2008 Saturn Astra

Some may say that the new Saturn Astra is a big improvement over its predecessor, the Saturn Ion. We say, how could it not be? The hapless Ion was a strong contender for America's worst small car and the most recent example of our storied incompetence in that arena.

Today, however, is a new day at Saturn. General Motors, after launching the division as a flag-waving riposte to the invasion of small foreign imports, evidently has decided: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Is this depressing defeatism or shrewd realpolitik? Maybe both. While it's bad news for our country's engineering and manufacturing sectors, in the case of the Astra at least, it's good news for America's drivers.

The Astra is a rebadged Opel, imported from Europe. The car is virtually unchanged from its counterpart on the Continent. Even the name is the same. More important, though, is that the European suspension tuning is neither softened nor dumbed down for U.S. duty (although the tires have been swapped for all-seasons). Our test car had the Sport Handling Package, which is standard on the XR coupe and optional on the XR four-door hatchback (but not offered on the base XE). The $695 package includes seventeen-inch wheels, stability control, quicker steering, and firmer springs and dampers, as well as a lower ride height. The setup proved very impressive over the challenging back roads of southeastern Ohio, where we had a lot of fun flinging the Astra from one corner to another. The suspension has sufficient travel, and its motions are well-damped. Understeer is present but not oppressive, and the tail can get lively, although stability control will gently step in to keep you out of trouble. We did wish for stronger brakes, however, and we experienced some torque steer on wet pavement (but none in the dry).

That could be because there's precious little torque to begin with. In fact, the Astra's 1.8-liter Ecotec four-cylinder is the car's weakest link. The engine doesn't really want to rev, and yet it doesn't offer much grunt down low. Apparently, its 138 horses would rather nap than run. The 1.8-liter is the only engine Saturn offers, although, as usual, Europeans get an extensive menu of powertrain choices, including a 1.6-liter turbo that might have been the better choice.

We found the clutch and the five-speed shifter pretty agreeable--good thing since the optional automatic is only a four-speed. The seats were a mix of squishy, convex-feeling cushions and backrests with good lateral support. Interior space is not bad, although rear-seat riders don't fare as well as they would in a Nissan Versa or a Volkswagen Rabbit. We were encouraged to find interior materials that are fully competitive with any car in the class, a situation that had previously been entirely foreign to small Saturns.

One area in which buyers may find the Astra a bit too foreign is in the markings and operation of its switchgear. Indecipherable hieroglyphics on various buttons, strange logic to the audio controls, and BMW-style electronic column stalks will make the owner's manual required bedside reading for Astra buyers.Overall, though, Saturn did well on its shopping trip to Europe. The brand scored a small car that's unlike any it has offered before, and that's a good thing.

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