PORTLAND, Ore. -- The three-door version of Astra, Saturn's European hatchback which comes together at a GM Opel factory in Belgium, awaits us at curbside on Broadway in downtown Portland.
We find the ignition key under the driver's floor mat, Astra's 12-gallon fuel tank brimming with gas and a map in the door pocket showing a route to the west for a hundred miles to Oregon's rugged Pacific Coast.
After adjusting all mirrors and fixing the form-fitting driver's bucket in a comfy position, we crank up the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, shove the short stick of a manual transmission into first gear and head south on Broadway for a few blocks before turning right on Clay to catch a freeway leading west on Route 26, the Sunset Highway, up a steep slope past Washington Park.
To merge into the multi-lane flow of traffic, we step on the throttle and Astra's engine responds with a surprising surge as we shoot ahead in the fast lane while still climbing the long grade.
This is a wee car, we're reminded, and its modest engine produces less than 140 horsepower.
So why does the Astra XR run so assuredly up the freeway?
We slow the pace to review the facts.
These new wheels we're steering, wrapped in a taut package with curvaceous corners and a narrow ring of window glass, carry GM's most impressive small engine, a four-in-line with aluminum cylinder heads, dual cams on top with four valves in each cylinder and VVT (variable valve timing), sequential multi-port fuel injection and electronic throttle control.
Output runs to 138 hp at 6300 rpm, with torque of 125 lb-ft at 3800 rpm.
Of course, the whole vehicle only registers to 2805 pounds on a set of scales.
So that's part of the reason why this thing feels so zippy: There's not much mass to consider, and what there is cuts through thin air with low resistance, thanks to aerodynamic streamlining of the exterior design and the maximizing of the torque and gear ratios.
It's also thrifty on fuel -- earning EPA fuel economy figures up to 32 mpg for highway driving with the standard five-speed manual transmission, or 30 mpg with the optional four-speed electronic automatic transaxle.
Astra's ride quality on the road feels comfortable, despite the vehicle's brief wheelbase span of 102.9 inches, which ties it to the compact class.
Rack and pinion steering produces a lively feeling to the wheel, and the suspension system -- with independent MacPherson struts up front and a semi-independent torsion beam in back with coil springs -- creates a nimble and smooth-riding platform.
The three-door Astra XR also has sport-tuned suspension settings with the ride height set 15-mm lower and quicker steering calibrations.
Wheels and tires for Astra XR start with standard 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels and 225/45R17 all-season performance tires but extend to optional 18-inch alloys with 225/40R18 high-performance summer tires.
For stopping power, Astra stocks four disc brakes and an on-board computer to manage the ABS (anti-lock brake system), TCS (traction control system) and GM's StabiliTrak electronic stability control system.
Significant safety content on Astra originates with the structural design that incorporates crush zones front and rear to absorb energy forces from a collision and deflect them from the safety cage surrounding the passenger compartment.
The equipment includes passive safety systems like frontal and seat-mounted side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags above outboard seats in front and back rows.
Exterior styling for Astra appears sleek, smooth and rather sporty -- and virtually identical for three-door and five-door models.
Up front, Astra's prow features projector headlamps housed in oversized corner clusters which flank a broad but narrow grille crowned by a slab of chrome.
Rails follow a raked windshield over the arching roof to a blunted hatchback tail, while on side fenders fore and aft the wheelwells bulge in rounded arches to emphasize Astra's rather large rubber rollers.
Astra's passenger compartment provides seats for five and lots of amenities. The layout poses two supportive buckets on the front row and a bench in back with two scooped spaces but room for three with three seatbelts.
The front buckets are clad in durable cloth and each has manual controls to adjust the height of the seat cushion and the recline angle on the seatback.
Astra's plump and sporty steering wheel tilts and telescopes to adjust for a perfect position.
The instrument cluster houses round analog gauges in amber light with a large tachometer and speedometer plus smaller fuel gauge, each dressed in a black face with white lettering and a red needle.
Saturn shows two levels of trim (XE and XR) for the five-door Astra and one level (XR) for the three-door.
Astra XE five-door carries standard equipment including power controls for windows and door locks, power heated exterior mirrors, a keyless entry device, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers and an audio kit with CD deck.
Astra XR five-door brings more standard gear, like air conditioning, foglamps and alloy wheels, and a seven-speaker stereo upgrade with MP3 player and steering-wheel controls.
Astra XR three-door gets the bolstered sport bucket seats, chrome exhaust tip, 17-inch alloy wheels with performance tires and the suspension lowered and tuned.
Optional equipment includes the four-speed automatic transaxle, heated front seats, and a two-panel sunroof for the five-door XE.
Astra XR five-door and three-door models also list two packages of equipment -- Premium Trim with leather seat upholstery and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and Advanced Audio with seven speakers and a six-disc CD player.
Saturn sets prices as low as $15,875 for Astra XE five-door and $17,425 for Astra XR three-door.