Saturn's Hip Little Hatchback

From As gasoline prices continue to soar, U.S. drivers will probably start buying more small, European-style cars. The new Saturn is virtually identical to the Continental European Opel Astra, the British Vauxhall Astra, and the Australian Holden Astra. That's a good thing when it comes to handling. This car's driving dynamics are a huge improvement over those of the Saturn Ion, the unlovable staple of rental car fleets that the Astra is replacing. Under the hood is a 1.8-liter, 140-hp, inline four-cylinder engine coupled with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The Astra comes as either a two-door or four-door hatchback, and, particularly in the two-door style I test-drove, the steering is tight, the suspension sporty, and the fuel economy excellent.

The Astra is far better designed and built than GM's previous small cars. It's also reasonably priced, especially considering how much standard equipment it packs. There are two trim levels: the XE, which starts at $15,995, and the XR, which starts at $17,545. Even the base model comes loaded with gear you don't necessarily expect to get on a low-priced GM vehicle: full-power accessories, rain-sensitive wipers, six airbags (including head-protecting, side-curtain bags), a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, and a trip computer. Moving up to the XR gets you alloy wheels, air conditioning, and a better sound system.

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In a morning press conference, GM's President and CEO, Fritz Henderson, updated the media on the state of the financially tapped company. He also added another interesting twist to the ongoing Saturn saga. According to Consumer Reports, "Henderson said GM would entertain offers on Saturn manufacturing plants and models in addition to the dealer and distribution network."