Test Drive: Saturn Astra's a bit pricey, but it sure is fun to drive

What a great time for General Motors to have a sweet-driving, decent-looking small car like the Saturn Astra. It's a barely Americanized German Opel Astra and went on sale in the USA in January.

Saturn and Opel are both General Motors brands, and it cuts costs for GM to spread a car over multiple brands and markets. The art is to alter the versions enough to fit regional preferences without spending too much to tailor the car for each market. Bit of a tightrope.

The result in the Astra is a vehicle not quite aimed at Yank tastes and one that's a bit pricey. It gives you roughly the same space as a Ford Focus, its dead-on rival and one of the best-selling small cars. But Astra has slightly less power and gas mileage and a window-sticker price from hundreds to as much as $1,000 more. Astra starts at about $16,000-plus; nearly $23,000 loaded.

Here are some small things noticeable on the test car — a well-equipped, four-door, hatchback Astra XR with manual transmission — that could irritate you after the new-car smell wears off:

•Astra's main cup holder is so far back on the center console it's behind the driver. Even if you don't drink much while driving, the test car's console was so small that the cup holder needs to be handier for cellphones and other normal kit.

•Hip features such as satellite radio, an iPod jack and anything rivaling Ford's Sync central voice-command system are not available on Astra.

•Seats are a little stiff and lumpy, though finding a good seating position — a separate matter — is easy.

•The clock's a 24-hour, military-style readout (4:30 p.m. is 16:30, for example). That's hardly a deal-breaker, maybe even better in some eyes, but it's another reminder that Americans weren't top-of-mind during development. Among the few changes to the mechanically identical '09 model coming this fall will be a 12-hour clock like most Americans use.

•Astra's extra weight cuts a few miles per gallon off its fuel-economy ratings vs. the Focus that's 250 to 300 pounds lighter. Extra heft might help in a crash, though, depending on how and where it's deployed.

So why bother, you ask? Why not just snatch up that Focus, or Mazda3 or Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe?

Because Astra drives oh-so-nicely. That's the Euro factor that could make you forget niggling annoyances.

Though the engine is slightly smaller and less powerful than the Focus' and must motivate more weight, it has a sweeter feel and loves to zip up to the red line. It has a feeling of quickness, although the speedometer reading wasn't impressive at the end of the full-blast on-ramp sprint in the Test Drive routine.

The manual transmission in the hatchback test car let you know via slight mechanical resistance each time you slipped the lever into gear. It was not the clichéd "hot-knife-through-butter" feel some drivers crave, but the gearbox was easy and fun to shift and there was no danger of slipping into the wrong gear.

The light-touch clutch made the car easy to start from rest, even uphill, and minimized the strain of stop-and-go driving.

Steering, oh joy. Very well-centered. No need to make small corrections to keep the car pointed straight ahead. But ask it for a dart, a swerve or a simple turn, and the car responded with such fine snap that you wanted to go down the road yanking the wheel back and forth just to feel the crisp response.

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