Road Test: Saturn Hopes to Make Waves with European Astra

Pit Stop During the 2008 Saturn Astra Road Test

It seemed fitting that on the day members of the automotive media were invited to San Diego to drive the new Saturn Astra for the first time on North American soil, the southern California city was bracing for some of the biggest waves it's seen in years. Saturn, coincidentally, is hoping to make some waves of its own as it gears up to launch its all-new Astra small car.

The import-fighting General Motors brand consciously wiped its small-car slate clean after discontinuing the Ion last spring. Despite its dent-resistant body and made-in-Tennessee Saturn heritage, the Ion family of sedans and coupes never attracted that same volume of customers as its first S-Series cars did in the 1990s. To complicate matters, the Ion often needed incentives to draw customers into showrooms, while 15 years ago, demand for S-Series vehicles out-paced supply, leaving some retailers with empty lots and no cars to sell. Saturn needed the Ion's replacement to be a different kind of car that, much like the original Saturns, could draw buyers into showrooms on its merits alone.

Enter the Saturn Astra.

Diehard Saturn enthusiasts may say that the Astra is not a real Saturn, but just a GM small car with a Saturn badge. Truth be told, Saturn has always been a GM car, and if your quest for information about the new Astra stops here, you're going to miss out.

Much like Saturn, GM has been going through a revitalization of its own in recent years. New cars from GM are not the same vehicles that you may remember from even just a few years ago. Credit not only goes to the designers, engineers, and UAW plant workers, but to the company's management – all the way up to GM CEO Rick Wagoner and his team of executives. Similar to the initial Saturn project two decades ago, it's been a do-or-die effort across the whole company. There's been a renewed effort throughout the GM to empower employees at all levels to be passionate about everything they do.

So far the results have been positive. Redesigned GM vehicles today are often award-winning and arguably tops in their respective classes. New manufacturing techniques have helped the company boost vehicle reliability and essentially close the quality gap with industry-leader Toyota. GM has found particularly good success with the Astra, which was engineered by GM in Europe and is sold overseas under the Opel brand. In 2006, the Opel Astra was the second best selling car in Europe with more than 500,000 sold; the 3-door hatchback version is the top seller in its class with 40% more buyers than its next closest competitor. The company expects similar results when the final numbers for 2007 are tallied.

Leveraging global resources is something GM is doing better and better these days. Honda and Toyota have been doing this successfully for awhile now, and as GM studied its competition over the past few years, it's learned that in order to compete – and really survive – in a global marketplace, they've got to do the same.

The corporation sees a lot of value by synchronizing the Saturn and Opel lineups. GM says its research shows that while they live on two different continents, Saturn and Opel court the same type of customers. The Astra isn't the first Saturn to bear Opel roots, and notably, it won't be the last. Saturn's Aura midsize sedan and Vue compact sport-utility have significant ties to Opel vehicles. But it's a two-way street. Saturn exports its Delaware-built Sky roadster to Europe as the Opel GT. The American brand is also sharing their customer service secrets with their brethren overseas. In addition, future Opel vehicles will feature warmer, more Saturn-like interiors.

Significantly, with only a few minor exceptions – namely additional cup holders, M+S tires, and Saturn badging – the Saturn Astra is the same car that's sold in Europe. For now, it's even built alongside European-spec Opel Astras at a GM Europe plant in Antwerp, Belgium. If sales are as robust as Saturn hopes they are, rumors suggest Saturn production will move to North America when the next-generation model debuts in or around 2010.

Walk up to the Astra in a parking lot and you'll see the same familiar characteristics exhibited by all recent Saturns. Whether in 3- or 5-door form, the Astra's slippery shape fits right in alongside Saturn's newly revitalized lineup. Both XE and uplevel XR Astras are blessed with bold styling and crisp, clean lines that look just as good standing still as they do cruising down the road. The 3-door looks especially athletic. Wheels are pushed out to the four corners of the vehicle, giving the Astra aggressive proportions and a roomy interior. Projector-style head lamps are enclosed by large, crystal-clear lenses which flank either side of a chrome grill that together form the new face of Saturn.

