The cars we loved.
In retrospect, what looks now like another case of too little too late, Saturn had revamped its whole line of formerly competent, but often boring appliances cars. First in 2004, its new big sedan the L-Series would be a Opel in light disguise followed by the sporty Sky in 2006 (another Opel). The Opel connection worked so well that it became a natural source to replace to the disappointing Ion. Although the Ion came from the same Delta platform as its replacement, the Opel Astra H was a much better car in almost every way. The new Saturn is a nearly undisguised version of the European Opel, the British Vauxhall, and the Australian Holden, all named Astra. Saturn was so desperate to get the Belgium built compact that it rushed the process of federalization for the 1.8L version of the car to the US in a record 21 months.
The model it chose came in hatchback form in either 5 door sedan or three door configurations. Of all the smaller cars ever sold by Saturn, the Astra was by far the most luxurious. In the American small car market the Astra was nearly upmarket, in the same way that Volkswagen Rabbits were at the time. Because the Astra arrived with one engine, regardless of which trim, it was easier to bring to Saturn showrooms. Unfortunately, that engine, a variation of the ECOTEC in the Chevy Cobalt, had only 138 hp. The Volkswagen Rabbit and Mazda 3, two cars considered to be driver oriented segment leaders, were more powerful. The power deficit was compounded by the fact that the Astra’s small engine could get only That was not the case as 30 mpg on the highway was the best the Astra could do. This was during a time when the 30 mpg mark had been proven by cars with nearly twice the horsepower of the Astra.
The Astra’s claim to fame was its handling and European feel. Although some of the control graphics seemed odd and were the source of jokes in the press, the Astra held its own on twisty roads with a firm, but comfortable ride. Once again, the closest thing to it in driving feel was the Volkswagen Rabbit. One of the complaints about the otherwise well design interior was the cramped rear seats (in the 3 door). The 5 door with its higher roof line offered much more headroom, and looked like a smaller version of the Pontiac Vibe (another great GM hatchback via Toyota).
Spec wise, the Astra looked like the typical compact car at first glance, but had premium features like rain sensing wipers that only premium GM cars offered in America. What where typical were transmission choices; a four-speed automatic or five speed manual. Both trims, XE (standard) or XR (sport) were well-appointed and started in the $16k range while topping out at just under $19k. A slight variation in the Astra’s ability to get up to highway speed depended on what transmission chosen, but at best 9.7 seconds to 60 was all you could hope for with the manual. That put the Astra behind automatic versions of the Honda Fit, but like the fit the Astra handled very well. The Astra would win the hearts of the automotive press around the world; even Consumer Reports gave it favorable reviews.
Part of that handling in the XR version is due to sticky 215/45 Pirelli P Zero tires on 18 in rims. This size rim was unusual on a compact at the time and contributed to the sporty stance of the XR 3 door coupe, the more attractive of the two configurations offered in America. In Europe, versions of the Astra could be equipped with aggressive ground effects and have as much as 237 hp from a turbo 2.0L. Saturn’s take on the Astra was to leave it alone except for s few small interior trim options like a rear cup holder and of course the Saturn badges.
For all its goodness, the Astra gathered dust on the dealer lots. Most people were not even aware that it was available as Saturn did very little promotion for it. GM must have known that the end was near and was more interested in trying to find a buyer for Saturn than promoting it wares to the general public. That’s a real shame because the Astra just might have been the best hatchback GM has ever sold in America. It said a lot about the American market that the sub par Cobalt outsold the Astra many times over. Even the relatively obscure Pontiac clone of the Cobalt called the G3 sold better. Now with Saturn long gone, GM has moved on to making Buick the recipient of Opel products. Only this time it will allow enough time to let the public know that they have a good thing going.