Saturn's Hip Little Hatchback

From BusinessWeek.com: 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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Flashback Friday: How Saturn Built a Brand

Saturn Logo

Saturn launched its lineup of compact sedans and coupes in the fall of 1990 as an relatively unknown and untested manufacturer of "a different kind of car." The Saturn team did the impossible by implementing a set of strategies that included building quality vehicles and crafting an intriguing message that attracted car buyers who had written off domestic cars long ago. That was no small feat. In his book, "Building Strong Brands," author David Aaker set out to "not only to describe what was done but also to suggest the logic behind the strategies: why they were pursued, and how they were intended to contribute to the brand." He concluded that "although certainly some elements of the Saturn strategy may have been critical, it was the synergy of the total program rather than the power of any single element - that led to its success."