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

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Manufacturer’s web site
General Motors of Canada

Review and photos by Chris Chase

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2008 Saturn Astra

The Saturn Astra was one of General Motors’ recent attempts to “Europeanize” its vehicle line-up, a process that has continued since the Astra’s 2008 arrival (and the Saturn brand’s subsequent demise) with cars like Chevrolet Cruze and Buick Regal.

As an automotive journalist, I like to try to predict how a new car or truck model will be received by the public. It’s easy to suggest that if reviewers favour a car, it will automatically do well in the marketplace.

With the Saturn Astra, I think it was the idea of the car that made me think it would be a saviour of sorts for General Motors. The Astra was engineered by GM’s European Opel division and imported to North America as a Saturn with the only changes being those necessary to line it up with Canadian and U.S. safety and emissions standards.

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

Ultimately, the Astra was never that successful; a strange thing, considering that Ford has enjoyed considerable success importing its European designs here, and GM itself has met with some success with its Cruze compact. My guess is that the Astra’s appeal was limited by the lack of a sedan, a more popular body style in the massive American market; Canada’s relatively strong appetite for hatchbacks wouldn’t have been enough to offset that.

In any event, whether the Astra was a success is moot now that the Saturn brand is gone. Slow sales when the car was new mean that there will never be that many Astras to be found on used car lots.

The Astra was introduced here as a 2008 model available in XE (base) and XR trims; the XE was a four-door only, while the XR could be had in two- and four-door body styles.

One aspect of the Astra that didn’t make the journey across the Atlantic was the wide range of engines available in versions of this car sold in other markets; the Saturn version got just one engine, a 1.8-litre four-cylinder that made 140 horsepower. Transmission choices were a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.

The Astra’s Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption figures were 8.5/6.1 L/100 km (city/highway) with the manual, and 8.4/6.6 with the automatic transmission. Those numbers are respectable enough for a compact hatchback, but were far from class-leading. An automatic Astra XE four-door I tested in late winter 2008 averaged no better than 8 L/100 km on the highway, and James Bergeron managed 10 L/100 km in the same car in a week of driving, almost two-thirds of that being on the highway.

The Astra’s short time on the market and relatively low sales numbers mean that reliability information is scarce and its accuracy hard to gauge: Consumer Reports gives the Astra a “worse than average” overall reliability rating.

Consumer Reports’ data shows trouble in the Astra’s “Engine Major” category, but I wasn’t able to find evidence of anything so dramatic. Instead, I found many references at SaturnFans.com of bad cam position sensors (an important part of the electronic engine management system), something that will cause the motor to run poorly. When this sensor goes bad, it will trigger the “check engine” light, which CR indicates as being very common in the Astra.

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