By on December 12, 2007

x08st_as023.jpg“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?

x08st_as022.jpgThe 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?

x08st_as004.jpgSaturn’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…

x08st_as006.jpgThe 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.

x08st_as005.jpgIf 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. 

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113 Comments on “Saturn Astra Review...”

  • avatar

    Like the 1900 reference. My Dad, Bro and myself had several and drove them hard. I remember them fondly.


  • avatar

    Thanks for the timely review!

    Funny, I strayed away from this vehicle, but it’s suddenly back to the top of my list because it’s a two-door hatchback (a rare bird these days). Possible deterrents: I’m 6’4, and though the Astra has a driver’s seat height adjustment and tilt-telescope wheel, it may still be suited for the Euro morpholgy.
    The Astra (esp. in “3-Door” trim) has a lot of bells and whistles for its price, yet no AUX input jack, even for the upgraded stereo. Also (probably an omission) there is no cruise control listed in any spec (even the Vauxhall Astra doesn’t list it); makes me wonder if they’re going to install it at the dealership.
    The 1.8 Ecotec has “adequate” HP, but the torque curve isn’t as strong as a relatively heavy car like this needs… consequently, the 2008 mileage ratings are actually lower than the 2.2 Et available in the Cobalt — hopefully, it will surpass these ratings, but the Civic does notably better (no hatch, though).
    The car is damn pretty, (esp. in the blue) and has an “upscale” air (and price) to it; if the real world performance and fuel mileage live up to America’s expectations, it stands a chance in the resurging “non SUV” utility market.
    The Saturn dealers will have to seal it with an excellent customer experience. (We’ll see in a month or two)

  • avatar

    “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…”

    Why I read TTAC… ;-)

  • avatar

    GM manufactures a traditional four-door version of the Astra for central- and eastern-European countries, as well as Asia. It isn’t sold in western-Euro countries, as hatches are far more popular there.

    After seeing Dodge’s faltering Caliber (which, despite its terribly ungainly appearance and craptastic interior would probably sell doubly as quickly with a sedan variant – look at the old Neon’s sales numbers despite some of the poorest design and build quality in the industry), why in God’s name has GM left this out of the US market? They also make a five-door wagon and a “Twin Top” folding-hardtop convertible, but the Focus wagon never sold and Americans aren’t about to pay $35 grand for an overweight, 138-hp four-cylinder convertible, so I don’t expect to ever see those versions here.

  • avatar

    Possible deterrents: I’m 6′4, and though the Astra has a driver’s seat height adjustment and tilt-telescope wheel, it may still be suited for the Euro morpholgy

    It should be fine, I’m 6’3 and if I recall correctly it was ok, in fact I remember even the rear seats are surprisingly good in terms of headroom (relatively speaking) for the 3 door. You don’t want to sit there at this length but still.

    I personally like the opel Astra, even now after 4 years since the introduction, it still is a serious consideration in the market that we Europeans call the C segment and is the most hardfought of them all.

    I immediately believe the 1.8 isn’t great but “sporting driving” is all about chassis dynamics and just a little about Horse Power. Still, the new 1.6 Turbo with 180 horses and similar if not better fuel economy might be a better choice for driving . In Europe the gasoline options start with a 1.4 and ends with the OPC 240 HP 2.0 Turbo. But I guess that would make it more expensive (for GM) and moreover, a completely different car with completely different competition.

    Anyway, the should sell it as a Chevy. It’s more than good enough for that, and push Saturn back to Scion territory. If you can only have one decent car line up than at least make it Chevy, and after Cadillac, and after that Pontiac and then Saturn. I can see why they won’t focus, but this small steps for all brands doesn’t seem to work for them.

  • avatar

    I can only assume they are sandbagging in preparation for the Redline model, which will probably sell well and be very competitive (see JJ’s comment about the 2.0T version)

    And once again, I’m torn between applauding a domestic maker for a fine product…and slapping my forehead as they trot out yet another cherry-picked foreign product as part of their “American Revolution.” I guess product development deserves a big shrug, while marketing deserves a round of applause. Note that this time, they didn’t even bother coming up with a new name ;)

  • avatar

    GM DID compete in small cars since the 1900 – the first Saturns were quite competitive (I bought one of the first SL2s and got a good life out of it).

  • avatar

    M1EK GM DID compete in small cars since the 1900 – the first Saturns were quite competitive (I bought one of the first SL2s and got a good life out of it). Mr. Berkowitz did not mean to imply that the 1900 was the ONLY competitive GM small car. There are other examples. In fact, before publishing the piece, I pinged one of our resident historians, Paul Neidermeyer, on the question of GM’s small car competitiveness. Here’s his reply… In a addition to the Opel 1900 (Ascona in Europe), GM has sold (and still does) a number of competitive small cars: Since the mid ’80’s, the Corolla twins from the NUMMI (Toyota joint venture) factory, sold as the Chevy Nova, Geo Prizm, and currently, the Pontiac Vibe. Also, other cars from GM partly owned companies Suzuki and Isuzu: The Geo Spectrum (Isuzu I-mark); Geo Storm (Isuzu Impulse) and the well known Geo Metro (Suzuki Swift). All of these were truly competitive, and enjoyed varying degrees of success. The Metro may be ridiculed, but it was in a class of itself, sold well, and was competitive. GM has shown itself to be perfectly capable of making excellent small cars, especially in Europe. I have followed Opel very closely for forty years, and their products have always been competitive in Europe, sometimes even at the top of their class. Opel has suffered mainly from image problems, in the rush to embrace “premium” brands in Europe. In the many comparison tests by Auto Motor und Sport over the years, the Astra has always done well against the Golf, beating it a couple of times in recent years (depending on configuration). GM of NA’s hubris, organizational disfunctionality, and penny-pinching have been the obstacles to their small car success in the USA. I could never figure out why they didn’t just build the excellent Opel 1900/Ascona as a Chevy in the US, rather than the Vega. The Opel had non of the Vega’s shortcomings. But the story of how the Vega actually came to be is interesting, and explains things to some extent. I have high respect for GM’s engineering capabilities. The problem lies elsewhere.

  • avatar

    But the story of how the Vega actually came to be is interesting, and explains things to some extent.

    Robert any chance we might get an editorial about it, I would like to know more.

  • avatar

    The lack of a center armrest is absolutely inexcusable at any price

  • avatar

    “The lack of a center armrest is absolutely inexcusable at any price”
    True, but the saga of the disappearing center armrest seems to happen quite often in cars these days (i.e. Honda Fit Sport, for one). It seems that the positioning of the handbrake in these smaller cars dictates whether there’s a center armrest or not; the Honda Civic has one, but the parking brake lever is just to the left of the shifter, where it digs into one’s right leg after a time. The Mazda 3 does it right; wish everyone else would copy that setup.

  • avatar

    I’m 6′-6” and in general I fit in this class of cars nicely. I haven’t tried an Astra recently but I do not expect any problems there. Actually, in my experience, large US cars do much worse. At least the ones I tried did not have an extending steering column. The result is always a compromised driving position for somebody my size.

    As I posted some time ago, I was in in the market for a new car in this class. Actually, I signed the contract for a Peugeot 308 1.6 THP aut. It does have an armrest in the middle. ;-)


  • avatar

    The company had Dyslexia but able to make a better vehicles for the environment.

    Where can you find a company that makes environmentally friendly sport cars.

    Listening to consumer will over come that learning disability that Saturn was.

    A Greener Pasture for Saturn an American Company.

  • avatar

    And what about when they release a redline version with a 200 hp, 2.0L ecotec that will be extremely tunable?

