Saturn Astra - The Power of General Motors

Saturn Astra ReviewSaturn has reinvented its model lineup as of late, and one step in this process has been the arrival of the compact Saturn Astra. Though the Astra nameplate is likely new for most Americans, it's been a long-established model in Europe under General Motors' Opel and Vauxhall brands. The current-generation model that Saturn is using went on sale in Europe in 2004 and has been very popular in terms of sales. This model's crisp handling, interior sophistication and sharp styling may attract U.S. buyers otherwise reluctant to consider a small domestic car. If you're shopping for a sporty small car, especially one with a European flavor, the Astra deserves to be added to your list.

The Saturn Astra is available in two different hatchback body styles: a versatile four-door and a sporty two-door. The four-door offers the base-level XE trim or a sportier XR trim, while the two-door comes in the XR trim only. Both bodies feature a 60/40-split fold-down rear seat, giving the four-door almost 45 cubic feet of cargo space. The two-door model sacrifices some of that space to its sloping rear quarters and more aggressive profile.

Saturn Astra OverviewThe Astra comes relatively well equipped in the base XE trim level. It rides on 16-inch steel wheels and provides such amenities as six airbags, stability control, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, rain-sensing windshield wipers and a CD player. Jumping up to the XR trim level adds air-conditioning, alloy wheels and an upgraded audio system. Most of the XR features can be purchased as options on the lower trim level, and a large sunroof is available on both four-door trim levels.

A sporty theme is expressed throughout the two-door XR hatchback with meaningful upgrades like quicker steering, suspension upgrades, 17-inch alloys and sport seats. A host of optional premium Saturn Astra Accessories, which are becoming more prevalent on small cars, include leather, heated seats, a premium audio system and bold 18-inch alloy wheels. However, the Saturn Astra is one of the few GM vehicles not to offer satellite radio or an auxiliary audio jack.

Saturn Astra Test DriveBoth models are equipped with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that produces a competitive 138 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque. The power plant is mated to either a standard five-speed manual transmission or an optional four-speed automatic. While these transmissions are sufficient, competing models are increasingly equipped with six-speed manuals and five-speed automatics.

The high point of the Saturn Astra is its well-designed, high-quality interior. The Astra's cabin is covered in soft plastics and tasteful accents. Chrome-ringed dials and piano-black finishes create a more upscale atmosphere than the typical economy car interior. The quality of materials and fit and finish found inside the Astra are worthy of a more expensive car. There are a few minor flaws, though, including bizarre European controls, only one awkwardly placed cupholder, no engine temperature gauge and mediocre rear visibility.

While driving the two-door Astra, our editors noted that its well-sorted European handling makes it fun to drive in comparison to other models in its class. Horsepower and torque are barely adequate, though, and the engine sounds raucous when revved. The five-speed manual transmission has an easy clutch take-up but a forgettable shifter feel. The steering is a highlight -- it's weighted nicely and pleasantly quick.