 17 years for. The standard features list is generous, the car is comfortable to be in, and the way it goes over the road is very satisfying. It’s in some of the smaller details – an automatic that’s a gear short, disappointing fuel consumption and some interior packaging quirks – that it misses the mark.

Pricing: 2008 Saturn Astra XE four-door

Base price: $17,900
Options: $5,345 (1SB option package: four-speed automatic transmission, air conditioning, heated front seats, alloy wheels, $3,415; stability control, $635; sunroof, $1,295)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,300

Price as tested: $24,645
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

  • Specifications: 2008 Saturn Astra

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