  • avatar
    C. Alan

    My first car was an 1974 Opel Manta. That was a great little car, with a bullet proof engine.

    So, does this mean the Astra will be on my future car buying radar? Maybe as a used car. Give the way Saturns decpreciate, I bet you will be able to pick one of these up in a couple of years for a song.

  • avatar

    i hate center armrests.
    i always bang my elbow when i’m shifting.
    besides, with 10/2 or 9/3 hand position, who’s resting arms?

  • avatar

    by the way have you tried denting one of Saturn’s car¿

  • avatar

    While “The Competition”, Honda and Toyota appear to be willing to bend over backwards to ensure that the design and features of their cars are Just what the American consumer wants GM is once again coming at us with a half-ass approach.

    So let me get this stright. The gameplan for GM today is to beat the competition in its OWN HOME Market. To do so they need to bring superior products or products that at least appear to be superior to market. Yet time and time again GM come up with a compromised product that is missing features and details that Americans have come to expect because those OTHER companies DO include these features in their “class-leading” products.

    The Astra will go on sale as a 2008 model yet it lacks a AUX port for the sound system. WTF! This is a standard feature in just about every single car you can buy today from $15,000 up to $200,000. And not for nothing, IT IS A BIG DEAL! Not offer an Aux jack today is like not offering a tape or CD player 20 and 10 years ago.

    The engine is enemic at best. Another ho hum feature of the Astra that offer NO advantage over the competition. The autobox is old news and behind the sophistication of the majority of the competition.

    While the chassis dynamics may be excellent, this trait will be seriously hampered by weak powerplant and drivetrain.

    After years of convincing Americans that they do not like small hatchbacks GM decided that Americans now want one, while the competition are all offering sedan models in this class?

    After years of convincing Americans that they need a cup-holder (or TWO) for every passanger GM is now telling its costumers that they only need one insufficent one.

    A 24 hour clock only, WTF???????

    Why all of the cheesy chrome all over the place?

    The devil is in the details! What will it take for GM to understand that they need to make and sell something that is better or actually offer more than what the transplants are making.

    GM wants our business. GM likes to use the concept of “American Pride” to sell us its goods, yet refuses to build products that actually express this feeling of Pride.

  • avatar

    i would rather not have an arm rest if it turned out like the one on the old Focus. It always manages to get the way.

  • avatar
    Brendon from Canada

    In regards to arm rests – we don’t have one in our Mini Cooper “S” – a 40k vehicle in Canada (luckily we paid half that in the US and imported – but that’s another story)! At first it really bothered me – I’m used to being able to rest my arm with my hand hovering just above/behind the shifter, however for these vehicles that require a bit more rowing, I found it wasn’t quite as necessary – this ain’t no cruiser!

  • avatar

    This car is a great start to carving out a significant share of a crowded market, way better than GM’s other limited production prospects over the years: Fiero, Allante, Reatta, Corvette ZR1, etc.

    Too bad we know how the story usually ends.

    The Astra will “win” with Continuous Improvement. It remains to be seen if GM is in it for the long haul.

  • avatar

    Great review Justin – the Astra, while flawed, is a great drive and very good value thanks to GMs generous subsidies. I had one as a rental in Germany and apart from the wheezy 1.4 Ecotec and the alarming hollow sound every time I bumped the dash, it was a fun little car (way more fun than the Rabbit).

    Does the Saturn version inherit the really annoying electronic indicator stalk that it has in Europe?

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    I left off the original Saturn from my list of “GM’s competitive small cars” because even though it had some redeeming qualities (plastic panels, good mileage), it’s engine was a terrible thrasher, the chassis was crude (fun to some, I suppose), and generally the development was not up to the standards of the class-leading Civic and Corolla. It sure was marketed successfully.

  • avatar

    Robert Farago: I could never figure out why they didn’t just build the excellent Opel 1900/Ascona as a Chevy in the US, rather than the Vega. The Opel had non of the Vega’s shortcomings. But the story of how the Vega actually came to be is interesting, and explains things to some extent.

    I remember reading that when GM was developing a smaller Cadillac (which ultimately became the original Seville), it considered basing it on an Opel platform (Diplomat, if I recall correctly).

    Apparently, the German car was built to much closer tolerances, which made it cost prohibitive to simply use the platform in the U.S.

    If this was a problem for a Cadillac, one can imagine how much more of a problem it would have been for a car that was to be sold as the cheapest Chevrolet. Also shows how far the U.S. automakers had fallen behind the foreign competition by the mid-1970s.

  • avatar

    Great review.

    The last time I was looking for a small car was 1994. Wow have things changed in the last 10-15 years. Back then, average power was just over 100hp — the Neon was king of the class at 130hp. Major concerns for buyers were reliability and safety; today these are simply assumed.

    Now the biggest gripes are about cupholder size, auxiliary iPod ports, armrests and whether the clock has AM/PM.

    Inflation adjusted, cars are cheaper today, of much higher quality, and a lot more interesting. But buyers are still just as whiny.

  • avatar

    Thanks Justin. Great review. This car is now on my short list to replace my VW.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Justin, did you have a chance to drive on rough/broken/challenging pavement? The biggest technical difference of the Astra from the Golf/Rabbit is that the VWs have a more sophisticated (read:expensive) multi-link rear suspension, while the Astra still has the twist-beam rear axle. In European tests, that seems to give the VW an advantage in ride quality on anything other than very smooth pavement.

  • avatar

    Interesting that the Vega should come up (a very competitive car by the way, despite serious problems it competed very well, to the tune of over 1-million in the first 3 years).

    We stopped by our local Saturn store last night, I got an Astra brochure and was asked if I wanted to book a “preview drive” this weekend (it won’t be here in Canada for a while yet).

    Right after our brief chat my wife asked – “Astra, Astra? Wasn’t that a Pontiac Vega?”. Geesh, some people never forget.

    Maybe they should have changed the name.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    DPerkins: From my perspective, a car selling well doesn’t necessarily mean “competitive”. It often takes a couple of years to know if a car is competitive in reliability, build quality, etc. The Vega flunked.

    BTW, the Pontiac was “Astre”. Close enough, though.

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz

    @ash78 and others:
    GM swears up and down that there will not be a Redline model of the Astra in the U.S.

    @Paul Niedermeyer:
    I did drive it over some bad pavement, but wasn’t going more than 25 mph at that point, so it’s difficult to say. Overall I’d say they were comparable. What I got in the Astra going over rough pavement in a turn was a tiny bit of hop, where the Rabbit might have been more planted. Would the different suspension components account for that?

    In my GTI, the low profile tires and idiotic 18 inch wheels make driving on anything other than glass a punishment.

  • avatar

    Virtually no cupholders? That may sound not like a big deal, but us Californian’s spend a lot of time in our cars and therefore cupholders become good friends of ours. Most of my employees are females who love their Starbucks (which we affectionately call Fourbucks) and their sodas and none of them I know would much consider a car without a cupholder. May sound trivial, but that is the age we live in. That will cost many potential sales in my opinion. But that may not be a bad thing if GM is losing money on everyone they sell.

  • avatar

    My father ended up with a brand new Astra as a rental in Europe. The clutch pedal broke off within 500 kms. Manbe the auto IS a better idea ;-).

  • avatar

    So, let’s see…nice, Euro-spec suspension saddled with a powertrain more suitable for a Corolla. 128 hp would not be so bad if the Astra (like the 3 and Civic) was not cozying up to the ton-and-a-half mark. And a four-speed automatic, insuring that there’s no great advantage in fuel economy for the lack of grunt? Clever.

    The made-in-Belgium approach doesn’t bother me in principle, but I can already hear the dealer service departments claiming they can’t get parts because they have to come from overseas, etc. Since I fear it’ll have Volkswagen-like reliability, it gives me the fear.

    The ergonomic/equipment gaffes trouble me for a completely different reason. I’m not one to buy or not buy a car based on the clock or the cupholders, but, GM being GM, it makes me wonder, if they flubbed these obvious, trivial details, what other blunders are hidden beneath the skin.

  • avatar

    So I’ll have fresh coffee, smiling employees, and a children’s play area while I wait for the parts to arrive from Europe? Like always, like never before :D

    Add me to the “Meh” crowd on center armrests. I only appreciate them in large trucks with giant seats and no lateral support. In cars, I just flip them out of the way or curse at them while I shift.

  • avatar

    Can it be! That GM will build the car I’ve been wanting so long? A small hatchback with a small engine! That’s fine, because I’m sick of carrying around excess power I never get a chance to use. This won’t be the family tow car, after all. But I do want that BMW steering, and cornering flat as a pond, because to me, performance is something enjoyed in curves, not straight lines. (Yes, I am an American. Officially, anyway. Just an odd one.)

    Nah, can’t happen. I’m sure GM’s elves have been working overtime to add giant cupholders that will spill my humble 20 oz drinks. They’ll swap out the Euro shocks for Corvette duty, and add two inches of play to the steering system. Then they’ll have a car they can be proud of…

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz

    I’m sure GM’s elves have been working overtime to add giant cupholders that will spill my humble 20 oz drinks. They’ll swap out the Euro shocks for Corvette duty, and add two inches of play to the steering system.

    You might be right for the next model year. For now, what you see (and read about) is what you get.

  • avatar

    Are these things for sale yet? Saturn doesn’t have the online builder, and its not listed in their vehicle line-up either … Justin, how did you get ahold of one? I thought TTAC was banned everywhere ;)

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz


    They go on sale in January (ish). TTAC is only officially banned by a few mfrs. The rest just don’t give respect (usually).

    Check out “Future vehicles” on Saturn’s website.

  • avatar

    No center armrest? Not a car for me.

    I like to have at least a pair of decent cupholders too.

    Other than that it looks alright.

  • avatar

    GM should use the Mazda3 as its base reference point for this class of car. They need to understand why the Mazda3 is such a success and NOT look at the Civic or Corolla. Honda and Toyota current have what GM desperately wants a solid products that sell based on it reputation. Yes these cars do have their brite shiney attritbutes that make them good cars but it is the reputation that solidifies the sale.

    Mazda has always had to take a different approach and offer MORE in their cars for the same price or less. While the Mazda3 does have excellent dynamics to appeal to our crowd it is also a very well equiped, good looking car that manages to appeal to just about everyone shopping this class of cars. The Mazda3 offer features that the other cars dont or require a premium payment to get. Even though the Mazda is considered to be a less reliable car and made out of cheaper materials it has enough extra goodies and dynamics to make the sale.

    As the Astra stand it is missing stuff that WILL be a deal breaker for many. It will be hard to trade in a older car like a Mazda3 and end up with a new car with less standard feature only to find out that things like an AUX port can even be had as a option. This is NOT Europe and good driving dynamics will NOT win the day.

    It is sad that GM is once again says “not superior in any way but good enough”. You mean to tell me the largest automaker in the world is incapable of making the necessary changes to better this car’s chances of it being the MAJOR success that it needs to be in the USA?

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz


    You know, I drove a friend’s Mazda3 hatch soon after my time with the Astra. I think the Astra has it beat in most departments except one: helping Americans commute comfortably. I preferred the Astra’s suspension and steering, interior design and fit and finish to the Mazda. The acceleration of the Saturn was even more fun in the stick Astra (138 hp) compared to the stick Mazda3 (160 hp).

    But the Mazda’s option list versus the Astra’s non-option list is, as you say, going to be a dealbreaker for many. Audio input, cupholders, complex audio controls, no navigation option, no manumatic shifting option, etc are all not available.

  • avatar

    I’m confused can you get this with a stick or not? I am assuming if you can it’s just a 5 speed. How was the tranny and shift feel?

    Also is the grey interior the only color option you can get because it is horribly cheap looking from the pictures, I hate that elephant hide looking plastic.

    I wonder if you could toss a supercharger onto the existing mill.

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz


    Yep, it’s available with a 5-speed stick. It’s a really nice transmission. Easy clutch pedal. The gear level action is clean – obviously not at that magical Honda standard, but not rubbery or vague or anything.

    It’s a totally viable transmission to get, if you can find one. Fortunately, since the options list is so short, it’s not like you’ll have to compromise on other stuff to get a stick model.

  • avatar


    I’m boldly encouraged by the general thrust of your review – it sounds like the Astra is a solid vehicle and far superior than anything GM currently offers in this segment… I’m ecstatic to learn that we might have domestic compact car that goes toe-to-toe with the imports for interior appointments, etc. I’m also relatively unconcerned about the pedestrian drivetrain, since that can easily be remedied down the line…

    What I *am* confused about, though, is your overall appraisal of the car (via the star ratings) and in particular the suspension/handling of the vehicle.

    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.

    All this, at least to my ears, sounds great, especially for an entry-level compact vehicle… It’s exactly why people come away impressed with the Rabbit/Golf and the like…

    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.

    Okay, I think there’s a vocabulary problem here, because nonplussed suggests bewilderment and confusion, but it seems as though you want to indicated that the Astra was planted and poised (good things, both).

    Assuming, then, that the handling is not at fault (unless I’m mistaken), what could possibly be dragging this car down into 3-star territory? Excellent handling is now 3-star? Minis start at near $19k and this guy is almost $4k cheaper [source] – where’s the competition? Seems like objections are coming in for the lack of Toys (this is entry-level, is it not?), and lack of Desirability (compared with what – this competes in price with the Civic, etc.)… I just don’t have a good grasp of the rationale here…

  • avatar

    The Astra is a great little car.

    I’ve had the pleasure of driving it abroad and here in Arizona about a month ago. As far as small cars go in this class this is among the best overall. The reviewer is correct in his assessment of the Astra’s dynamics. It’s very similar to the VW Rabbit in every sense and feels a bit richer, nimbler and more substantial than the Honda Civic and Mazda 3. It also makes those two compact cars feel huge.

    You can get this car with a manual transmission. The shift and clutch action is very light, lighter than what I’m used to but not horrible by any means. The automatic will still be a better choice for most people I suspect. It doesn’t feel like it gives anything up to the manual in performance.

    If anything fails the Astra it will be the Saturn brand itself. It’s one of GM’s weaker brands and despite having a slew of good to excellent new products in the showroom none of them are sales hits. I doubt the Astra will reverse that trend but it is a good small car entry, something GM really needs.

    My uncle let me have his 1974 Opel Manta Ralleye my junior year of high school (1990s) to learn to drive stick-shift with. No A/C, no power steering, less than 100hp and RWD, yet it was an absolute blast to drive. The Astra shares that personality with the old Manta I fondly remember.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Really well-written review of a car that I thought was clearly inferior to the Euro-style Focus, Golf, Auris, in both steering and suspension subtleness, when I reviewed it Euro-guise earlier this year,

    meaning that either GM is listening to us, or
    we have pretty different POVs.

  • avatar

    Sounds like a great car for me. I’ve been looking for an economical hatchback that handled well. Now the question remains as to whether it is competing with the vw rabbit/GTI on the un-reliability spectrum. That has always kept me away from a car I otherwise enjoy very much (GTI). How have the Opel versions faired in reliability in Europe?

