- European Inspired Handling (with the optional sport handling package)
- Great Fit and Finish
- Good Styling
- Underpowered Engine/No Engine Options
- Cheap Plastic Interior
- Not enough cup holders!
Honestly, I am not tuned in to the latest offerings from Saturn nor did I have any point of reference except for the early model Ion my friend had in college. That Saturn was not a car to write home about. When I first laid eyes on the Salsa Red 5-door Saturn ASTRA XR I was delighted to see Saturn stepping up their game at least in the looks department.
The ASTRA obviously has some European influence in its design. Further research revealed that the Saturn ASTRA was borrowed from GM’s European division Opel with very little changes in the Saturn version except for the fact that some great options are not available in the U.S. version including the Adaptive Forward Lighting (AFL) headlamp system, the adaptive IDS-Plus chassis system with electronic Continuous Dampening Control (CDC), 7 different models, and a myriad of engine and transmission flavors.
The ASTRA is a great looking car. This year, as the 10 millionth Opel ASTRA rolls off the assembly line in Bochum Germany, the ASTRA becomes Opel’s best selling model ever and second best selling car in Europe. Strolling around the ASTRA, I was impressed by the fit and finish, ample use of chrome, techy and very functional projector lamps, sporty body style and the 5-spoke 17″ wheels with 45 series tires on this XR model, included with the sports handling package. The ASTRA XR definitely made me “rethink” my preconceptions about the brand.
I was late for a mothers day engagement so I jumped in the car, started the engine and drove off. While making a U-turn I noticed how effortless the steering was and how well the ASTRA negotiated the maneuver with a small turning radius. Approaching the first stop light, I depressed the brake and upon reaching a complete stop, I noticed a slight thump in the transmission and a small reduction in RPMs. An observation that reminded me of the Toyota Prius where the gas motor part of the hybrid system shuts off during complete stops. I had to investigate and found out that the transmission shifts to neutral during complete stops for fuel economy reasons, and then shifts instantly to the gear you were on as you press the accelerator. Four or Five stop lights later, I was on the on-ramp to the highway. As I depressed the accelerator to pick up speed I heard a constant humming of the engine but felt very little acceleration, so I forced the pedal to the metal and felt no down shift of the automatic transmission and very little increase of the speedo at least not proportional to where the gas pedal was. At 1.8 liters and at an estimated 24/32 MPGs we shouldn’t expect too much. Or should we? I’ve driven other 1.8s and felt a noticeable difference in power and acceleration compared to the Ecotec powered ASTRA. Shifting down to 3rd gear on the on ramp helped considerably and it became apparent that peak power can be released at higher RPMs.
I never figured out why Americans generally get the short end of the stick when a European model is brought to our shores for sale in our market. Something is always missing. Browsing through the Opel website, I quickly realized that Saturn’s versions of the ASTRA could definitely use some of those engine options available to the European market. Shame on those product managers.
That being said, I was thoroughly impressed with the cars handling. Spirited driving through on-ramps and on twisty canyon roads revealed its European origins. The ASTRA tested the limits of my courage without a squeal in the tires or significant body roll. The ASTRA was on rails on speedy curves with a solid and stiff, but not overwhelmingly rough suspension I enjoy in VWs and BMWs. The ASTRA‘s vehicle dynamics was obviously tuned to a sportier driving audience.
Build, Ergonomics, and Interior
The build quality of the sheet metal revealed no flaws…all panels were aligned and of good quality. What stood out though were the headlights. There were many things going on inside there, but for a reason, as these were the brightest non-HID lights I have ever tested. When driving through streets, the high beams lit up the entire neighborhood and the beam even reached the top of some of the trees on my block. The European-style turn signals on the rear of the front fender provided a useful function.
Initial impression of the interior was impressive for a car at this price range, the fit rivaled some of the higher end European and Japanese offerings including my 2007 Toyota Camry SE; however, the major difference is in the materials used through out the interior. Hard silver/grey plastic panels in the ASTRA resembled the plastic used in cheap boom boxes that when grazed upon a hard object rubs off the top silver layer and leaves a permanent scratch. They almost look painted. These types of plastic panels are an unwelcome trend in many cars these days in my book. Also, grainy leather look-alike black panels on the dash and doors were hard on the knuckles when performing the knock test. The heated leather seats, although a little rough on the skin, provided great support for spirited driving as well as getting in and out of the car easily. Also, the adjustable lumbar support is a welcome addition on long drives.
The basic instrument panel which provided a tach on the left, gas gauge on the middle top, digital information on the middle bottom, and speedo on the right, were well laid out and un-obstructed; However, the lack of a temp and oil pressure gauge scared me. Temp and Oil gauges should be standard on all cars; I like to see what Im dealing with way before melt down of my engine and not just through warning lights.
The optional advanced audio package provided a great sound and punch. Although, controlling the volume was a little awkward with the thumbwheel controls on the steering wheel. There were some small annoyances – like not being able to see the volume level on the main screen and not being able to switch back and forth on your presets – otherwise a great quality stock stereo system. Also, the clock function is viewable as a 24 hour (aka military time) clock; an unchangeable feature some people may find annoying.
The OnStar system worked great and the voice recognition feature actually worked on the ASTRA during inputs and recalls of my phone contacts.
The optional power sunroof, although a $1,000 option, worked well by providing an open air experience for both front and rear passengers. When wide open, a huge opening appeared on the roof that went from about ten inches from the windshield to ten inches from the rear window. The actual sunshade was a stretchable fabric cloth instead of a hard panel between the interior and the glass common to other sunroofs. The durability of this cover is yet to be proven.
Cup holders are lacking in the ASTRA. The lone cup holder available to the front passengers is located in the center console between the two front seats but way towards the back, requiring some yoga training to access. I guess Europeans don’t drink much in their cars, but Americans drivers will find this inconvenient and may turn your visit back from Starbucks into a hot and messy disaster.
The “All or Nothing” power door lock switch was located on the center console. This button unlocked and locked all the doors in the car at simultaneously; there was no way to unlock the doors individually unless you manual flipped the lever from the inside for each individual door. Some may find this annoying or a safety concern.
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