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2008 Saturn Astra 5-Door XR Review

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A Teutonic Saturn
By Steve Purdy
The Auto Channel
Detroit Bureau

Saturn has come a long way since its inception just a couple decades ago. After an initial flush of success, particularly in customer relations, parent GM badly neglected its newest division putting no effort into new product. That is all changed now. Saturn has perhaps the most updated product line in the corporation, thanks in part to GM’s German division, Opel.

This new Astra, which replaces the entry-level Ion, is essentially the German Opel Astra revised only slightly for the US market. It comes in 3-door or 5-door hatch versions beginning at around $16,500 for entry level XE 5-door and ranging to about $19,000 for the 3-door XR. This week’s Astra is the 5-door XR which starts at $16,925 and with a few options (automatic transmission for $1,325, power sunroof for $1,000, Premium Trim Package for $795, Sports Handling Package for $695 and Advanced Audio Package for $595) bottom lines at just over 21-grand. That might be on the high side of the value curve. We’ll see.

The 3-door looks very sporty, and the 5-door more practical. A low, sloped nose gives it an aerodynamically efficient look. Modern, stylish details put it in the realm, at least visually, of the Mazda 3 and many other sub-compact 5-doors. They all look pretty much alike, I think, and the Saturn is as attractive as any. The functional dynamics are another story.

I found much of the instrumentation and controls awkward and sometimes even annoying. If I have to go to the manual to figure out a function, that’s a demerit. Intuitiveness is the standard we’re after here. I experienced the first annoyance when trying to set the radio to my favorite station. I found only a directional button for scanning up and down the scale. It repeatedly just went past my station. Well, much later while browsing through the electronic control functions I found a mode where we could actually tune the radio, not just scan. But that was deep in the controls where it was hard to find. There is also, according to the book a setting that allows the scan to be more sensitive, but I didn’t find that one.

And what’s up with the standard-on-all-models “Board Computer?” or BC. I’ve heard of an “on-board” computer. Perhaps that’s a German accent coming through. Like much of the control system, it’s not very intuitive.

I didn’t like the automatic locking system either. We must stop the car and actually turn it off before the doors unlock. I stopped at the end of the driveway to get the mail and had to twist around and manually pull the lock tab up to get out without shutting off the car.

And, after a week with the Astra I couldn’t determine whether it had cruise control or not. There was a rocker switch at the end of the turn signal stalk with graphics we associate with cruise control, but fiddling with the switch while cruising down the highway did not do anything. I looked everywhere for an on/off switch for cruise and could find nothing. Finally, I went to the manual (demerit) and it said there is an on/off switch on the back side of the stalk. I still couldn’t find it. So the question became; why would we have the set/resume controls without an on/off switch? Well, just as they were coming to take the car away I decided to take one more look and there it was, an obscure, invisible, vertical tab behind the rocker switch that looked like it was just the end of the rigid stalk. Maybe the Europeans like it that way. I don’t.

Now remember, I drive a different car every week. While I may not be the brightest bulb on the porch, I’m not the dimmest either. I don’t think I’ve ever had such trouble figuring out all the controls, particularly on a low-end car. Of course, if you owned this vehicle you’d learn all these little nuances and it would be fine, I suppose.

Acceleration is rather anemic. This Ecotec 1.8-liter, naturally aspirated I4 is adequate but has to scramble to get up to speed on a cloverleaf freeway entrance ramp. With variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust cams it makes only 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. At higher rpm it sounds a bit thrashy and buzzy – not the most sophisticated presentation of this reasonably efficient engine. EPA estimates fuel mileage to be between 24 and 32-mpg on this 2,921-pound economy car. We averaged a respectable 28.8 this week in about 50/50 mixed driving. The fuel tank holds only 12 gallons so the cruising range is in the mid-300s. The engine compartment is remarkably neat and tidy and the hood holds itself up with a strut – no prop rod here. Now that’s impressive.

Standard is a 5-speed manual transmission but our tester has the optional 4-speed automatic. Shifts are reasonably quick and smooth. A winter mode allows the transmission to start out in third gear on slippery surfaces and a neutral-at-idle function throws it into neutral when stopped to save on fuel use. As soon as your foot is off the pedal, though, it’s creeping. It ought to just stay in neutral until we apply throttle, I think.

Occupant convenience is compromised with only one cup holder to serve front and rear seat passengers. Now I know the Germans don’t have a lot of respect for cup holders but this is ridiculous. It’s at the rear of the center console where the front seat driver or passenger (remember there is only one) have to twist their arms awkwardly behind them to access it.

The panoramic sunroof is way cool. One push of the button opens it wing fashion then another push opens it all the way. We have to hold the button down to close. The glass extends nearly all the way over the rear seat and a nicely designed screen keeps enough bright sun out when we want.

A couple of the functions have an unusual feel. The turn signal has lane change feature (three blinks and done) with a gentle push but when using it in normal full-turn mode it doesn’t click into position then release with a self-canceller like most. It just triggers the signals then returns. Same with wipers. The switch doesn’t hold into position. It just clicks and returns to original position. I’m not fond of that mode, but, again, I suppose we’d get used to it.

Tires come standard in 16-inch all-weather style but our tester has 17s. Never heard of this brand though - Hankook Optimo 225/45R17. They felt fine, reasonably grippy without excessive chirping or squeal when we abused them.

Entry and exit is easy front and rear with plenty of room and good size doors. Six airbags protect us along with active front-seat head restraints, and standard ABS. As far as I can tell it has not yet been rated by the NHTSA for rollover risk, side crash and front crash. Like most GM cars the Astra comes with one year of OnStar service.

The cargo area has nice low floor. We stuffed lots of stuff back there. I’ve always loved a hatchback for space efficiency and this one is a good example. It boasts 12.2 cubic-feet of space with the back seat up and 44.7 with the seat down.

Built in Antwerp, Belgium the Astra has virtually no US content. If you’re a stickler about buying American this one may not be for you. Just remember, though, that it’s a GM car and that’s a US company, as is the dealer you buy it from, the transporter that got it there . . . and on and on.

So, for just about 21-grand I don’t think this one would be in the running for me – just too many annoyances. It’s certainly a competent little thing though and the Saturn brand’s reputation for customer treatment and loyalty goes a long way.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved.