2008 Saturn Astra XR four-door
2008 Saturn Astra XR four-door; photo by Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge
Competitors
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Chevrolet HHR
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Chrysler PT Cruiser
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Dodge Caliber
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Jeep Compass
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Kia Spectra5
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Mazda3 Sport
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Nissan Versa
Buyer’s Guide: 2009 Pontiac Vibe
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Suzuki SX4
Buyer’s Guide: 2009 Toyota Matrix
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 VW Rabbit

Manufacturer’s web site
General Motors Canada

Review and photos by Norm Mort

Discuss this story in the forum at CarTalkCanada

Find this vehicle in Autos’s Classified Ads

Photo Gallery:
2008 Saturn Astra

Wellington, Ontario – Back in the early 1950s and well into the 1960s it was common practice for GM, Ford and Chrysler to import their European and British models to North America with very few changes. Ford sold British Fords and dabbled in German versions, while Chrysler imported both its French Simca models and Rootes British cars and trucks after buying in, and finally taking over both concerns. GM sold large numbers of Vauxhalls in Canada and Opels in the States. Some Opels were sold in Canada and some Vauxhalls in the U.S., but not in substantial quantities.

With the introduction of new safety measures in 1967 and subsequent smog regulations, the importation of these vehicles began to slow down. European regulations for lighting, bumpers, etc. were different, as were the emissions levels. As well, the cost of modifying certain models nearing the end of production life, and the prospect of very limited sales, resulted in these cars disappearing from the North American marketplace. Those that were imported often had different engines, suspensions, interiors and models than its European counterparts. Sales gurus on this side of the world also saw, often mistakenly, a need to “North Americanize” the cars with more luxury and a softer ride.

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

Over the past twenty years or so, some great cars imported here were a mere shadow of their European counterparts. The term “World Car” was bandied about, but was more rhetoric than reality in most cases. That still seems to be the case at Ford, but General Motors has seen the light and become a true world manufacturer. As GM VP, Bob Lutz, explained in an interview last year, certain car platforms will be developed by specific GM headquarters – i.e., all rear-wheel drive models by Holden in Australia, small car platforms by Daewoo in Asia, and front-wheel-drive models by Opel in Germany.

Thus, we have the new Opel, er, Saturn Astra. My test car, a four-door Astra hatchback (the company calls them ‘five-doors’) came in “Twilight Blue” which really suited its modern lines and subtle curves. It is a bright blue, but not the gaudy bright blue colour that seems to be pushed by many of the competitors. The styling of the uplevel XR model is very much in the European mode and although not unique in some of its styling cues, is very handsome. Rather than the melted cheese-look of some of the Japanese competition the Astra has stronger more defining lines and angles.

The four-doors are large and open wide for easy ingress and egress. Out back, the rear hatch lifts easily to reveal a very useable 345 litres of cargo capacity, but with the 40/60-split rear seats folded flat the storage space erupts to 1,265 litres. This is large enough to carry three Golden Retrievers in comfort, plus all the tennis balls they’ll need to chew on during that drive to the park.

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

The seats are firm, very much like Recaro buckets. These are comfortable and hold you firmly in place, but are more European than American. There are lots of textures and variety in the materials and plastics in Astra’s very Teutonic interior. Plastic strips with an aluminum finish add a bit of pizzazz and style to the flat dash and door panels. These also tie in nicely with the tiny silver diamond pattern on the inserts of the black cloth seats. The headliner is in ho-hum grey cloth, but the entire interior is bright if you opt for the double sunroof. The door pockets are of minimal use and there is no centre console or folding driver’s armrest. Still, for coffee addicts there are two cup holders. Overall, the interior is a pleasant place to be for a few hours.

Power is supplied by GM’s proven and reliable 138-hp, 1.8-litre DOHC four-cylinder engine. That’s not a lot of power, but more than sufficient for this size of car, and it has an economical side that is becoming more and more important by the day. The Energuide rating is 8.4 L/100 km city (34 m.p.g.), and 6.6 L/100 km (43 m.p.g.) highway. Keeping a watch on your enthusiasm while driving the Astra – not as easy as you might believe, should keep you on the average in the high thirties.

The optional four-speed automatic transmission (a five-speed manual is standard), allowed you to start-off in second gear if needed. Although the shifter was very stiff after sitting in freezing temperatures I was able to get out of a “snow cocoon” which had the Astra sitting on ice with snow all around it following a heavy snow storm. Being FWD, driving in the snow didn’t present any huge difficulty and by pushing the traction control (Stabilitrak) switch, the Astra had the additional adhesion required on snow covered roads. The overall handling of the Astra is as good as any European car in its class and the ride is firm, but not choppy. My test Astra benefited from the optional handling package and lowered sport suspension.

Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are an applauded standard feature not always found at this price level. Other standard features worthy of praise are a stainless steel exhaust, independent front suspension and semi-independent torsion beam rear suspension, an oil pan heater, six airbags, a tire pressure monitoring system, remote keyless entry, 16-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, rain sensing wipers,

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

A/C, power windows and door locks, a CD player with MP3 and seven-speakers, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, a leather wrapped steering wheel with audio and driver info controls and more.

The entry level price for a 2008 Saturn Astra XE 5-door is $17,900 while the XR 5-door is $20,380. My XR Astra was loaded-up with the optional four-speed automatic transmission, power dual panel sunroof with power operated sunshade, sport handling package, which included Stabilitrak, 17-inch five-spoke alloy wheels and electro-hydraulic steering and heated front seats. With A/C tax and a destination charge of $1300, the as-tested price was $25,760.

That’s a substantial amount of money, but the Saturn Astra XR had pretty well everything you’d ever desire in a car, and it’s fun to drive too!

Pricing: 2008 Saturn Astra XR four-door

Base price: $20,380

Options: $3,980 (four-speed automatic transmission ($1,350), power dual panel sunroof with power operated sunshade ($1,295), sport handling package, which included Stabilitrak, 17-inch five-spoke alloy wheels and electro-hydraulic reduced rack travel steering ($930) and heated front seats ($405)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,300
Price as tested: $25,760
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2008 Saturn Astra

    Related articles on Autos

    First Drives

  • 2008 Saturn Astra, by Jil McIntosh

    Competitors
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Chevrolet HHR
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Chrysler PT Cruiser
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Dodge Caliber
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Jeep Compass
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Kia Spectra5
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Mazda3 Sport
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Nissan Versa
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2009 Pontiac Vibe
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Suzuki SX4
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2009 Toyota Matrix
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 VW Rabbit

    Manufacturer’s web site
  • General Motors Canada

    Crash test results
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
  • Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)
  • Connect with Autos.ca