- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

Saturn has been unrelenting in its introduction of all-new and redesigned products during the past two years. Its product revolution has been significant and comprehensive. Launched with much ballyhoo, the first Saturns arrived in showrooms in 1990 with parent General Motors proclaiming it “A different kind of car company, a different kind of car.” That said, GM then cast the fledgling brand adrift where it survived for the next decade primarily on the unswerving loyalty and good will of its owner base.

Birthed to counter the consumer defection from domestic brands to imports, Saturn provided a new benchmark in customer service and sales satisfaction. This in the face of a product lineup that was both outdated (even at startup) and certainly not up to the quality standards of the imports Saturn was mandated to fight. Yet, it ranked among the top tier of brands year after year in customer satisfaction surveys. Its owners loved the brand, raising it to near cult status.

GM finally came to its senses, providing a significant cash infusion to Saturn around the new millennium. The product has improved steadily ever since. Maintaining a manageable product count, the Saturn stable runs the gamut from the dashingly sporty Sky roadster to the fuel-sensible Vue Greenline hybrid SUV.

The latest shakeup to the showroom is the Astra hatchback. Replacing the Ion as the brand’s entry-level model, the Astra comes to the states from GM’s European arm, Opel. It is far and away superior to Ion and just may have some of those Honda Civic and Mazda 3 intenders at least considering a domestic nameplate.

Offered in a three- or five-door configuration, Astra continues Saturn”s chiseled styling trend. Although both are eye catching, the three-door is clearly the better looking.

Although highly stylish, the three-door doesn”t provide as much rear-seat headroom or maximum cargo space as its five-door sibling. Backseat occupants will discover nearly two inches less headroom in the coupe. With the 60/40 split rear seat folded down, the five-door has 45 cubic feet of cargo space compared to the three-door”s 38 cubic feet.

Not only does a buyer sacrifice some interior space in exchange for the three-door’s good looks, it is a bit more expensive as well.

At $15,995, the XE sedan is the most affordable. It lacks standard air conditioning, but does have cruise control, a six-speaker audio system with CD player, a trip computer, tilt/telescoping steering wheel and power accessories. For the XR sedan’s $17,545 sticker the 16-inch steel wheels are replaced with alloy ones.

Other improvements include air conditioning, an enhanced audio system with seven speakers and speed volume control, and steering wheel-mounted redundant audio controls. Only available in XR trim, the $18,495 three-door is the most expensive version. Fueling its higher price are 17-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension and sportier seats. A three-door was provided for this evaluation.

All Astras use a 138-horsepower 1.8-liter four to deliver their get up and go. Funneling engine production to the front wheels falls to a manual five-speed transmission. Drivers willing to surrender the experience of stirring their own transmissions and the fun it provides can plunk down an extra $1,325 for the four-speed automatic. The test Astra had the automatic. It shifted smoothly and deliberately. The pony count doesn’t sound like much, but even with the automatic transmission, the Astra accelerates enthusiastically.

The suspension — MacPherson strut-based independent up front and torsion beam in the rear — provides a secure and predictable platform for cornering. The steering is quick and accurate. Fuel economy is decent earning an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 24 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the open road for Astras equipped with the automatic transmission. Those with the manual do 2 mpg better on the highway.

Carefully executed, the interior is better than should be expected from an entry-level car. The materials look expensive and the workmanship is excellent. For the few knobs and switches involved, though, the controls are a bit more complicated than seems necessary.

Evidently you can take the automobile out of Europe, but you can’t take the Europe out of the automobile. But the controls are neatly arranged and all the gauges easy to see.

One personal pet peeve is the lack of an auxiliary input for a personal listening device even on the upgraded audio system. For a vehicle aimed at first-time buyers (i.e., younger buyers) this is a curious oversight.

Safety hasn’t been overlooked. Every Astra has four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with traction and stability control. Six airbags help protect occupants if something does go terribly wrong. OnStar is also standard.

Astra is a terrific small car. Its good looks, bargain price, athletic performance, up-market interior and fuel economy all add up to a real automotive value.

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