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Old 03-30-2007, 12:23 AM   #1
eRic 02sc2
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Default Astra a new star for Saturn

Astra a new star for Saturn

A few minor tweaks needed for U.S. model

March 29, 2007



ON THE AUTOBAHN IN SOUTHERN GERMANY -- Saturn owners will think they've died and gone to heaven, I thought as I hit 115 m.p.h. in the Opel Astra, which will go on sale as the Saturn Astra throughout North America later this year. This was clearly the best small car ever destined to wear a Saturn badge.

Ten minutes later I condemned the sporty compact hatchback to the ninth circle of hell as I searched for a cupholder. There wasn't one.

The Astra is a terrific car, perennially among the best sellers in Europe, where it competes with everything from the VW Rabbit to the Honda Civic, frequently beating them in comparison tests. Saturn won't announce pricing for some time, but it's reasonable to expect a base price under $17,000.

The European-built Astra will be by far the best small car the brand has ever offered, but Saturn must make a few minor changes to suit U.S. tastes.

The key word there is minor. Brighten up the interior trim, give me a place to put my large mocha, but for heaven's sake do not mess with the car's excellent dynamics and sharp steering.

Car enthusiasts call that "dumbing down." It's what happens when a company softens a car's handling and blurs its appearance on the assumption that American buyers are not sophisticated enough to appreciate the real thing.

That would be offensive, except that automakers have often made the same mistaken assumption.

The best recent example was the Cadillac Catera, a sales flop that began its life as the perfectly acceptable Opel Omega. GM Americanized the Opel for life as a Caddy, a process that consisted mostly of removing its sporty ride and fitting it with clunky cupholders.

It's fashionable to blame TV commercials that misused model Cindy Crawford's appeal and obsessed on a cartoon duck for the Catera's failure, but that's giving the advertising honchos too much credit for the car's failure to launch when it went on sale in 1996. The car failed all on its own because GM positioned it as a BMW fighter, but every change the company ordered made it less appealing than the model the company sold in Europe.

With its sporty and unique styling, roomy interior and dynamic handling, the Opel Astra is already a winner. The fewer changes made for Saturn, the better.

I lived with a very well-equipped diesel-powered Opel Astra for nearly two weeks. I covered about 740 miles from Germany's no-speed-limit autobahns to twisting mountain roads in Switzerland and crowded city centers in Munich and Geneva.

The car was smooth and stable over long stretches at triple-digit speeds. It suffered from little wind noise, but Saturn will probably want to swap its grippy high-speed tires for slightly softer rubber to accommodate America's rougher road surfaces.

The electro-hydraulic power steering was very well tuned, providing good feel and appropriate levels of assist at all speeds. Brake performance was equally good, with plenty of stopping power and good pedal feel.

The six-speed manual transmission had short, precise throws from one gear to another. The suspension performed admirably, keeping the car flat and smooth in 100-m.p.h.-plus curves on the autobahn with virtually no body roll and dig into curving mountain roads.

All the things a European car needs to succeed; all the things Saturn aspires to.

Saturn can -- and should -- teach Opel a few things about interior design, however.

Cupholders, of course, but there's room for improvement in other areas. The Astra's interior is wrapped in well-fitted appealing interiors, but the black-and-gray color scheme is downright dreary. Warmer contrasting colors like the Saturn Aura's two-tone interior would be welcome.

The steering wheel controls for the audio and navigation systems are well placed and functional, but they don't provide much feedback to the fingers as you scroll through a menu or adjust a CD's volume. The stereo's volume and sound quality are very good, however.

Saturn's unlikely to change the manually adjustable four-way seats. That's fine, but the controls and adjustments will initially feel foreign to most American shoppers. It requires patience to reach the right adjustment, but once you find it, the seats will support you comfortably for hours.

The navigation system compensated by providing some uncomfortable moments. Despite its easy programming and large, clear display, the system missed a couple of turns in small towns in Austria and was frequently off by 30 to 50 meters in bigger cities, just enough margin for error to ensure I had just passed the correct turn to get to my hotel in Stuttgart, for instance.

The keyless entry and pushbutton start performed better than the systems on some luxury cars, however. It unlocked the doors at my touch, relocked them as I walked away and generally made the whole idea of using a key seem outdated.

The Astra I tested had GM's powerful and fuel-efficient 150-horsepower 1.9-liter turbodiesel. Sadly, that excellent engine won't be available on the 2008 Saturn Astra, but the 140-horsepower 1.8-liter gasoline engine should provide competitive performance and fuel economy.

I tested the four-door hatchback, an attractive and practical car. Saturn will also sell the two-door hatchback, an even better-looking car with a fall-away roofline, rising beltline and a forward-canted hatch and rear window.

Combining the Astra's European looks and handling with Saturn's highly rated dealers and cuddly brand image looks like the best idea since the unlimited-speed autobahn.

Contact MARK PHELAN at 313-222-6731 or
eRic 02sc2
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