  • avatar

    It sounds like a “good” little car, but kind of pricey for what you get. And with Saturn’s fixed pricing policies, there won’t be any additional discounts. Maybe Saturn dealers will give generous trade-in allowances like they have sometimes done in the past.

    One thing about the original Saturn SC, SL and SW was, even with their thrashy engines, they had one of the nicest clutches to be found in an American car. It was light and smooth like those found in Japanese cars. As I examine the door dings in my current ride I think the plastic body panels probably had some merit, too. Even if the body panel gaps were wide.

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz


    You caught me using a nonstandard definition for nonplussed. I meant undisturbed. As in good.

    The reasons for the 3 stars:
    – 4-speed transmission is annoying, doesn’t match marketing of “sporty” car.
    – It’s not that cheap if you get the sportier XR models (easy to get to $18k or $19k)
    – Creature comforts are lacking, which is bad for many commuters. Cupholders, armrests, 24 hour time on the clock, confusing radio interface.
    – No toys even available either. I know it’s an economy car, but come on, no audio input? Young frugal people still have iPods.

    It’s still a very good car. It’s just got too many basic flaws to get 4-stars.

  • avatar

    All this lil puppy has to do is make up for the steaming pile that was the Ion. And it sounds like it accomplishes this nicely. With a few more beans it could make major inroads into Mazda3 and Golf (or should that be Rabbit?) market share.

  • avatar

    Count me as another who doesn’t much care for center armrests–unless they’ve got storage within,like the one in my Ranger.

    I stuff lots of odds and ends IN there; never rest my arm ON THERE,though.

  • avatar

    Let’s give credit where credit is due…..this is the replacement for the ION is it not? Sounds like it’s a helluva lot better than that pile. Could care less about cupholders as I don’t drink while I drive (anything!). Have to agree that stupid center armrests are usually in the way of shifting (probably the worst thing about my TSX is the armrest bumping my albow while rowing through the 6speed M/T).

  • avatar

    “Why does the clock display only 24-hour time? ”

    Because that’s how sensible people tell time.

  • avatar

    There are 4 Astra podcasts posted on the Saturn site….. Maybe the marketing/web department should put a little more thought into the type of customer they are targeting… Now that I’ve started listening to podcasts (including TTAC’s), I’ll not buy a car without an Aux input!

    Otherwise, this car looks very attractive. I’ll be curious to see how reliable it is. If it can offer the driving dynamics of a VW with added reliability, I’ll be interested in this for my daily commute.
    I really like the option of the sports suspension package in this price range.

  • avatar

    The Vauxhall website has the Astra mpg at overall 50. The Saturn Astra comes in at a underwhelming 24/32. Is GM replacing the efficient Euro engines with crappy US engines? If so, is GM completely insane? What’s the point in buying yet another mediocre GM gas guzzler?

  • avatar

    I guess I like the looks of this thing way more than the author, and having driven one in Europe, can attest to its road chops. It’s kind of sad when stuff like 24 hr. clocks and arm rests trump best of class steering and handling on an enthusiast site.

    Four stars.

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz

    There are 2 issues at play here.

    1. There are 9 engines available for the Astra in Britain. The 1.8 liter with variable valve timing (as it is equipped here) with an automatic gets 36 mpg according to Vauxhall.

    2. UK miles per gallon are not US miles per gallon. To convert, divide the UK number by 1.2. The combined UK 36 mpg becomes 30 mpg, which is what our Astra gets on the highway also.

    The lack of a 24 hour clock isn’t the reason the Astra got 3 stars. And this site doesn’t hand out reviews exclusively based on driving performance.

  • avatar

    Reading the body of the review gives a much more favorable impression of the car than the three stars seems to suggest. Sub 10 second 0-60 times are fast enough for me. Five door hatch is the next best thing to a compact wagon. Available 5-speed manual box, good! Mid 1990s BMW driving character, damn good. Pleasant ride. Check. Lots to like there!

    No center armrest is dumb and are you sure the clock doesn’t have a way to go to American style readouts?

    All in all it sounds like a vehicle well worth a look in it’s class. Unfortunately not many people will do so because Saturn is a don’t care brand in the marketplace. It has about as much mind-share with the public as Mitsubishi. There is no reason this couldn’t have been a Chevrolet, well at least after things like the clock got fixed! I’m sure the kid at RIT who hacked the iPhone could sort it out quick enough!

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz


    Spoke with a Saturn engineer. American style clock will come next year. For now, 24 hour is the only setup.

    It’s not a big deal at all. It’s just indicative of the time GM put into Americanizing the car.

  • avatar
    Steve Biro

    Frankly, I like the idea of a clock with 24-hour time. Americans really need to get over themselves. Lack of a cup holder that can handle a Big Gulp? Great. Consider it GM’s contribution to your weight-loss program.

    Meanwhile… can any Europeans on this Web site give us a hint as to what kind of reputation for reliability the Astra enjoys on the Continent?

  • avatar

    how long have i been reading americans whining about not having all the “cool euro stuff,” and now you’re ragging on GM for giving you the cool euro stuff, sans modification! i’ve read stuff such as, “why won’t ford give us the euro focus?!?!?!?” or “give us the euro model but don’t dumb it down for the americans like Ford did with the Contour” or “Ford was so idiotic to discontinue the Focus hatchbacks for 2008,” yet you whine about Astra’s 24 hr clock, the feeble cupholders, lack of armrest & cruise control, and hatch-only bodystyles. guess what -you got a european car, and all the stuff that comes (or doesn’t come) with it

  • avatar


    I’m not exactly sure what that crack was supposed to mean. I’m not going to feel ashamed that I’m American. If GM wants to sell Americans cars, they need to adapt the cars for Americans, plain and simple. If that means 12-hour clocks and big cupholders, so be it.

    Conversely, when they sell cars in Britain, they should be right-hand drive, but for some reason, that isn’t always the case.

  • avatar

    There have been plenty of gems in TTAC’s original vocabulary, but I think we have a new king of the hill:



    As for the Astra, it looks stunningly handsome, and sounds like it has great handling/ride compromise.

    Now what’s with that pathetic little engine for a car “meant for driving“?

  • avatar

    options list for all cars sold in NA for year 2010:

    + second chin holder, with heating option.
    + superhigh cholesterol chime.
    + burgerrest, or burgerholder, with heating option, of course.
    + belly wobble compensator, electronically controlled.
    + additional soda tank, power assisted, with digital screen monitoring calories, has also kJ( kilojoule) mode.
    +bra shaped safety belts for men with optional sizes- s, m, l, x, xl, xxl.
    + `Noshtooth` system alerting whenever your vehicle approaches any fast food restaurant or diner.
    remote control for `drive through`.
    + foldable trays/tables for front driver/passenger with a burger strap.
    + seat built -in scales, that automatically retract your overweight from max.luggage weight.
    +i-heart (heart-pacer) plug-in with `recharge` mode.
    + HUD system Tamagochi with steering- wheel controls.

  • avatar


    Did the car have cruise control, and how is it implemented?

    Saturn’s website doesn’t list it as a feature — I requested a brochure online (because none is available as a PDF), and they’re going to send it via “snail mail”.

    I’m surprised at the paucity of reliability information on the Web; too bad there’s not a “Euro Consumer’s Reports”…

    (Jurisb: Ha Ha!)

  • avatar

    Meanwhile… can any Europeans on this Web site give us a hint as to what kind of reputation for reliability the Astra enjoys on the Continent?

    Well, In Europe, there is not so much emphasis on reliability as there is is the US I think. In reliability reports (and I think german T(Ue)V is the best institution for it) the Astra and for that matter most Opels and VWs aren’t great, they usually come out average or slightly less than average.

