by Nelson Ireson
Americans don’t like hatchbacks. It’s almost inexplicable, but it’s true. Sedans are the American body style of choice, perhaps because of the more coupe-like lines, and despite their dearth of cargo space. But with the ongoing fuel crunch and a faltering economy, affordable, roomy and practical hatchbacks are beginning to get the respect and admiration European and Japanese buyers have shown for decades.
Saturn’s Astra hatchback is one of the first General Motors imports to take advantage of these changing preferences, borrowed from its Opel lineup in Europe. Under the motto, “Rethink American” and with a barrage of television commercials geared to show the buying public that Saturn’s cars are stylish, modern and not at all the pokey plastic machines of a decade ago, GM’s newest division is working to rebuild its image for the future. Is the Astra up to the task of changing minds and winning hearts?Basic Information
The Astra is available in three trims in the U.S., two five-door versions called the XE and the XR, along with a three-door variant of the XR. The latter was the version delivered to us by GM. All cars come with the same 1.8L four-cylinder powerplant making 138hp (103kW) at 6,300rpm and 125lb-ft (168Nm) of torque at 3,800rpm. EPA fuel economy ratings are 24mpg (9.8L/100km) in the city and 32mpg (7.35L/100km) for the manual, as our test car was equipped, or 24mpg city and 30mpg (7.8L/100km) highway for the automatic.
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Despite being a small three-door hatchback - it’s several inches shorter than the Mazda3 hatch even in five-door form - the car weighs a rather portly 2,921lbs (1,325kg) at the curb in manual transmission guise. This is likely the single biggest factor contributing to the less-than-expected fuel economy figures.
The trim levels differentiate the car primarily on appearance, since performance of all models is very close given that they house the same engine. All cars come standard with four-wheel ABS and cornering brake control, a tire pressure monitoring system, six airbags including dual-stage frontal units and head curtain side airbags, one year of OnStar service, a six-speaker CD stereo system and perhaps the star of the small car’s features, the Driver Information Center.
Upgrading to XR trim adds 16-inch alloy wheels, a multi-function steering wheel, seven-speaker MP3-capable CD stereo system and projector beam fog lamps.Inside the cabin
One of the first things you’ll notice behind the wheel of the Astra is how few of the controls are marked with words. In fact, almost everything in the cockpit is marked in a sort of Babylonic cuneiform, including the lock/unlock buttons on the key fob, the steering wheel controls and even the radio. Decoding what exactly the symbolic scrawlings mean is not at all an intuitive process, and will likely require several thorough consultations of the owner’s manual before full access to the car’s rather impressive array of electronic information can be made.
However, once the steep initial learning curve is cleared, the car rewards the driver with a wealth of information, including dual trip meters each capable of independently recording average fuel efficiency, distance traveled and time taken to do so. Instantaneous fuel efficiency readings are prominently displayed on the center screen when selected, and the depth of configurability, in terms of units of measurement, display characteristics and stored data, is highly impressive.
It’s worth noting at this point that all of these electronics and hieroglyphics are ensconced in a pleasing mid-range cockpit, with materials that aren’t all hard and plasticky, a common vice of affordable hatchbacks. The soft-but-not-too-soft feel of most of the interior surfaces is pleasing, and should prove easy to maintain, while the cloth seats are attractive and comfortable.
The switchgear is likewise solid and easy to operate, especially the steering-wheel controls, which once mastered give almost total control over the car without requiring the driver to lift eyes from the road. And that’s a good thing, because once you’ve seen the interior in detail, you don’t have much desire to see it again. Sweeping expanses of bland greyish-black and a few chrome-colored accents are all that the car has to offer - something of a let-down given the three-door’s dramatic exterior appearance and high tactile quality.On the road
Having mastered the electronics interface, it’s time to move on to driving the little hatchback. Given its European provenance, there is high hope for a sporting feel and rev-happy engine that rewards smooth shifts and a deft touch of the steering wheel. And while the Astra does provide a well-damped and confidence-inspiring take on European ride characteristics, there are a few weak spots in its sport-hatch armor.
