Saturn Astra Review

Justin Berkowitz
by Justin Berkowitz

“GM has never sold a competitive small car in America.” Not true. The imported rear wheel-drive Opel 1900– the sedan version of the Manta– was a superb machine for its day. Unfortunately, a rising dollar and a lack of marketing and development vis-a-vis the Japanese competition (Datsun 510) doomed the 1900 to footnoted obscurity. And now, once again, General Motors NA turns to Opel to get back in the small car game. They've brought over the Eurozone’s best selling passenger car: the Astra. Starting this January, you can buy an Astra in America, only with the logo swapped from Opel’s lightning bolt to Saturn’s rings. Should you?

The Astra’s exterior is no more ground breaking than Dunkin Donuts’ Gingerbread latte. While I wouldn’t call the Astra boring, it’s an entirely familiar design. I’m thinking a squared off Golf/Rabbit, or a slightly more muscular Mazda3. More importantly, the Astra’s not available as a sedan or coupe. America-friendly body styles have been eschewed for a racy three-door hatchback and a more traditionally proportioned five-door hatch. How great (a.k.a. expedient) is that?

The Astra’s interior, however, is worth the international intrigue. Again, it’s not particularly exciting. You might even say the Astra’s cabin is a piece of cold coal. I’m sure Alice Cooper picked the grey and darker grey color scheme. But 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.

But the interior’s construction is missing creature comforts, leaving you asking uncomfortable cross-cultural questions. Why is there no center armrest? Why is there one puny, small, out of the way cupholder that couldn’t fit a shot glass (never mind the U.S.-requisite Big Gulp). Why does the clock display only 24-hour time? Why is the multifunction display so confusing? Ergonomically, the Astra’s papers are also not in order. The hatch looks nice, but why is the opening such an inconvenient shape?

Saturn’s PR has an explanation for this lack of naturalization. In fact, the press materials chide picky anal retentive reviewers before they can even get warm-up their OCD-o-meter. This isn’t a car for multitasking. This is a car for driving! Dummkopf! That’s a tacky, spin-cycle explanation, but hey, with that in mind, let’s take GM’s latest, greatest foray into compactcarhood for a spin.

You can have any engine you like as long as it’s a 1.8-liter four-cylinder powerplant with a genuinely underwhelming 138 horses. I’ll skip the usual lack of diesel diatribe, in large part because there’s no particulate reason to single out GM in this regard, and the zippy little engine really is quite good. Zero to sixty takes… probably between nine and ten seconds, and that’s enough for your small car isn’t it? Perhaps, if someone wasn’t trying to sell it to me as an enthusiasts’ driving machine…

The majority of American Astras will be equipped with an four-speed automatic transmission bereft of any manual lockdown. Sure that’s fine for most people, but why does Saturn keep telling me this is a car to “make a trip around the block exciting?” If you insist on an enthralling cicrumnavigation, you can opt for a first rate five-speed stick.

And I really shouldn’t cavil; 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. I wrung the life out of my little tester without once becoming a person of interest. Even through a tight slalom, the Astra was nonplussed. Talk about confidence. It may as well have looked me in the eye, insulted my mother and lit up a cigarette.

Taken as a whole, the Saturn née Opel Astra falls between two stools. It’s not quite as sporty as the Mazda3 or MINI Cooper. It’s not quite as cushy as the Corolla or Civic. Its closest competitor is the VW Rabbit, and the best selling Rabbit is the Jetta. The Astra’s got a great price (so great that GM will lose money on every single one), but the lack of creature comforts, hatch-only configurations and decidedly unsporty spec-sheet will put most of its potential customers in other dealerships. Once again, a great car is doomed to failure.

Justin Berkowitz
Justin Berkowitz

Immensely bored law student. I've also got 3 dogs.

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  • Greebo Greebo on Jul 03, 2014

    It was such shame that GM gets so much wrong. In the UK where the astra was designed and made by Vauxhall not Opel the had a couple of nice turbo engines 1995 cc turbo which had 190 bhp and front and rear arm rest. Next the cup holder well it takes a standard can or bottle of coke, we do not have these large unhealthy drinks you have in the states so maybe GM was trying to look after your health

  • Mechaman Mechaman on Dec 07, 2014

    I've been looking at less expensive, smaller used cars. Should I consider a used Astra with low miles? Like another poster before, I don't need a lot of power that I'm not going to use here in Chicago (Thanks, Rahm, for all the $$$$ cameras), and I'm usually only hauling around a skinny little 7 year old grandson ..

  • Kosmo Love it. Can I get one with something other than Subaru's flat four?
  • M B When the NorthStar happened, it was a part of GM's "rebuilding" of the Cadillac brand. Money to finance it was shuffled from Oldsmobile, which resulted in Olds having to only facelift its products, which BEGAN its slide down the mountain. Olds stagnated in product and appearances.First time I looked at the GM Parts illustration of a NorthStar V-8, I was impressed AND immediately saw the many things that were expensive, costly to produce, and could have been done less expensively. I saw it as an expensive disaster getting ready to happen. Way too much over-kill for the typical Cadillac owner of the time.Even so, there were a few areas where cost-cutting seemed to exist. The production gasket/seal between the main bearing plate and the block was not substantial enough to prevent seeps. At the time, about $1500.00 to fix.In many ways, the NS engine was designed to make far more power than it did. I ran across an article on a man who was building kits to put the NS in Chevy S-10 pickups. With his home-built 4bbl intake and a 600cfm Holley 4bbl, suddenly . . . 400 horsepower resulted. Seems the low hood line resulted in manifolding compromises which decreased the production power levels.GM was seeking to out-do its foreign competitors with the NS design and execution. In many ways they did, just that FEW people noticed.
  • Redapple2 Do Hybrids and be done with it.
  • Redapple2 Panamera = road porn.
  • Akear What an absurd strategy. They are basically giving up after all these years. When a company drinks the EV hemlock failure is just around the corner.