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, 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.