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2008 Saturn Astra 5-door XR Review

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Model: 2008 Saturn Astra 5-door XR
Engine: 1.8-liter DOHC 4
Horsepower/Torque: 138 hp @ 6300 rpm/125 lb.-ft. @ 3800 rpm
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 102.9 in.
Length/Width/Height: 170.5 x 69.0 x 57.4 in.
Tires: P205/55R16
Cargo volume: 12.2/44.7 cu. ft. (rear seat up/down)
Fuel economy: 24/30/23.8 mpg highway/city/test
Fuel capacity: 12.2 gal.
Sticker: $20,960 (includes $620 destination charge plus $3,415 in options)

The Bottom Line: For someone looking for European driving characteristics in a hatchback, the Saturn Astra fits in quite nicely with the VW Rabbit and Honda Civic. Economy is decent with the automatic transmission, while driving comfort is a tick lower than some of the competition. Still, this European-built Saturn offers something many American manufacturers don't, compactness and economy, even if the latter could be better.

It isn't fair to the Saturn Astra that it was delivered the week after I drove the Saturn Aura. While the former is a typically American sedan with all the good qualities, the Astra is European-built and retains its "Europeness" in its ride quality and ergonomics.

Powered by a 1.8-liter double overhead cam inline four driving the front wheels, the Astra certainly has enough power to compete with the smaller of its competitors from Mazda (Mazda3), Honda (Civic) and VW (Rabbit). It certainly isn't going to knock anyone's socks off, but then it isn't intended to. What it is intended to do is give a European-style ride with all the amenities - good handling, decent economy and compactness.

People shopping the Astra are looking for commuter cars with just these qualities. It will do for small families with small children, but this isn't the type of car most American consumers are accustomed to shopping if they have larger families or older children, or even if they're retired.

All that said, the Astra is a fun little car. Our tester was equipped with a 4-speed automatic transmission ($1,325 option) replacing the standard 5-speed manual. I found shifting to be smooth (sure, it probably would have been smoother with a 5-speed or 6-speed, but that would add extra cost) and performance to be decent. This isn't a Corvette, mind you, so expectations are a little more conservative.

I found the front seats to be hard with minimal side support. I also understand that many drivers prefer harder seats, but again, I just came off a week in the Aura, so the reduction in seat quality was striking. Rear seat legroom was tight, with more of a bench-like quality to the seats. There's only room for two in the back, even though Saturn may advertise it as a 5-passenger car.

The singular advantage to hatchbacks (okay, 5-door models) is the hatch. It can be raised and lowered easily and offers adequate cargo capacity under normal conditions, and exceptional capacity (for its exterior size) when the rear seatbacks are folded. We have friends who keep the seats backs folded all the time and use their hatchbacks for storing golf clubs to drive to the course. As to the numbers, standard cargo capacity is 12.2 cubic feet, with the seatbacks folded this soars to 44.7 cu. ft.

Even though this is an "economy" car, the Astra comes equipped with a ton of standard features that would have cost extra not that many years ago. For example, the Astra has four-wheel ABs and cornering control to help avoid accidents, six standard air bags, active head restraints and a pedal restraint system, and optional Stabilitrak stability control system ($495). It also has OnStar just in case you do have an accident.

Other standard equipment includes a six-speaker AM/FM/CD radio that was a pain to tune and was better used as a CD player, cruise control, RainSense windshield wipers, and power windows with an express down feature (a tribute to its European heritage). The other major option was a power sunroof and second row skylight ($1,000).

The Saturn Astra is a solid compact hatchback that will give you economy and all the driving characteristics you'd expect from a car in its class.

2008 The Auto Page Syndicate