Saturn Astra: Looks are Everything

By The Car Family

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Unless you love its looks and can’t pony up $50 extra per month to buy the very nice, albeit with a huge turning radius, Saturn Aura, the Astra is a worthwhile consideration. The gas mileage for the Astra is nearly identical to the much larger Saturn Aura, with both rated at 30 mpg on the highway, but the Aura four-cylinder engine has 169 horsepower versus the 138 of the Astra.

Saturn has the most improved vehicle line-up this side of Audi. They have the Sky convertible, the updated Vue with an available hybrid version, and the new Outlook to go along with the Aura and hybrid Aura, and the Astra. A full plate, but is it tasty? Well, quality surveys indicate that the Saturn Is lagging, however its overall performance has been improving. Add to that the high customer satisfaction ratings and you have a good reason for Saturn to be the most improved selling product line at General Motors.

That being said, we are one of the few who liked the Saturn Ion. It was idiot proof, had excellent fuel mileage with 30 mpg easily reached on the highway, a very usable interior, and enough punch to be fun to drive. However, the almost all male reviewers didn’t see this practicality. It wasn’t a pretty car and it wasn’t a racecar. Finally, Saturn didn’t promote it to the right audience and priced it too closely to the popular Civic and Corolla. The result was the demise of the Ion and the importation of the Saturn Astra to replace it. Yes, the Astra corners better and is a sharper looker, but the interior isn’t much better and the Ion had more useful storage. Ah, well, that’s progress.

Mom’s view: Looks are everything with the Astra. It is attractive, no doubt, with a continental flair to say the least as most of it was built in Europe and sold there for several years as an Opel. Outside of its exterior it is a strange brew with trendy, but mundane interior styling, a tight feel, and a stereo that is overly complicated and confusing. There is a fair amount of storage space, but the cupholders are poorly placed and there is no center armrest. The rear seats are split and fold down, but you must remove the headrests first and even then you don’t get a flat floor. The material covering the seats is easily “dented” and the steering wheel positioning is difficult to get right with the limited settings offered by the manual seat adjustments.

Safety features include stability control, antilock disc brakes, front-seat side airbags, full-length side-curtain airbags, whiplash-reducing head rests and the always comforting OnStar communications system. Visibility to the outside and back are fairly good and the outside mirrors are simple to position. The dash-mounted gauges have clear readouts and but a larger font would make them easier read at night. There are redundant radio controls on the steering wheel and everything is within reach. The sunroof is huge, running nearly the full length of the passenger compartment. It makes the interior feel larger, but on 90 degree days the cloth cover for the sunroof doesn’t keep the heat out that well and the air conditioning unit is hard pressed to keep the interior cool. The heater works well, although it is slow to warm-up, and there is even optional heated seats. Something unheard of in this price category.

The Astra is quite lovely and performs it basic transportation tasks well. Its forte is its suspension, which neutralizes corners and smooths out emergency transitions. Its weakness is its pricing. With only a lackluster 138-horsepower, four-cylinder engine available and with the optional air conditioning and automatic the price is nearly $18,000 and 60 mph is going to take about ten seconds. This doesn’t give it any price advantage when going against the proven competition in the form of the Honda Civic, Mazda 3, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Nissan Versa and Chevrolet Cobalt. That is a lot of competition, but its quiet highway sound levels, suspension, and looks could make it a competitor. Of these I like the Mazda best, but the Versa is the best buy for gas mileage and utility. Don’t underestimate the much-improved Ford Focus, either. None of these are as dapper as the Saturn.

Gas mileage around town is about 24 mpg and 30 on the highway, according to the “Board” computer. That is what Astra calls its driver’s computer. It is fairly easy to master, but the small monitor and nearly impossible to read messages while wearing sunglasses make it less useful than others. By the way, the first thing I would do is decide if you can live with the stereo that comes with the Astra or consider an after market system. It is that complex.

The four speed automatic and five speed manual return nearly the same mileage figures, but since the automatic siphons off some of the fun of the Astra I would go with the five speed manual transmission and save on the initial cost and at the pump.

Strange as it may seem the three-door model and the five-door model are essentially the same size. I would recommend the five door for its utility and resale. Besides, the slope of the sharply angled rear window on the three door cuts into the headroom. The two door is not better looking and offers no advantage outside of pricing. If you fold the back seats down you get over 37 cubic feet of storage, which is adequate, but the unleveled floor is difficult to justify.

There is little doubt that this is another good product from Saturn that the boy reviewers are going to fault because it isn’t super fast or built by BMW or Honda. They are wrong. This is a useful vehicle that has some character to it, but has the misfortune of being priced too closely to its stunning sister, the larger Aura.

Dad’s view: A lot of people thought this was the much more expensive Volvo C30 which bodes well for Saturn’s new starlet. Once inside it has a similar feel, but the 1.8-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine even with variable valve timing only makes 125 foot-pounds of torque at a fairly high 3,800 rpm. This translates into a relaxed acceleration feel that is further muted by the four speed automatic transmission. The real pleasure in owning a Astra is going to be admiring its nice form and taking it corner cutting where its sharp handling and impressive steering feel can best be utilized.