    But I think most Europeans just classify reliability in general as nr 1 Japanese, 2 germans, 3 others, 4 french. So the germans have the luck that there are the French brands, especially Renault, that are even so much worse. Furthermore, Japanese brands are known to be reliable, but also have a reputation for being costly in maintance and in case of reparations, whereas the germans are quite cheap in this aspect(service, maintanance, repairs).

    I mean, the Astra and the Kadett before have long been the best selling cars in the Netherlands (something like 35 years), so they did something right. Now the Zafira takes a lot of sales of the Astra but it is still top 5 selling. And you can get an integrated Nav system in Europe, but I guess GM is trying to keep the costs as low as possible by not allowing much variation. You can also get a panoramic front window for the 3 door (2 door).

    Astra UK

    AND,24 hour time is the only way to go.

  • avatar

    24-clocks are fine with me, but I’ve never heard a Brit tell me it was “half-past-15”. I like the 12-hour clock simply because it tells me the time in the same fashion as I relay it to others. It’s not a relative cultural superiority thing..I feel the 12-hour clock is objectively superior, except for schedules and timetables.

    Nonetheless, what a stupid, stupid oversight that it can’t be changed by pressing a couple buttons, or by the dealer with an interface cable.

    (My climate control is set to Centigrade because it’s simply better. :P )

  • avatar

    “Spoke with a Saturn engineer. American style clock will come next year. For now, 24 hour is the only setup.”

    This is just shockingly stupid. The Astra is going to have 0.0000001% of the North American clock market and it is going to be the only one which tells time in 24 hour format.

    Maybe GM expects to sell all of them as governmental fleet vehicles to the US military, perhaps in some up-armored version?

    A 24 hour clock wouldn’t be a deal killer for me, but such a lack of attention to a basic detail is just shocking. I’m an electronic engineer by training and profession and I know how simple it is to modify the clock’s it’s bitsy software to make this change. Any development engineer who need more than one day to make the change and test it should be fired. One engineer. One day. Alternatively, 15 minutes docked from Bob Lutz’s paycheck to contract the job out.

    GM is like the girl who gets the guy’s hopes up, then smashes them down. Repeatedly. For fun.

  • avatar

    I’m honestly surprised that the clock isn’t just made with both options available so that the owner can choose whichever one he or she prefers. Seems like an odd oversight to me.

  • avatar

    xantia10000 I personally like european cars and the quirks they come with. Unfortunately I am as far away from the average American consumer as they come now a days. And if GM expects to sell this car in the numbers they hope they need to cater to the majority of Americans. The lack of an Aux port and cruise control are the only big hang ups for me, oh and that it might be the usual GM garbage at the end of the day.

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz


    Cruise control is standard on all Astra models. No worries.

  • avatar

    Thanks, Justin. I would not buy a car without cruise; funny they didn’t list it at the Saturn Astra web page.

    I think that an MP3/Aux jack (RF Modulated type that connects between the car’s antenna and radio) can be installed by the dealer; it’s a less than perfect fix, but not a deal-breaker.
    Besides, the optional ($595!) audio system has a six-disc CD (MP3 capable) player — that’s over 1200 tunes, I guesstimate.

  • avatar

    I sooo want this car to succeed here. I’m a long-time Opel fan, dating back to the early 70s when it’s all my dad would drive and buy (always a white four-door Rekord…always). While those of us with a European slant to driving will appreciate this car what with excellent driving dynamics, small(er) engine, hatchback design and all, I’m afraid that it’ll be lost in translation when it arrives here. Most Americans won’t even catch on to the fact that it has European bones, especially given Saturn’s advertising campaign about “rethinking American.” Plus, despite the increase in fuel prices, small, fun to drive hatchbacks are still way down on the list of desireable vehicles. Too bad, I’ve driven several new variants of Opel in my trips to Germany, and always love them (especially loved the Vectra GT-S!). Those of us who do wind up buying will be going way against the grain, but will have a very entertaining (and somewhat rare) ride. Here’s hoping that the little Opel does well and that there are great three-year old examples available down the road when I’m ready to buy my next car (I never buy new anymore).

  • avatar

    @ wounded – to further clarify, England uses an imperial gallon which is larger than the U.S. gallon. Thus, the conversion factor of 1.2 JB mentions. Here is the Vauxhall equivalent to what we’ll see here:

    Combined 37.7 mpg (Imperial gallons)
    or 7.5l/100km

    This equates to the 30.7 U.S.mpg

  • avatar

    jj: I mean, the Astra and the Kadett before have long been the best selling cars in the Netherlands

    When I lived there, a popular comment when passing an Opel (being driven by seniors in the slow lane, of course) was to say “Oma (grandma) en Opie (grandpa) in de Opel…”

  • avatar
    bill h.

    Fond memories here of the 1900 and the Manta, if not of the Buick dealerships that were responsible for selling and servicing them back in the 70s. It got worse with the Isuzu? “Opels” that succeeded the German ones.

    As for the clock question, my 2001 model year car can be set up by the user to go to go to full metric, including a 24 hour clock, temps in Celsius and fuel consumption in liters/100 km. So the technology is easily there–and the Astra’s dash seems to have the requisite buttons to make it possible.

    As for the lack of cupholders, and all the other Eurocentric touches, I say leve skillnaden.

  • avatar

    For the US verison, they added a set of “pop-out” cupholders in the middle of the back seat bottom cushion; kind of an afterthought, but whatever…

  • avatar

    Thanks for the review Justin. I can honestly say that I wasn’t considering dropping by the Saturn dealer to replace my 94 SW2 beater, but now I’d think about it, at least, since it’s just down the raod from the motorcycle shops I like to browse on Saturdays.

    If the Astra gets 3 stars, and the MINI 5 stars, is the Mazda3 a 4-star vehicle? Because I really wanted a 3 until I sat in one and jammed my right knee into the stack, dammit. Plus family z-plan pricing, as long as Ford owns Mazda.

    To the commenter who called BS on our complaining that this euro-spec car isn’t americanized enough—give us hell. You called it. Here’s our euro-spec focus. Now shaddup.

  • avatar

    Justin – Great review. And don’t think that your wonderful line “Ergonomically, the Astra’s papers are also not in order.” went unnoticed.

    Unfortunately, I don’t get the impression that the Astra actually outdoes the Mazda3; as others have noted, this should be the target for this market. It offers a superb mix of utility, fuel mileage, interior space, fit and finish, handling and does in fact offer a performance version.

    The 24 hr clock seems not a big deal except that it is so insignificant to change that it says what GM has always said about small cars: “We don’t really think we can achieve leadership here, but we have to offer the product.”

  • avatar

    For what it’s worth and how much you value their surveys…

    Guess they don’t care too much for it over there either.

  • avatar

    I had the opportunity to drive a 5-door 5-speed turbodiesel Astra in Germany for two weeks, in city, highway, and Autobahn traffic, in clear weather and in rain. I’m a bit vexed as I cannot recall the displacement of this particular engine at the moment, possibly a 1.3?

    This was with a navigation system, of which I’ll say that the interface was excruciatingly clumsy to operate compared to my cheap Mio GPS unit.

    I have to admit I didn’t note the lack of cupholder at the time, but in my hour long daily commute here in the US I do consider it a necessity.

    The Astra was impressively solid feeling, even in wet weather driving (partly due to the tires fitted). Interior comfort was very good (I’m 5′ 10″ 185lb). Ergonomics were fine except the sat nav menus. I do recall a bit of road noise intruding into the cabin. The TDI engine gave acceptable performance once I figured out the torque curve.

    My overall impression was very favorable. I’d like to compare this memory to driving the US spec with the gas engine.

