2008 Saturn Astra 3- and 5-doors

    One of our top three most significant Chicago show debuts. Saturn's Astra is significant because it represents one thing: Change. GM's fuzziest, cutest, and most user-friendly brand (Showroom as living room! Fixed price tags! Warm Cosby sweaters!) has long suffered from a lack of product. Traditionally, Saturns have been boring, dull, crappy, boring, boring, and, well, boring. The GM division was created as a front-line effort in the battle to regain ground lost to the Japanese; unfortunately, however, its product line never quite lived up to the hype.

    Like most of the Saturn line these days, the Astra is in fact a pirated Opel. GM's European division--last seen stateside with products like the Manta and Opel GT--contributed the Astra's underpinnings and cosmetics. As such, it's likely to actually be somewhat decent to drive, be decently well-built, and be a good value.

    The Astra is the final model in Saturn's long-needed revamp (the Sky roadster is now the brand's oldest showroom offering), and it caps off a year of tremendous turnaround for the brand. (Really: When was the last time you actually heard people talk about lusting after a Saturn?) Good show, Saturn. Here's to hoping the Astra doesn't suck.

    The Astra will be available only in hatchback form with three or five doors. Only a sporty XR trim will be offered for the former, while the latter gets the option of a cheaper XE model. All will be powered by a 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder with variable valve timing and an estimated highway fuel economy in the mid thirties. The base transmission is a five-speed manual, but all models will have an optional four-speed automatic.

    All Astras will come equipped with six standard air bags, and the three-door also features standard stability and traction control (it's optional on the five-door.) For added safety, a high-mounted third brake light uses quick-responding LEDs, just like higher-priced Cadillacs.

    Along with the standard features, there are some pretty cool options. Five-door models can be upgraded with a huge two-panel sunroof and seventeen-inch wheels, while three-doors miss the roof but get eighteens. Heated seats are offered with both cloth and leather, and XR models can be fitted with steering wheel-mounted audio controls. If a Saturn salesman were to have gone into a coma at this time last year and were to wake up now, he'd probably fall back under just from the shock of his company's turn around.