If Saturn decides to put a turbocharger or “Redline” version of the Astra on sale it is going to be a real winner when combined with the sporty suspension currently offered. However, the market for $20,000 sporty five door vehicles is limited and so perhaps Saturn would be better off by adding some additional technology to the current engine and keeping its use of regular unleaded fuel and good gas mileage as a selling point rather than performance. After all, Chevrolet’s SS Cobalt really didn’t sell that well and its future is in doubt. I think that Chevrolet is getting the message that speed sells only works when you have people who can afford to operate a second car.

The Astra also needs a larger fuel tank. The current one holds only about 12 gallons and 250 miles is not much range for this front wheel drive Saturn. The night interior lighting is poor, but the headlights are above average.

Braking is quite good with a linear feel to the pedal and the car has a good on center feel to it, unlike the recent Chevrolet Malibu we recently tested. By the way, we feel that the Saturn Aura is superior to the Malibu and is even priced better.

Driving the Astra can be frustrating at times as the engine groans under demand and there isn’t much forward thrust at any speed. The four speed automatic is not a good match for the engine unless you spend a majority of your time on the highway. The C pillars can block your view when backing out of a parking space or when changing lanes. It is far less of a problem than on other hatchbacks.

One feature that I can live without is the turn signal. You just push on it and it starts to blink three times. That is fine, but most drivers don’t count the number of times it flashes and so after they make the lane change and see the turn signal still on they may try to cancel it. The result is that you now are signaling in the other direction three times. Ahhh. No doubt after a while you can learn to ignore this safety feature.

In the long run I hope that potential buyers don’t pass up the Astra in favor of the more proven hatchbacks because they are going to miss a fun and practical friend. If the quality holds up and GM can find some more horses this could make one fun and useful hatchback this looks as smart as it acts.

Young unemployed woman’s view: Tough time to be without a job despite a MIS and a MBA and an Ivy League degree, but that is the reality of a “new” American where high fuel prices and job losses are becoming a fact of life. As such, the Astra makes some sense. I would go with the five-door model as it is easier to use with a child’s seat and provides easier access to any purchases your food stamps allow. Its major competition is probably going to be the less expensive and slightly larger Mazda 3, but not in my book. This Astra doesn’t have the racer look of the Mazda, and provides a more elegant ride, and one that is quieter, too.

There are two trim levels with the base XE being just that for the five door. Standard elements include cruise control, a CD player, a trip computer, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel and five speed manual transmission. Everything else, including air conditioning, is extra. The XR is the one to buy with alloy wheels, air-conditioning, steering-wheel ancillary audio controls, air-conditioning and a “better” stereo all standard. Must have options include a sport-tuned suspension that offers even better steering response, and more safety equipment. Always buy every safety feature as it wouldn’t amount of a single day in the hospital and make the vehicle more salable and so the electronic stability control is strongly warranted. The large sunroof and seat heaters, leather seating surfaces, and bigger tires are for those who are employed. Look for a price under $20,000 for a very well loaded Astra and Saturn is offering some great lease deals, too.

Male college graduate’s view: It took eight years, but I’ve completed the first phase of my education and with that make a total of ten college degrees in The Car Family’s resume’. Put it this way, when you read a Car Family review you are getting the expertise of 100 years of testing experience plus 24 years of university education.

Anyway, I digress. The Astra is puzzlement. Here is a new vehicle that has such strange features that it is difficult to believe General Motors was paying attention. There isn’t a real cupholder in the front, but there is one where you rest your elbow. There isn’t a center armrest. The stereo is dreadful in every way. The clock, unless I missed a note in the owner’s manual, has only a 24-hour readout. And, the rear hatch is both high and narrow making it more difficult to load larger items.

The audio controls on the steering wheel are poorly placed and the labels make no sense. The stereo does not have any auxiliary plug-ins and the sound quality is poor. In other words, the ergonomics are not well thought through and the stereo system needs to be sent to Saturn. There is more, but you get the idea. This is a nice vehicle, but with some questionable usability quirks.

If properly equipped, and you can get a deal from your Saturn dealer, this is a decent car that has more zest than the competition. However, the Saturn Aura is so much more car for nearly the same money that families may have a difficult choice. In other words, this is a compact sized sedan for the singles. I can tell you guys, it is also a babe magnet. Enough said.

Family conference: If the Astra was priced in the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa $15,000 range it would be a true hit. However, the depreciating American dollar renders such thoughts as day dreamy as $3.00 a gallon gas. The reality for Saturn is going to be how many young people are going to be able to afford such a vehicle in the light of an economy that is tipsy. Despite this we highly recommend the Astra based on its handling, utility, ride, and its dealer’s reputation. We also feel that for just a few dollars more a week the Aura is a better value and nearly as economical to drive.