2008 Saturn Astra
2008 Saturn Astra. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

Discuss this story in the forum at CarTalkCanada

Find this vehicle in Autos’s Classified Ads

Photo Gallery: 2008 Saturn Astra

Los Angeles, California – The global picture may be getting smaller, but there are still some areas where North America and Europe are worlds apart, and one of them is automotive. Across the pond, driving is a passion, fuel efficiency is paramount, and they’ve got a raft of marvelous little cars that we can only long to find on North American roads.

Some of them make their way over here, but by the time they do, they’re often so watered down for our market that we wonder what the fuss is all about. A notable exception is the 2008 Saturn Astra, now coming into dealer showrooms. “It has changes for North American standards, but these are invisible to the customer,” said Dan Burton, Marketing Manager of Saturn Canada on the vehicle’s recent launch to the press. “Our intention was to bring over the European Astra intact, not to ‘North Americanize’ the car.”

2008 Saturn Astra
2008 Saturn Astra. Click image to enlarge

To that end, the Saturn Astra has a few interior issues that could use some attention, but the driving experience is absolutely exemplary. If driving is your passion, this is the car you want to drive.

Europeans seem to agree, too. This Saturn is an Opel in disguise – the brand name changes here, but it’s called Astra in every market it’s sold – and it’s second in overall European sales only to the Volkswagen Golf. In the “three-door” segment, the company’s name for a two-door hatchback, it’s the bestseller. The first two generations of Astra sold over 7.2 million combined, and this latest one, launched in 2004, is averaging 500,000 copies a year.

Built in Antwerp, Belgium, the Astra is available with four doors in XE and XR trim, and as a two-door in XR trim only. All models use a 1.8-litre Ecotec four-cylinder engine that makes 140 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque, mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. A four-speed may seem old hat in a marketplace where five-speed automatics are becoming the norm for compact cars, but GM justifies it by simply saying that it works. And it does, frankly; although I only got to drive that configuration for a short time, it’s a smooth-shifting unit that most people will find works well.

2008 Saturn Astra
2008 Saturn Astra. Click image to enlarge

The Astra is also less expensive than its competitors, and that’s going to be a large part of its appeal: the four-door XE is $17,900, the XR is $20,490, and the sportier two-door XR is $21,225. GM officials crunched the numbers against the competition, comparing the Astra’s relatively lengthy list of standard features to Honda Civic DX, Mazda3 GX and Volkswagen Rabbit, with price differences of $920 to $2,510 in Saturn’s favour when adjustments were made for optional or non-available equipment.

I’d always thought bringing a vehicle into the North American market from Europe would be just a case of pointing the boat in the right direction, but there’s much more to it than that. The most noticeable change between the Opel and Saturn is in the fascias, swapped both for brand recognition and to meet our bumper standards. The engine has been recalibrated for emissions standards, including a new catalytic converter, and for the temperature changes and altitudes found here but uncommon in the Astra’s hometown. The headlights have been changed, and energy-absorbing materials have been added under the headliner and trim panels for safety standards. The seats are the same as in Europe, but we get bigger front brake rotors, which the company says gives a pedal feel that North Americans expect. Canada also gets a standard block heater that’s optional in the U.S.

2008 Saturn Astra
2008 Saturn Astra. Click image to enlarge

The Astra uses a MacPherson front suspension with stabilizer bar, while a torsion beam brings up the rear. The official report is that it “saves parts and space” over a four-link set-up, which is corporate-speak for “saves money”, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are a few items that could have been swapped out for more expensive upgrades, but what’s in there works, and keeping the price down is going to be a major factor in making the Astra a success. Although they’re not even near the same league, this is the car that takes over the entry-level Ion’s spot in Saturn’s line-up. It isn’t sports car enthusiasts arguing in chat rooms that will make or break the Astra, but everyday buyers who want an $18,000 car to get them to work.

The volume seller will be the five-door, of course; it’s easier to access the rear seats, which have surprisingly adequate room given the car’s small footprint. It also offers a slightly softer ride, although it’s still no slouch in the handling department, and the two-door’s sport suspension can be optioned in the XR. Steering is electro-hydraulic, which offers the superior feel of a hydraulic unit, but with a pump that’s driven by an electric motor to reduce the engine draw and, in turn, improve fuel efficiency. The result is excellent steering feel, with no vagueness, and good on-centre accuracy.

2008 Saturn Astra
2008 Saturn Astra. Click image to enlarge

The car tracks flat through corners, with just a touch of understeer, and it’s an incredibly tight package. There’s not a squeak, rattle or vibration anywhere in it, save for wind noise in both front windows on the highway where the air tumbles around the mirrors. There is absolutely no feeling of the front wheels pulling the back ones around the curves, as can often happen with soft-sprung vehicles; this is a cohesive little unit that almost feels like an extension of one’s hands and feet. Electronic stability control is standard on the two-door, and can be optioned on the four-door.