Like its more expensive Saturn siblings, the Astra will also impress passengers with its upscale appearance inside. The Astra's interior features a striking design that might come across a little cold as first (especially in photos), but you'll quickly warm up to it after spending some time behind the wheel. Its craftsmanship is solid and the materials are first-rate. Even the woven headliner looks expensive. Charcoal is the only interior color offered, but brushed metallic trim is used tastefully throughout the cabin and it brightens things up quite nicely.

The Astra's three-spoke steering wheel not only adjusts up and down, but telescopes fore and aft, ensuring that you'll find a comfortable position regardless of your shape or size. The steering wheel feels good in your hands too, particularly when wrapped in leather. A three-gauge instrument cluster sits in plain view and is housed in a pod whose arch mirrors the contour of the steering wheel. Each of the gauges are elevated and encircled by a silver ring, providing a three-dimensional effect. Nestled in between the analog gauges, you'll find a host of indicator lights as well as a digital display that, among other things, shows the drive gear and outside temperature.

In the center of the dashboard just above the hazard button is a driver information center (DIC) screen that includes a multi-function trip computer. The advanced audio package includes an upgraded, higher resolution screen with enhanced DIC functionality and additional built-in radio controls. The switchgear throughout the cabin has a solid and satisfying feel. Keep the owners manual close by for the first few hundred miles, as the European icons embossed on many of the buttons are sure to generate lots of "what does that do?" type questions.

You'll appreciate the Astra's supportive, comfortable seats after a few hours behind the wheel. Front seats have built-in side bolsters that hold you into place without leaving you feeling pinned down. The head and leg room – both in the front and back – is plentiful for 6 foot tall adults. If you opt for the dual-pane sunroof in the 5-door model, back seat passengers will enjoy the same view of the heavens above as those in the front. The sunroof's two-piece glass unit is the largest in its class. Back seats in both 3- and 5-door models split 60/40 and fold flat to provide a generous amount of cargo space. Even with them upright, there was a surprising amount of storage space beneath the hatch. The removable cargo cover does a good job hiding any valuables that might be inside. Body-colored cargo anchors add a fancy touch and provide a way to tie down any items that you might not want rolling around.

All Astras are powered by a European designed DOHC 1.8L 138-hp GM Ecotec engine with variable valve timing. Opel offers many more engine options in its Astras, but the 1.8L is the only available powerplant that's paired with both a 4-speed automatic and 5-speed manual transmission. Offering only one engine also helped expedite the federalization of the 1.8L so that it could pass stringent U.S. emissions standards, which is reportedly an expensive and lengthy process.

Whether equipped with an automatic or manual transaxle, the EPA says the Astra gets better fuel economy than its primary competitors: the Mazda 3 5-door and Volkswagen Rabbit. According to published Government figures, automatic Astras get 24 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. Those with a manual gearbox do better with a 24/32 mpg rating. To help Astra models with automatics save gas, the transmission automatically shifts into neutral when the car comes to a full and complete stop. Not to worry, the transmission seamlessly shifts back into drive as soon as you lift your foot off the brake. The change is unnoticeable unless you're paying close attention to the tachometer.

Around town, the 1.8L has enough muscle to zip the Astra in and out of traffic without worry. The Ecotec has a broad, flat torque curve that helps make sure as much power as possible is available whenever it's needed. You won't win many races at the drag strip, but Saturn is betting Astra owners will prefer driving winding country roads over straight-line sprints to 60 mph. I had no trouble getting an automatic equipped Astra XR up-to-speed on the Interstate; passing cars on the freeway was never an issue. The car's variable-effort electro-hydraulic power steering system provides good feedback to the driver. It improves on Saturn's previous electric power steering efforts which were often criticized for their numbness and lack of a good on-center feel. This system provides the driving characteristics expected of a traditional hydraulic system with the added efficiency benefits of electric assist.