  • avatar

    In the UK JD Power survey of “small family cars”, the Astra ranked 15th out of 18th and received a ranking of three stars (average). Here’s the ranking –

    1 Toyota Prius
    2 Toyota Corolla
    3 Honda Civic
    4 Audi A3
    5 Mazda 3
    6 Volkswagen Golf
    7 Seat Leon
    8 BMW 1 Series
    9 Nissan Almera
    10= Ford Focus
    10= Subaru Impreza
    12 Kia Rio
    13 MG Rover 45/ZS
    14 Citroen C4
    15 Vauxhall Astra
    16 Peugeot 307
    17 Renault Megane
    18 Alfa Romeo 147

  • avatar

    I’ve never heard anyone in the US clamoring for the euro-spec Astra and Euro spec doesn’t mean it’s exactly the same. I wouldn’t want a speedometer in kilometers. Like Justin said it just shows the lack of thoroughness in the effort.

    “To the commenter who called BS on our complaining that this euro-spec car isn’t americanized enough—give us hell. You called it. Here’s our euro-spec focus. Now shaddup.”

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    The made-in-Belgium approach doesn’t bother me in principle, but I can already hear the dealer service departments claiming they can’t get parts because they have to come from overseas, etc.

    Facing that right now with my Saab. The wait for replacement speakers is going on 6 weeks. Grrrr!

    I personally like european cars and the quirks they come with.

    I did (do) too. I call it “Our Lady of the Perpetual Engine Light”. And while any/everything is always covered by warranty, contacting, scheduling and grabbing a loaner from the one of 2 dealers in the city is getting tiresome.

    But once she’s running fine and fast, what a pleasure…..

  • avatar
    Steve Biro

    “CarShark :
    December 13th, 2007 at 2:05 am


    I’m not exactly sure what that crack was supposed to mean. I’m not going to feel ashamed that I’m American. If GM wants to sell Americans cars, they need to adapt the cars for Americans, plain and simple. If that means 12-hour clocks and big cupholders, so be it.

    Conversely, when they sell cars in Britain, they should be right-hand drive, but for some reason, that isn’t always the case.”

    I’m proud to be an American, too CarShark. But we Americans often make too big a deal over anything that requires even the slightest adjustment or effort on our part. A 24-hour clock is hardly in the same league as a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side.

    A 24-hour clock requires a very minor adjustment on our part – and yet witness how many people are complaining about it on these very pages. Some view it as a minor but telling example of how GM didn’t bother to sweat the details on the Astra. I think details like this give the car a fun, European flavor.

    Small cupholder? The very fact that many of us are complaining about it shows how skewed our priorities as drivers have become. I have four cupholders in my current vehicle. I never use any of them – because I’m driving. Coffee in the AM? Thanks, but I’ll have one at home and then wait until I get into the office.

    The Astra’s from Europe. We should enjoy it for what it is. If its minor variations from typical American-market fare upset us, then we should stop complaining about the vehicles we don’t get from other parts of the world and just go buy that full-sized American sedan or SUV.

    Don’t get me wrong: The Astra may be fantastic, a dismal failure or anything in between. But here we are nit-picking about 24-hour clocks and cupholders? Come on.

  • avatar

    “But here we are nit-picking about 24-hour clocks and cupholders? ”

    Say what you want, but those two details, one trivial to fix and the other only slightly hard, are going to cost Saturn plenty of sales.

    How many young women, for example, are going to put up with a car that has a useless clock and no place for their Starbucks? The target market for this vehicle includes a whole bunch of young women.

    How is it that every other maker selling into this segment can get those things right while GM, still the world’s largest automotive company, can’t get it right?

    Send Lutz another $1M, he sure is an amazing Product Czar!

  • avatar

    But here we are nit-picking about 24-hour clocks and cupholders?

    It’s just part of the usual syndrome:

    -GM fails to give the customer what s/he wants

    -Customer buys something else, instead

    -Stunned managers, employees, and fans of GM blame the yen, car magazines, Consumer Reports, labor unions, “bigots,” the US government, the Great Asian Conspiracy, the lack of a gold standard, and a long list of other assorted excuses when the car gets trounced by the competition and it doesn’t hit targets.

    I go back to the usual mantra: The customer is always right. If the customer wants a 12 hour clock, six cupholders and fuzzy dice, then just be quiet and give it to them. If GM manages to lose sales over a cheap clock that everyone else offers its customers, then that’s just sheer stupidity on the company’s part.

  • avatar

    Arguing whether or not this car should have a 12 hour clock, premium cup holders or a center arm rest is ridiculous. This car simply wasn’t designed with the U.S. market in mind. GM will not be eager to fix these little inconveniences either because it would push them even further in the red on an already losing sale. To me, it means GM is trying to meet a more long term goal… trying to get younger buyers into the Saturn brand – who will hopefully grow up and move on to more profitable Saturns. I give them props for even bringing it over here in the first place.

  • avatar

    This car simply wasn’t designed with the U.S. market in mind.

    That sounds like it might be a bit of problem. This assures that sales volumes will be low and opportunities for brand building will remain minimal. Makes it clear that the concept of a “GM management team” is an oxymoron.

  • avatar

    I agree – foresight was not a factor here. They simply don’t have a viable U.S. designed market option. But it is still better than not replacing the Ion for another 3-4 years. Remember, things are just starting to turn around for them. A few years ago there wasn’t a whole lot of money to throw at everything.

  • avatar

    My Saturn has not a single cupholder. I do fine, and have done fine for the 14 years I’ve been driving it. My minvan has arm rests which I forget are there and never use, because as someone else has noted, my hands are on the wheel.

    Looks like GM went with a 80% car that was just not fully localized? No big deal to me. I work in localization every day. Sometimes the product just has to go out. Why they are in a hurry to get people to come in and but a car they lose money on, yeah that’s a head-scratcher, unless the want to go for the upsell.

    To me this looks like a decent appliance with the manual trans I can’t get in the Aura. Mazda’s still better, but this is a world better than the new U.S. Focus (but Ford will proabably make a little money on almost every one of the warmed-over Focuses they sell).

  • avatar


    The automotive people complain for YEARS that GM does not give us its European-market cars. GM brings an almost unmodified Euro-spec car, upon which it will lose money on every single example sold, only to have people COMPLAIN:

    1) Not enough / too small cupholder
    2) 24 hour clock (are you kidding me?)
    3) No diesel / No 2.0L Turbo
    4) No Ipod jack
    5) No sedan (are you kidding me?)
    6) No Nav system

    Let’s just forget that it is one of the best handling cars in its class, has an interior that blows the Mazda 3 away, has a much more fuel-efficient engine than that ogre in the Rabbit, has been out in Europe for four years and has had all the kinks worked out, and is probably the most elegant and understated hatchback under 20K out there.

    You know what? Don’t buy it then. Get a Mazda or VW or whatever you want. I am eagerly awaiting my Astra in January. Also cannot wait to see the next-generation in 2009/10.

  • avatar

    Just so that everyone knows, astra will be sold only in limited numbers. Dont know the exact number but GM is fine with it, since they lose on exchange rate and chevy wants no part of low volume stuff. Besides saturn is new opel. I would guess 40k of these models will be sold and then they will call it a day… me thinks.

    Speaking of americanizing, look at L-series. L300 had the wonderful 3.0 ltr opel designed, vauxhaull built engine which will run forever provided oil changes were done on time. Pity this ellesmere port, england made engine was the only bright spot of it provided you didnt get the ecotec four banger which had nothing to do with opel.