So what’s not to love? There are a few things, and they can be very annoying. GM doesn’t like the inside door handles to override the locks – an engineer explained that it’s a safety feature, although I’ve not heard complaints of people falling out of competitor’s vehicles onto the roadway, and that’s what rear-door child locks are for anyway. On most GM cars, the automatic door locks open when you put the transmission in Park, but since Astra comes to North America intact from a continent fond of standards, you have to pull out the key before the locks pop up, or you must hit a central lock button on the dash. Your passengers won’t like it when they have to wait for you to release them.

2008 Saturn Astra
2008 Saturn Astra. Click image to enlarge

The centre stack is handsome, but it’s form over function. The heater controls are very low on the stack, which also slopes inward, and their dark grey indicators are impossible to see. I ended up turning on the headlights each time I wanted to reset the heater mode, because that lit up the numbers with orange lights, and that was the only way I could see them. The stereo buttons are small and fiddly, and overall, the whole stack is far too complicated. The wipers are rain-sensing only – you can’t switch them to straight intermittent – and while I didn’t get a chance to try them out in sunny California, I’ve yet to meet a set that worked well in drizzle or snow. When I’m queen of the world, rain-sensing wipers will be the first thing to go.

My final complaint was trying to get OnStar to speak up. The Astra’s OnStar package includes Turn-by-Turn navigation, which very effectively takes the place of an in-dash system. I simply hit the OnStar button, gave the operator my destination, and once the call had ended, the system downloaded all the directions to my vehicle. As a navigation system does, it gave me voice commands to guide me to my destination.

2008 Saturn Astra
2008 Saturn Astra. Click image to enlarge

The problem was that my vehicle was a base XE without air conditioning, it was hot, and I was driving with the windows open on the freeway, which meant I couldn’t hear the system’s commands. My co-driver and I tried unsuccessfully to turn it up – our car didn’t have an owner’s manual – and so we finally hit the OnStar button again and asked the operator how to do it. Just turn the radio dial, she said. Well, that worked, but only for that particular command. Once the next one came up, the volume was back down where we couldn’t hear it, and we had to crank the radio dial up each time we heard the command start up. I’m guessing there was some way to dig deep into the system and find the trick to keeping the volume at a certain level, but we were unable to do it. My firm opinion is that when I’m in something that does 100 km/hr with ease and can kill people if I’m not paying attention, all controls should be simple and immediately intuitive.

The radio also lacks an auxiliary jack for an iPod or other music player, and the XM Satellite radio available on other GM products has yet to be added here. It’s a minor thing, but Saturn says it’s targeting the 25- to 35-year-old market, and that’s a group that likes its music on demand; a missing iPod jack could be enough to send them elsewhere.

2008 Saturn Astra
2008 Saturn Astra
2008 Saturn Astra
2008 Saturn Astra. Click image to enlarge

The Astra was a perfect fit for me, at 5-foot-4, with firm but supportive seats, a perfectly-sized wheel, and with the manual, a short-throw shifter that fell easily to hand. My 6-foot-2 co-driver took a bit longer to find his position, helped by the wheel’s tilt and telescopic ability, but his knees were still bent very high.

Europeans pay attention when they drive, and stop to sit when they want a coffee, and to that end, GM’s marketing manager told me that getting cupholders into the Astra involved quite a fight. There’s only one for both front-seat passengers, and it’s awkwardly placed behind the shifter; rear-seat folks get two, which slide out between them from under the seat cushion. The seats fold to increase the cargo area, which is fairly generous for the Astra’s size.

Visibility is an issue: the rear window is a slit – it doesn’t fill the rear-view mirrors – and the side windows taper off, with very little glass at their tips. You’ll need to be meticulous about positioning the side-view mirrors properly, and they could be larger, as well.

All that sounds like there’s a lot wrong with it, but there’s a great deal that’s right, too. Fit and finish is excellent, the stereo quality is very good, all plastics are high quality and soft-touch, there’s a European “tap” turn signal switch with three-flash lane change, the short-throw shifter is fun to row, the brakes are strong, and on the automatic, there’s an unusual feature that automatically puts the transmission into Neutral when you’re sitting at a light, even though the selector remains in Drive. The engineers say it improves the idle and also saves a little bit of fuel: it’s no hybrid auto-stop, but if your commute always involves stop-and-go traffic, it’ll make a slight difference in your fuel economy. There’s also a “snow switch” that launches the automatic in third gear for improved traction slippery roads.

2008 Saturn Astra
2008 Saturn Astra. Click image to enlarge

There’s also a fairly substantial list of standard features for the price, including heated mirrors, cruise control, power locks, express-down on all windows (also operable from the key fob), six airbags, anti-lock brakes, the aforementioned OnStar with Turn by Turn navigation (it’s free for the first year, with a subscription fee afterwards), and stability control on the two-door, available as an option on the four-door.

Perhaps more so than Americans, Canadians have always been fond of European influence in their vehicles; we’re also not afraid of hatchbacks, with their funky styling and impressive practicality. The Astra has some packaging issues, and you’ll have to test-drive it thoroughly to see if you can live with them, but when it comes to carving corners – or even just taking it sedately to the grocery store – this Belgian transplant is a hands-down winner.

Specifications

  • Click here for complete specifications

Manufacturer’s web site

Connect with Autos.ca