PACIFIC BEACH, Calif., - It was a very snappy looking little car with a visceral exhaust note. That was our first impression of the 2008 Saturn Astra. We thought it long, low and sleek which was saying something for a compact car.
The Saturn Astra is a global car; it is sold in Europe as the Opel Astra and it is the second best selling car on the Continent. Almost 10 million have been purchased since the Astra was first introduced in 1991. So it's a given that the 2008 Saturn Astra is a very good and practical compact car.
Saturn's real challenge is to get American car buyers to embrace the Astra which went on sale in January. Saturn has to be very skilled at telling consumers about the Astra's attributes because it has many.
We've always felt that European produced vehicles are sturdier than American built cars and the Astra is no different. Designed and engineered in Germany, the Astra's chassis, suspension and powertrain are geared towards European tastes where drivers like sporty responsive and fuel efficient small vehicles.
Both two-door and four-door hatchback models of the Astra were powered by a four-cylinder 138 horsepower engine that made 125 pounds-feet of torque. Two transmissions were available: a five -speed manual and a four speed automatic.
During our test drive of the two-door hatchback with a manual transmission, we found shifting relatively easy, acceleration was acceptable, handling was good, the ride was firm and steering was responsive. However, we would have preferred a six speed manual. We would have been much more comfortable with one more gear for downshifting in the hills here, not to mention the added fuel efficiency.
Still, the Astra in manual mode has an EPA rating of 24 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. The EPA numbers for its automatic counterpart are 24 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway.
Our test drive of the four-door model with an automatic transmission ended with the same results. It was a very solid ride. But we did find the four-speed automatic lacking when climbing. Just the slightest deviation on the gas pedal sent the four-speed transmission searching for the right gear.
The amount of rear seat head room in the two-door Astra really surprised us. Despite its sloping roofline we could sit up straight. The four-door version had even more head room. And remarkably, we never felt cramped in the rear seats because we had very clear views out the side of the car in both models. And wide rear door openings in the four-door model made getting in and out really easy.
Of course, the front seats were comfortable and interestingly, we never felt overwhelmed in the Astra. In other words, the Astra drove big and the car was really quiet, especially for a four cylinder.
We had a cloth interior but it still was equipped with heated front seats. Our test car was quick and agile which is necessary for small car survival on the freeways of Southern California.
Other than the need for an extra gear on each of the transmissions, our only other quibble was the center stack. Though the design was clean, the controls were too low. Drivers will have to look and or reach down to adjust the climate controls. Familiarization would allow some of this to be done by touch but still the controls should higher.
In Europe, compact cars are tantamount to midsize sedans and are equipped as such. The Astra can be ordered with 16, 17 or 18-inch wheels. It can also be equipped with a dual pane moonroof and it had express down windows. Its side airbags provided thorax and pelvic protection and the vehicle had OnStar which is free the first year.
Prices start at $15,995 for the four-door XE, $17,545 for the four-door XR and $18,495 for the two-door XR.