    L300 was supposedly a vectra except by the time saturn got done with it, they probably carried over a few nuts and bolts that would fit on the palm of your hand. What a colossal failure… It sold some 400k units over 5 years before being discontinued. Camry sold that many in one year. Whole car squeaked and rattled with panel gaps big enough to stick your hand in. Americanizing was a failure and yet they didnt learn the lesson well in Aura’s case.

    BTW, tight suspensions are good but where I live, they are punishing and oh manuals are great except when you crawl along the highway in a stop n go traffic for hours on end. Thats just me though..

  • avatar
    2nd opinion

    I cut my teeth as a designer at Opel in the 80s, and reveled in driving everywhere as fast as I could. I always wondered why GM didn’t bring these cars to the states. Now it has, unadulterated, with all those euro-quirks that we “AMIs” find so unnerving.

    Over 95% of cars in Europe are manuals. Cruise control is of absolutely no use, especially in this class of cars. No one drinks coffee in their cars, cause they’re so busy shifting and steering around bends. Anyway, a stiff espresso break at a quaint cafe’ beats Micky D’s any day, and a hatch….is…just exactly what makes sense.

    I can put up with Astra’s quirks for now, but I agree, we need different stuff here. (and more pferde staerke)

    Expedient, yes. I hope the next gen will have an I pod jack, but still not be too amerikanisch!

    Justin, love your writing style!

  • avatar

    My question is how reliable are the current Opel Astras? I ask because this is an attractive car with decent fuel economy and apparent good handling. Is the 1.8 a GM designed engine or did Opel design it? My bro had an Opel GT in the early 80’s and man was that a piece.

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz


    Not totally sure what you mean by GM designed or Opel designed, as Opel is a 100% fully owned subsidiary of General Motors.

    The Saturn Astra is the only GM car in the U.S. with the 1.8 liter Ecotec engine. It’s built in Szentgotthard, Hungary.

  • avatar

    I guess what I meant was that most Saturn owners report that they are fairly dependable cars. Will the Astra have similar engine reliability?

    Since this car has been in production a few years I figure it must have some reliability data.

    Where have previous Saturn engines been built?

  • avatar

    A Hungarian Ecotec? [shakes head] cars are such mongrels today.
    I was looking at Rabbits, and learned that the transmissions come from Argentina — makes me think back to the “Boys from Brazil” scenario. (Yes, it makes no sense).
    In the end, you have to rely on the QC and integrity of the carmaker to ride herd on suppliers, but despite instant communications between the management of the carmaker and the supplier, communications between the supplier’s management and their shop floor are where things usually break down.

  • avatar

    I’d buy it in a flash if it had a ‘motor’. Meaning torque especially and better HP too. This is North America and this car has one (or two) good engines available already.

    Oh, and an armrest too. How difficult could these things be?

  • avatar

    Much of this talk reminds me of the failure of the Infiniti G20. Nissan had a wonderful little sedan on their hands (Primera) that offered great driving dynamics and a decent performance/economy tradeoff. But – the NA Nissan lineup was too full at that end to bring in another similar sized car (between the Sentra and Altima) and it became an ‘upscale’ Infiniti. As the G, it failed because it didn’t offer what American’s consider luxury – power or size. The same money could buy you a quicker, larger, well-equipped Maxima, which was ultimately the G20’s undoing in an age that fuel economy was hardly anyone’s concern.

    The G20 also suffered from some lack of ‘Americanization’ – only real cupholders in the rear-seat armrest, smallish interior, and apparently horrible performance numbers according to most Americans (barely sub-10 sec. 0-60 time in the automatic version).

    I’d like to see the Astra be a success – but I’m not sure just how large the customer base is here in America that really desires a more ‘Euro’ car. I’m fine with many of the attributes (plenty quick enough for my tastes, I don’t eat in my car period, hatches are wonderfully practical) and impressed with others (apparent great driving dynamics).

    Plenty of ‘car nuts’ are more likely to worry about handling over straight-line acceleration or cup holders any day, but for Saturn to really make a splash with the Astra, I’m not sure if those folks who do appreciate it for what it is – and what it’s not – exist in large enough numbers to make it a success. Kind of like folks who appreciate premium small cars – apparently I’m in the minority there, too.

  • avatar

    No armrest? No AUX input? No satelitte radio? Not even as an option? I spend most of my 30 mile commute on the interstate, sometimes in bumper to bumper traffic. I was seriously considering this car (the 4 door) but without these features, I think I’ll look at the Rabbit 4 door again, or maybe even the new Malibu, which have all of those features standard.

  • avatar

    I don’t care if it’s “competitive” or if it has an “America-friendly body style,” whatever that is. I just want to know if I will like it. My favorite automobile which I have owned was an Isuzu Impulse, built on a GM T-chassis shared with Opel; likewise, a three-door hatchback with a 1.8 engine (but rwd). I liked it so much I drove it until it fell apart at about the distance to the moon. I’m not crazy about the new hunchback look of today’s hatchbacks, but it seems that’s all there is today. I doubt I would like it as much as my Impulse, but I’ll certainly look at it.

  • avatar

    Now, THIS was an utterly charming review, a real pleaser. Did you catch the author’s subtle references to the Astra’s Eastern European roots? “Papers not in order”, indeed!! Magnificent auto journalism.

    His final sentence, basically that the car is “doomed to failure”. A harsh and bold summation, but he supports his contention most eloquently.

  • avatar

    I’m not impressed at all with this vehicle. I just test drove one yesterday (5 door XR automatic)and I’m surprised the taller people say this car is fine. I’m 5’10” and the fuel gauge, turn signals, and top of the speedometer were obscured by the steering wheel. I could have made more steering/seating adjustments, but that made me uncomfortable and feeling like I had a semi tractor steering wheel. Also the vent controls are so far down that you can’t even see the icons to see what the settings are at. They should have at least had them slightly angled and visible to occupants. And the engine, oh my. This is definitely not a car to try to pull out on a busy street/highway with. I know that it’s a 1.8 liter engine, but I had to seriously put the pedal down to the floor from a stoplight to get it to move at a decent speed. Casual acceleration, without flooring it, from a stop made me feel like people thought I was an 80 year old as vehicles in front of me effortlessly distanced themselves. Make sure you test drive anything else in this class before selecting this one.

  • avatar

    Well, I guess I would have to disagree with hedog above. I’m 6’2 and I have no problem driving my XR Auto with the sport package. My wife is 6′ and my son is 6’4 and all of us fit nicely. The advantage of full seat controls and telescoping steering wheel, it should fit everyone. Performance is an issue, but the hardest thing I had getting used to was that like most European small engine cars, they need to be pushed, they like to rev high and you need to drive it accordingly, it isnt a big V6. Instead of an engine refinement (althought the 2.0T sounds great) I would like a 5 speed auto.

    I would also personnaly disagree with the Mazda 3 comparison, I purchased this car because its not a Mazda 3 or Matrix. This car turns heads, a Mazda 3 is just another number. In North America we have been trained differently and look at our vehicles differently, they have been dumbed down so much that we get confused that the icons arent big enough? come on! we know what direction the air controls work, there all the same, its intuitive, do you really need icons? We’re also supposed to be driving not drinking or talking on our cell phones.

    Personally I like that this car is different and after 2 weeks I am totally aclimated to its nuances, including the cup holder. The ride is superb! it looks great! unless you’re into a conservitive puddle jumper, more power would be nice.

    We need to start thinking of small cars differently, small cars can drive nice, they can have leather, and they don’t have to come from Japan where you’ll see 200 just like it in the Costco parking lot.

    If you want a car thats different for North America, and has some refinements you can actually use give this car a serious try. It may be a dismal failure but so far it sure has been fun!

  • avatar

    I like the Astra. Yes, I know you don’t care what I like.