One of the highlights of my trip was when Saturn arranged for me to spend about an hour riding shotgun in a silver 3-door XR alongside Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman in charge of global product development. We spent most of our time on twisting San Diego County roads, driving through charred, mountainous terrain. This was my first time meeting Mr. Lutz. I've seen him speak at auto shows, but I had never mustered up enough nerve to muscle my way in front of the crowds of journalists who are always jockeying to get a few moments of his attention. It was an honor to have spent so much time talking with him one-on-one about Saturn, General Motors, and of course, the Astra. We also had some fascinating discussions about rumored future vehicles, GM's new philosophy for designing cars, and how the Government's new CAFE rules will impact the company's product roadmap in coming years.

Any questions about the performance and handling capabilities of the Astra were answered by the time we reached our destination. Mr. Lutz knows his cars, and he knows how to drive them well! Whether he was shifting through the 5-speed gearbox as we shot down a straight-away or he was navigating through a series of tight S curves, the Astra responded to his every move without hesitation. "This car begs to be driven," he told me with a smile on his face.

Great handling is one of the Astra's strongest qualities. When charging into a corner, the car gripped the road and turned like a roller coaster on rails. The Astra's understeer control logic intelligence worked seamlessly with both the StabiliTrak stability control and anti-lock braking systems to make sure the car turned with authority. Sensors in the steering column calculate the desired sharpness of a curve based on how far and fast the driver turns the wheel. StabiliTrak then calculates the actual trajectory of the car based on sensors mounted at each wheel. The Astra makes up for the difference by applying an appropriate amount of brake pressure to the inside front wheel, allowing the car go exactly where its supposed to without even a hint of tire squeal. It's a clever system that's very effective.

Sophisticated electronic controls can help you stay out of trouble, but in the unfortunate event of crash, a vehicle's ability to protect its passengers is of upmost concern. While neither the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have yet to release any crash test data on the Astra, the European New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) has awarded the Astra with a promising 5-star safety rating.

Helping the car perform so well in an accident is a reinforced safety cage that surrounds the Astra's passenger compartment. The chassis made up of a rigid frame with front and rear crush zones engineered to absorb energy and help maintain the structural integrity of the passenger compartment during a crash. High-strength steel is used throughout the body, along with full-length integrated frame rails that offer additional protection. Every Astra is shipped from the factory with six air bags: dual-stage frontal air bags, seat-mounted thorax/pelvic air bags for front passengers, and head curtain air bags for front- and rear-seat occupants. Standard active head restraints, OnStar, and a pedal release system help create an overall safety package that differentiates the Astra from its competition.

More standard equipment means that the base price of the Astra is higher than both the Ion and S-Series cars it replaces. To its credit, the Astra feels like a much more expensive car than it is. The 5-door Astra XE starts at only $15,995 (including destination fees), while the uplevel XR is priced at $17,545. The 3-door XR starts at $18,495. Saturn says it expects its highest volume Astra to be the 5-door XE model priced at $18,280 with air conditioning and an automatic transmission. That's a good deal, and it compares favorably to a similarly equipped 2008 Volkswagen Rabbit 4-door ($19,200 MSRP) and Mazda 3 5-door Sport ($19,470 MSRP).

While it's a completely different kind of car, the Astra offers many of the same traits as Saturn's first S-Series cars. "The Astra's package of great design and refined dynamics will appeal to longtime Saturn owners, who grew with us with cars such as the original SL models, as well as to customers who are new to a Saturn showroom," touted Saturn general manager Jill Lajdziak. Winning over import customers while courting an existing customer base is never an easy task, but the Astra gives Saturn a small car that should be able to do both by taking on the segment's leaders head-on. From its engaging driving characteristics, to advanced safety systems, durable construction, and innovative features, it surprises in the way it under promises on paper and over delivers on the road. With so much going for it, the Astra won't just make waves for Saturn, I think its going to make one a heck of a splash!

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