Hey, There’s a Cool Car: Saturn Astra

By Charles Krome

There. I said it. The Saturn Astra is a cool car.

One of GM’s last-ditch efforts to save the Saturn brand, the Astra was, of course, a slightly Americanized version of a nifty European compact—shades of the new Ford Focus!—and makes an excellent poster child for the whole “Americans will never buy a small, premium-ish, hot-handling Eurocar” business that is still keeping the Cruze hatchback away from our shores.

Now, I have no problem admitting that I’ve never driven, or even driven in, an Astra. But then, not many folks have. GM had high hopes for the car, but U.S. customers stayed away from it in droves. In fact, the General had to stop importing the car from its Belgian home base after roughly two years and fewer than 20,000 sales. But all that being said, it looks like a winner on paper.

Most all of the media lauded the Astra’s cabin, and they seem to have been unanimous in praise of its handling. As just one example, I’m going to choose a perhaps surprising source: The  website “The Truth About Cars.” On the odd chance readers here are unaware of the site, I’ll just say the writers there aren’t known for being GM friendly. Yet, in between plenty of other complaints, TTAC’s Justin Berkowitz wrote that, in regard the interior, “the basic design is sharp (especially the crease down the middle of the center stack), modern and clearly Germanic (Das ist ein Opel, nicht wahr?), complete with bright orange interior lights. The fit and finish is at the very top of the segment, at least as good as this writer’s VW GTI and, in many cases, superior.”

And of the car’s road manners, let’s continue the cherry-picking with: “the Astra drives superbly. The helm imparts such a premium feel that I started to get nervous that it might best my GTI in premiumfeelosity. The Astra’s steering has laser guided precision. Feedback? Enough to know where you’re going, but not so much to vibrate your hands off. Think mid 1990s BMW.

“If the rest of the car is the Burger, the suspension is the King. There are ‘sport-luxury’ cars in the $30k range that don’t ride like the Astra. Zero body roll in cornering, and still totally forgiving over rough pavement.”

As far as “the rest of the car,” the primary problem area—for the vast majority of reviewers—was the car’s powertrain. But here I’ll point out that the Astra’s 1.8-liter Ecotec I4 delivered the same 140 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque you got in a Honda Civic, along with a 0-60 time that was about half a second quicker than the Civic’s. So while I wouldn’t say the Astra was “fast,” as it still took about 8.6 seconds for that kind of run, but it wasn’t slow for its class.

The biggest let-down for the Astra actually was its EPA numbers. With all models running their five-speed manuals, the Civic was EPA-rated at 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway/29 mpg combined, and the Toyota Corolla could trump that with a line of 28/37/31; the Astra could only achieve 24/32/27.

The end result was a car that was plenty cool—and quite easy on the eyes, too—but not a good fit for Saturn’s traditional high-practicality, high-value positioning. And that was really the case for the rest of the division’s final lineup. Vehicles like the Aura (North American Car of the Year, 2007) and Outlook (one of the first of the GM’s highly successful large crossovers) were strong products, but a little pricier than traditional Saturn buyers expected. Plus, at the time, the General didn’t have the resources necessary to support them in the marketplace and attract a new generation of buyers to the Saturn name.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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7 Comments

  1. Years before they brought over the neutered Saturn version, I really wanted to figure out a way to import an Opel Astra with the 2.0T. Glad I never bothered!

    Saturn killed the Ion, one of their best sellers, for this: a better car that was too expensive and nobody wanted to buy.

  2. I’ve sat in one, but never driven… always liked it, applauded when GM brought it over, but it never had a chance.

  3. I have driven dozens of Astras as rental cars in France, Italy and Spain, and I must say that diesel versions very terrible in terms of vibration and noise, petrol ones were ok (but no award-winning). Handling was correct (Focii of the same age are much better when pushed hard). I remember that i loved its styling when it was launched in europe but was dissapointed when i actually had the opportunity to drive one. Also remenber that the dashboard made me think of early 80s Corsas.

  4. Happy to say I am a proud Astra owner – a great bargain when they were dumping them as Saturn disappeared. I feel I got all the qualities of a golf at 40% less and none of the quality concerns.

  5. I’m happy to say I DID actually get the chance to drive a couple of these (the XE trim pictured, and an XR coupe) and it was a very pleasant car. Lots of neat features came with the sticker, like auto-wipers, heated seats and a trip computer. I think the only thing that held it back was the transmission choices they offered: the 5-speed stick was ok but 1st gear was a little short, and the 4-speed auto was just not enough gears to keep the engine note happy.

  6. The continued weakness of the dollar vs. the Euro certainly didn’t help its cause, especially considering it’s an economy car with presumably low profit margins. The marketing was so tepid, even during the initial launch, that I get the distinct feeling that GM had already given up on it before it even began. Similar to the Microsoft Kin phone debacle.

  7. Not only have I driven one, I owned one and couldn’t wait to get rid of it. It handled well, looked cool, had plenty of high end features, but, mine was very poorly made. It had interior rattles from day one, the seat material wore out not once, but twice, and the AC where to begin: leaked into the passenger compartment, the compressor failed, leaked into the passenger compartment, the evaporator coil failed, leaked into the passenger compartment, I traded it on a Toyota. Got slightly less than blue book, but, very disappointed. It will be awhile before I trust GM again.

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