USA Today Drives the '08 Saturn Astra XR5

James Healey from USA Today road tested the 2008 Saturn Astra XR 5-door in yesterday's newspaper. "What a great time for General Motors to have a sweet-driving, decent-looking small car like the Saturn Astra," he wrote in his review. While he felt his well-equipped test car was "a bit pricey," he thought that the Astra deserved serious consideration from small car shoppers.

So why bother, you ask? Why not just snatch up that Focus, or Mazda3 or Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe? Because Astra drives oh-so-nicely. Though the engine is slightly smaller and less powerful than the Focus' and must motivate more weight, it has a sweeter feel and loves to zip up to the red line. It has a feeling of quickness, although the speedometer reading wasn't impressive at the end of the full-blast on-ramp sprint in the Test Drive routine. The manual transmission in the hatchback test car let you know via slight mechanical resistance each time you slipped the lever into gear. It was not the clichéd "hot-knife-through-butter" feel some drivers crave, but the gearbox was easy and fun to shift and there was no danger of slipping into the wrong gear. The light-touch clutch made the car easy to start from rest, even uphill, and minimized the strain of stop-and-go driving. Steering, oh joy. Very well-centered. No need to make small corrections to keep the car pointed straight ahead. But ask it for a dart, a swerve or a simple turn, and the car responded with such fine snap that you wanted to go down the road yanking the wheel back and forth just to feel the crisp response. If your physique fits the front seats and you don't need more than kid-size leg or knee space in back, the interior is pleasant. Rubber-ringed control knobs feel better than plastic. The seemingly hard steering wheel is just soft enough to be grippy. No-nonsense horizontal air vents in the center of the dashboard have a visually satisfying, industrial look that blends well with the lines and angles of other trim — a small touch, but something you lay eyes on every time you climb in.

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