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2008 Saturn Astra XR 3-Door: "American" is Not Its First Language

For years, many automotive enthusiasts have bemoaned the fact that both GM and Ford make beautifully executed vehicles for Europe, while we Yanks get cheap and plasticky land yachts with marshmallow suspensions. It killed me that – for example – we would get crusty old Ford Tauruses while Europe got the slick Mondeo – the latest generation of which Europeans genuinely consider to give the BMW 3-Series a run for the money, despite its everyman market positioning. It also annoyed that American GM owners on a budget were stuck with Cavaliers and Ions while Europeans got the stylish Opel Astra – a sporty and stylish small car with build quality that most American GM cars of the time could only dream of.
Sometimes, GM and Ford’s American operations would bring over Americanized versions of their European cars. For the most part, however, they were simply sad shadows of what they were in Europe, with all the appealing features and finish removed for cost. Why? The rationale was that Europeans pay a lot more for their vehicles than we do, and in order to bring those costs down to levels amenable to price sensitive American customers, all the cool stuff had to come out.


The best looking US-brand GM small car…ever?

Things have changed though. Gasoline’s $4.00 per gallon now, and GM is undergoing something of a product renaissance. Saturn, as a GM brand, is undergoing a transformation as well with customers being asked to “rethink American”. The new Aura, Outlook, Sky, and Vue are clear winners (the latter two are AutoPacific’s 2008 Vehicle Satisfaction Award winners in their respective segments), and the new Astra aims to continue that success.

So what is Saturn Astra? Well, it’s actually a German Opel Astra, built in Europe, shipped over the US with Saturn logos replacing the Opel lightning bolt. Effectively, the Astra replaces the godawful Ion at the bottom end of the Saturn lineup. Make no mistake though – the Astra (despite sharing Ion’s Delta platform) couldn’t be any more different. Whereas Ion was cheap, tacky, unrefined, and ugly, Astra is somewhat expensive, beautifully finished, very refined, and (to this writer’s eyes) beautifully styled.
So it’s exactly what we car connoisseurs have wished for all along from GM, right? A proper European GM small car – the kind that Americans should have had all along, correct? Well…yes and no.
Let’s start with the good. Our test car was a 3-door model, which has a roofline that’s lower than the still-pretty 5-door model. In bright red and with 18-inch wheels, it looks simply marvelous. It’s sporty and dynamic in a way no Saturn (Sky excepted, perhaps) has ever looked. It looks every bit the premium small car, in much the same vein as the Audi A3 or Volkswagen GTI. The design and finish in the interior continues the exterior’s strengths, with a chunky Teutonic look that calls to mind many VW products from the past decade, and premium soft touch materials everywhere. The seats, covered in a high quality leather, may be the best I’ve ever experienced in a GM vehicle.


Classy, solid, and well-made. This is a GM small car interior?


Perhaps the best GM seats ever made

It drives well too. Though ours was saddled with a 4-speed automatic, the 140HP 1.8 liter 4-cylinder was reasonably peppy as well as being smooth and unobtrusive. It wasn’t nearly as quick as the car’s sexy styling would suggest, but in today’s reality where fuel economy is more important to most compact car customers than outright power, that’s ok by us (though we can’t help but hanker for a theoretical Red Line variant that uses the European model’s optional 240HP turbo engine).
The car’s real appeal is in its ride and handling. It rides in a manner that its 40-series 18-inch tires should not permit – its ride is sporty but never jarring, and it soaks up imperfections with a solidity and level of refinement usually seen on far more expensive German sports sedans. The steering, while not providing much feedback, is pretty precise and accurate. In a nutshell, it feels like a true German car. That alone makes it so much more appealing than just about any other small car that GM has foisted on us Americans.
But let’s back up…we did say that there were some problems. These problems generally relate to the fact that this car was rushed to the US market; GM simply did not have time to change certain details that would ensure its palatability to Americans – particularly those no-hassle people that the Saturn brand traditionally appeals to.
Most of these problems are inside the car. The clock ONLY reads in 24-hour time (you cannot make the clock read 9:43pm instead of 21:43, for example). Many controls are labeled with indecipherable pictograms, which are acceptable (and perhaps desirable) to European car enthusiasts but perhaps a bit alienating and confusing to Peorians. The confusing radio and trip computer interface is handled with a big knob (or auxiliary steering wheel controls) and endless menus, much like BMW’s iDrive…but worse. Shockingly, there are no cupholders for front seat passengers. And where’s the iPod jack? The omission of that last one is confusing since a quick check of Opel’s German website shows it to be available in Europe.

If you can tell us what these symbols mean, Indiana Jones has a job for you


As you can see, English isn’t its first language. Note the 24-hour clock

In the past, this writer would have been thrilled with the European purity of the Saturn Astra, i.e. it wasn’t dumbed down for us Americans. Deep inside, I’m still thrilled that Astra made it to the US nearly unchanged from Euro-spec, but I also know that most American small car buyers are looking for easy, idiot-proof transportation. The fact that Saturn’s traditional buyer base is looking for the least amount of drama gives us some pause for concern.
Then again, Saturn is a brand on the move, trying to expand into new markets and customer segments. Perhaps Astra can appeal to European car enthusiasts. Problem there is that European car enthusiasts can be a somewhat snobbish bunch, and besides Astra doesn’t have the level of performance that most of these Europhiles demand.
So as it is, Saturn’s version of the Astra is a diamond in the rough. It’s hugely appealing on many levels, but it’s flawed in ways that could make it a tough sell to both core Saturn buyers and many of the consumers that Saturn would like to reach out to. It should be noted that this Astra is new only to us Americans; it has been on sale in Europe since 2003. As such, it will only be with us for a couple of years before a new Astra comes along. You can bet that the next Astra will be far better fine-tuned for its US citizenship.

1 Comment

  • Barry Hammond| July 4, 2008 at 10:09 am

    I have to agree and at the same time disagree (an axymoron, I know). I’ve had my XR2 5 speed for about a month (Black Saphire), and in reality it only took a day or 2 to get the radio/cd and computer down. The On-Star is an added benefit with a year’s use included. I also use a Zune which the “system” recognizes as well. I have to agree it sure would be nice to have an imput for it – my dealership is looking into options.
    Yes, it has euro-quirks that tend to actually grow on you.
    But, what’s cool is I’ve been getting lots of positive comments on it and people find it’s hard to believe it’s a Saturn.
    Enjoy the quick-direct handling – its sporty side of the vehicle. The power-band could be more, but as mentioned the milage is great as on average I’m getting 31 mpg in commute traffic. I have yet to take any trips with it so I have no long trip info as of yet.
    Overall I find the car lots of fun and and looking into small upgrades – would be nice if GM went the way of Scion with this vehicle by offering different after-market products which they could procure from Holden, Opel, or Vauxhall.
    All for now.
    Barry Hammond

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