An Acquired Taste

2009, Saturn, Astra

DETROIT -- Saturn’s Astra is an acquired taste. It’s a rebadged Opel, thus, it has some European characteristics that buyers should get used to. The car’s suspension is firm, reflecting the better condition of European roads. What’s more, I found the handling to be outstanding.

The Astra is a compact car and comes in two body styles: a three door model and a five door model. Both are hatchbacks. Powered by a four cylinder engine that makes 140 horsepower, the Astra can be equipped with either a five speed manual transmission or a four speed automatic. I had a five door Astra XR with a four-speed automatic gearbox.

The Astra is a utilitarian runabout. Although handling is impressive, it lacked the power to characterize it as fun to drive. It was an adequate small car.

Interestingly, the four-speed automatic transmission incorporates neutral idle, a feature that automatically shifts the transmission to neutral during stops and eliminates converter drag on the engine. It also is equipped with an automatic throttle kick-down feature, which actuates immediate downshifting during wide-open throttle driving for more immediate performance.

And you’d better get used to Greenwich Mean Time, or military time. That’s how the clock displays the time.

Buyers need to be clear about what the Astra will do and what it won't do. This car did not accelerate onto expressways swiftly, it did not and could not carry a bunch of folks and it did not smoke tiers from standstill starts.

What it did do is prove to be relatively economical. The car has an EPA rating of 24 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the hwy. I parked in places that a bigger vehicle just wouldn't fit. And the flip down rear seats provided a good bit of storage space.

In other words, this car is great for first time buyers or for buyers who commute daily and want to do it economically. And the price is right, as long as common sense is used.

My test vehicle had a sticker price of $16,925. That's not bad for a four-cylinder hatchback. But add on options and the out the door price was $20,715.

My test vehicle had a $595 premium audio package. On the Astra, it was a six-disc in dash CD player with a seven speaker sound system. The draw back here was that even though it was a premium audio system, there was no auxiliary jack for an iPod. If you're into sound, that can be a drawback. Satellite radio was not listed amongst the available options.

The automatic transmission was a $1,325 option. In Europe, where the Astra was born, far more folks drive vehicles with manual transmissions. And the glass moon roof, the section over the second row seats was fixed, was a $1,000 extra. The heated front cloth seats were a $250 option.

Some of the other Astra equipment was very impressive: 18-inch wheels are available; it had a tire pressure monitoring system, active head restraints and stability and traction control systems. The little car even had a version of OnStar with a one year subscription.

But there was room for improvement. The hatchback had a movable tonneau cover but it was not removable. That meant awkward sized stuff, like a cedar chest, could not be fitted in the vehicle although there was space. Even if the chest could be put in the cargo area with the rear seats flipped down the latches for car seats on the back of the second row seats might have damaged the chest.

I ended up sliding the chest across the rear seat. I would expect these glitches to be addressed in the next generation of the Astra. Still, it is not a bad first effort for Saturn.

By Frank S.  Washington

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Images of the 2009, Saturn Astra

2009 Saturn Astra
2009 Saturn Astra
2009 Saturn Astra
2009 Saturn Astra
2009 Saturn Astra
2009 Saturn Astra
2009 Saturn Astra
2009 Saturn Astra