The gear selector in the manual transmission unit is not sloppy, but it is light, which does not aid confidence given the relatively long throws necessary to switch from gear to gear. Getting into reverse requires lifting a switch on the underside of the knob, which is straightforward enough, but sliding the shifter into reverse almost always resulted in a slight crunching sound in our test vehicle- probably not a major concern on a new car, but definitely something to be sure to check out on a test drive.
Out on the open road, the 138hp four-cylinder feels adequate, but not ample. You won’t be winning many stoplight challenges in the Astra, whatever trim you choose, but that’s not the point of the car - it accelerates as quickly as traffic will allow. The smallish four-banger does feel a bit breathless and coarse in the upper rev range when passing or merging with fast-flowing traffic, but around town the easy-going feeling in the mid-range makes driving the car a breeze.
Where the Astra shines is in its handling. With a smooth but firmly damped ride, moderate body roll and a solidly planted feeling, the car inspires confidence whether you’re just cruising the suburbs or hustling along some two-lane country blacktop. A solid turn-in gets the body set in its position, and the little hatch just clings to the road with all its might, no doubt getting some help from its alloy wheel and broad, sticky tire combination. The twitchy, unsorted feel of many economy cars is completely absent in the Astra.
At least some of the car’s good road manners and confident feel are likely attributable to the firm and communicative seating, which is well-bolstered but not so confining as to prevent bigger drivers from finding a comfortable position. The reviewer checks in at 6’2” and 230lbs, so even the larger end of the American populace should find the Astra a suitable runabout, at least in terms of size.
More efficient than a mid-size sedan, but only just
Despite its wheezing four-cylinder and diminutive size - the back seats are suitable only for persons not more than 5’6” or so, especially with taller folks up front - the car’s fuel economy is surprisingly low in many circumstances. In mostly flowing driving, with little stop-and-go, the car does admirably, scoring between 30 and 33mpg on our 20-mile test route that involves approximately 70% suburban and urban driving and 30% highway driving, by distance. The lower end of the spectrum was scored with the air conditioner on - a must in 95-degree weather - while the upper end was posted at night, with the air conditioner off.
In more stop-and-go driving, however, the car’s relatively high 2,921lb (1,325kg) curb weight places it fully 300lbs (135kg) heavier than the only slightly smaller Mini Cooper. Coupled with the rev-resistant four-cylinder, it makes for less-than-inspiring fuel efficiency, frequently averaging 22-24mpg (10.7-9.8L/100km) over our one-week stay with the car. Nevertheless, if the worst fuel mileage you see out of the car is still in the low-to-mid 20mpg range, it’s hard to complain, even with fuel prices headed north of $4 per gallon.
The real-world result is also remarkably close to the EPA figures for the car, so you can trust the Astra’s window sticker readings, at least on the manual transmission-equipped car, according to our testing.Practicality and daily use
The three-door XR is not a large car. Pull all the way to the front of a standard-size parking space and you’ll leave enough room behind to make passers-by think the spot is empty until they begin to pull into it. But in terms of functionality, it’s surprisingly good at doing 90% of the things a mid-size sedan would do. The rear seats fold down for a good amount of cargo space, enough to put a bicycle in with a little bit of thought and minor disassembly.
As mentioned before, the rear seats are small, especially with tall front-seat passengers, whose seatbacks will rapidly impinge on the small amount of available knee-room. But that’s to be expected - if you need four full seats, the five-door Astra or XR is the better option. That car’s styling is not quite as attractive as the 3-doors flowing lines, but it still features the same basic virtues that make the Astra a solid and useful hatch.Bottom line
If you’re looking for an economical city car with room for a few friends, you could do a lot worse than the Astra XR, though the five-door is certainly better suited to running around town with more than one passenger. Some of the competition might offer marginally better fuel efficiency at the cost of some cargo space, or more space at the cost of some efficiency, but the Astra strikes a good balance. Buyers interested in the Astra would do well to investigate the Mazda3 as well, though with similar pricing, features and performance, the Astra’s styling - at least in three-door form - may give it the edge.Saturn Astra XR 3-door and 5-door
Saturn Astra XR 3-door and 5-door