    But I still like it. I like that it’s different without trying to be different (like those horrifying little mini Alice in Wonderland steering wheels that (dis)graced the early Saturn Ions).

    I like the quality interior — I mean, have you SEEN some of the interiors of cars in this segment? I have. Just yesterday, in fact. Went to about 6 different dealerships and saw pretty much everything. It was revolting — I don’t sincerely know how Toyota, Honda and even Mazda get free passes when it comes to such low-grade interiors.

    I like the fact that the radio works even if there is no key in the ignition. Did you know this? I didn’t. Was playing around in the dealership and there it was.

    I like the fact that actual grown ups can sit in the back seat, and the car doesn’t compensate for this by looking like a giant bubble (Yaris, Versa).

    I like the fact that — for whatever reason, perhaps even valid, cynical, stupid GM reasons — there just aren’t a lot of Astras out there. I’m not blaming (how can I?) Mazda for inspiring so many people in my area to buy Mazda 3s, or Honda for selling Civics, and so on. More power to them. I just like knowing that the Astra to Mazda 3/Honda Civic/VW GTI ratio will always be safely 1:infinity (you know what I mean).

    I like the fact that you can get heated seats — and only heated seats — and not some giant (in)convenience package that includes 10 other things you don’t want.

    I like the fact that ABS brakes are standard, that there is far more safety integrated into the car that I can possibly comprehend (or want to). I feel stupid “paying” for safety with other cars.

    I like the fact that the car shifts into neutral when it idles. That is just COOL. Really — it’s like your car is trying to help you save gas. What kind of car does that?

    I like the fact — and this is going to seem even dumber than the stuff above, maybe — that I don’t have to haggle about the price. That even if GM is losing money on each vehicle they sell (what, do governments teach courses in this now? But seriously…) I don’t have to play “what will it take for you to get into this car right now” with the salesmen. Compare this to the answer I got when asking a Hyundai salesperson about the price of an Elantra: “well, what do you want it to be?”

    Didn’t his mom ever teach him not to answer a question with a question?

    I like the fact that the car won’t outrun a rabbit (I mean a VW Rabbit…though, I guess if you got some red bull into an actual rabbit…er…). Last I checked, the swift VW Rabbit was astrocious on gas. If that’s not a concern for others, then hey, good for you. It is for me. I have never needed to go from 0-60 in less than 8 seconds. *never* And the intellectual awareness that I “could if I wanted to” is not worth $500-$1000 more a year in gas. I’ll spend that on heated seats.

    I love — and this is beyond like — the size of the Astra sunroof. You could grow an entire colony of chia pets in the back seat. It’s THAT big. And it’s a graceful gift from engineering gods to people in the back seat, who have something to stare out of.

    And I like the price. Less than $25k on the road, uplevel with heated seats. Wow.

    I’m not here to convince anyone to get an Astra.

    I’m just a guy getting a car in the next few days. And yes, it’ll be an Astra.

  • avatar

    Now that this car has been released, it makes alot of the first postings obsolete. This car is EXACTLY whay I expected -and wanted- it to be. I just took delivery of my Astra XR yesterday, and have already logged 150 miles, both highway and city. Just a few notes:

    – I have yet to see another Astra on our overpopulated roads

    – I never once felt that the car was too sluggish or inadequate. It moved when I put my foot down, and I dominated our highway’s fast lane. That’s hard to do in south Florida.

    – The car buying experience was actually pleasant, if not downright enjoyable. I truly believe the Mazda salesperson’s goal was to make me feel stupid and inferior

    – The extra $4000 I DIDN’T spend looks real good in my bank account, not to mention how it will continue to grow from the gas I WON’T have to buy.

    A car doesn’t have to have top-performance numbers to be exciting to drive (think Honda Prelude: marginal performance, but extremely fun to drive). This car whips around corners and darts through traffic.

    If you want, or need, to be the quickest off the line, don’t buy this car. But if you are looking for the best bang for your buck, there’s no other choice.

  • avatar

    I couldn’t disagree more with your review. Opel has been making excellent reliable cars for many years. I use to own Pontiac Lemans from 1980’s which was essentially
    Opel Cadet in Europe and that was a great car. When I sold it it had about 180k miles and it was still running great.
    Opel Astra is the best selling car in Europe, and they have Golfs and Toyotas just like we here but they buy Astra. One thing you didn’t mention is that Opel is as reliable as Toyota or Honda if not better. In addition, it has better handling than Toyota and Honda and better styling. This is a family car not a racer, and right now you can buy one for less than 16k, loaded with options. How can you go wrong.

  • avatar

    So here’s my question: Should I or should I not buy the Astra I’ve been thinking about for the past three months?

    For me small/great handling == Ton-O-Fun

    I own a 91 G20 with 230K miles. It’s time to think about a replacement and the Astra sounds like the perfect car for me. Is there any chance I’d have someone to honor any kind of warranty for the next five years or should I just forget about it and move on?

    (Thanks to Macca for the G20 reference)

  • avatar

    I took out a few cars today to test ride them.

    First the Volkswagon Golf and then the 2008 Astra XE model. In being completely honest i was trying to get a small car with best bang for my buck.I think this is where many of us come down to but not all of course.

    I also took out a Kia Spectra 2009 – not a fair comparison because the Kia Spectra is not even in the same class in many ways and more importantly the price. The Spectra is equal money to the Astra but not equal car in many ways. Coincidentally, i took out the Spectra Sedan and the Spectra hatchback is more money ( to strange to figure out)

    I had a hesitation with the Asta 4 dr hatch as it is the only choice, however realizing i am not purchasing a van, one must come to realize you are buying a small car. The seating in the Astra was similar to any smaller sedans and adequate spacing for passenger rear seating. I have owned an Acura Integra from early 1990’s and i enjoyed driving the Astra as much if not more than the Acura Integra. When we compare apples to apples in driving experience typically the emphasis is on the drivers comfort and so it should be. I am driving to Florida soon from Ontario and i wouldn’t hesitate taking this car their and would love to give it a go their, but with 2 kids in the back this is my only concern for their comfort, again this isn’t a van where rear seats can be tilted back for extra comfort, but with any small car hatchback or not, you will find this with any “car” for the most part. The driving experience with the Astra was fantastic. I was very impressed with many of the features it had to offer. I found it powerful enough, it handled great on the highway and i got it up to speeds of 120- 130km/hr and no whining. The great thing at those speeds it didn’t feel like it was in stress. If your looking for speed buy a car that is built for it,if your looking for a car that is peppy, handles great, consider this one, best bang for your buck from what i have seen from what others have to offer.

    I also do like the 16″ wheels, Bigger radius means more control, in winter climate it is a plus. After reading the authors comments the only drawback he has mentioned is the lack of sporty look and the only offering of a hatchback for now. Two points of consideration worth mentioning but not worth considering, when you look at how much car you are getting and again i comeback to best bang for your buck.

    As far as a 24 hr clock, centre console, cup holder, auxillary port for the sound system,wow what a great loss.. If this is what it takes to buy a nice car i guess this will always be an oversite on my part. I call these items window trimmings at best. 24 hr clock it will take you a day or two to get use to it and dependant on your occupation a 24 hr clock is nifty.if you need to tell time look at the watch on your wrist that is if you are in the generation that still wears a watch. I am sorry for your loss on these very important items. If your going to find fault with the car, with all do respect, find fault with it for items that are most apparent of being very important for what is under the hood, the drive and comfort..Also for those who say it lacks power in speed, with more speed, more often than not comes $$ gas consumption another important consideration this day and age of change(s) appearing to be coming down the unforeseen road of car manufacturers..

  • avatar

    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

  • avatar

    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 ..

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