I almost had to hold back snickers while talking with Saturn General
Manager Jill Lajdziak on Tuesday. While sharing some of the details
of the Opel/Saturn relationship, Lajdziak mentioned that Saturn
would play a much more significant role in creating engineering
standards for the next generation of Opel/Saturn products –-
engineering standards like the number of cupholders.
Was this the punch line of a bad joke about the stupidity of
American consumers? Inside Line and its readers aren't concerned
about cupholders, and neither am I. But after driving Saturn's
upcoming compact, the Astra, you could almost say that cupholders
could be one of the Astra's greatest shortcomings.
The soul of the Astra is a 138-horsepower four-banger. While
we've seen several automakers bumping displacement of their compacts
from 2.0 liters to something in the 2.3- to 2.5-liter range
recently, Saturn seems content to buck the trend by moving backward
to a 1.8. Even if it means Saturn can't win the spec sheet wars, the
engine still impresses with its willingness to do what you want and
expect of it. The Ecotec is ready to rev and is responsive in the
3,000-to-5,000-rpm arena, while the exhaust note sounds more
inspired than most in this class. The shifter of the five-speed
isn't as smooth or precise as a Mazda or Honda stick, but it gets
the job done.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment regarding the Opel-to-Saturn
transformation is the loss of the "Sport" button on the center stack
of the Astra. One of the cars we drove was an automatic transmission
Euro-spec Opel (possibly to be blamed on Editor Oldham who
disappeared with his three-door Saturn, claiming to have gotten
lost). During our evaluation of this car we were able to experiment
with the Sport setting, which adjusts steering, throttle and
transmission response. In a car of this class, you'd expect the
differences to be nearly imperceptible, but this is not the case.
Most appreciated was the transmission that hung onto gears longer
and downshifted earlier with a throttle-blip you'd expect out of a
Ferrari. The American automatic operates more like the European
comfort mode and sucks some life out of the Ecotec.
Perhaps if we ask nicely,
the Sport mode will arrive as a midcycle enhancement.
The suspension is what really makes the Astra unique. Unlike most
European imports that receive a softer suspension in America than
their across-the-pond twins, the
Astra suspension parts are
the same in Europe and the U.S. One German engineer explained
the Astra was marked for U.S. sale when Bob Lutz drove it and
demanded, "Do not change a thing." So the suspension wasn't changed.
We took our Astras through the noise and comfort test track at
Opel's facility and noticed that the ride is slightly harsher than
many other compacts, but it only gets noticeably uncomfortable on
longer, shallow road flaws, like truck ruts. The damping over larger
bumps and expansion gaps does what it should. At highway speeds,
wind and road noise are well controlled, but engine drone does
manage to penetrate the cabin.
Stateside buyers will
actually one-up Europeans with larger brakes, although these
primarily serve to reduce noise instead of increasing performance.
Still, I owe a lot of credit to those brakes for not having to write
a blog about parking my Astra inside another vehicle when traffic
squealed to a halt on the autobahn during the drive. In normal,
non-life-threatening driving, the brakes are somewhat oversensitive
to pedal inputs, as they're tuned for European drivers.
The Astra has long been a powerful seller in Europe and GM's
research shows that the top reason buyers choose the car is its
styling. And don't expect that to be much different in the States,
as car-buying is largely driven by emotion and image. The sloping
rear window of the three-door is a bit more engaging than the larger
hatch, but both cars will attract attention, especially with those
So where will the Astra draw its biggest criticism? The
cupholders. As a European car, the Astra is missing a few standards
that are American essentials. You'll find just one cupholder,
accessible only to drivers who practice yoga at least three times a
week. Even more absent than cupholders is a center armrest for your
right elbow. The instrument cluster and center stack are
well-executed, but the top of the dash is in need of something to
break up the never-ending expanse of gray. A few might call these
fatal flaws, but I doubt the discerning driver will find these deal
breakers. When you're driving hard (two hands on the wheel, except
to shift), you won't miss the armrest or the cupholders.
Appreciated features include a standard tilt-telescoping wheel
and manual seat height adjuster that will help you find the ideal
driving position. Rain-sensing wipers and power windows are standard
on all Astras, while the higher-end XR model gets you intuitive
steering wheel controls for the audio system. With the base
five-door starting at under $16,000, pricing becomes a selling point
for the Astra.
Opel has done a great job in engineering the core of the Astra: a
capable engine and a compliant suspension. Still, Saturn has some
work to do in the coming years as midcycle freshening and the
next-generation model offer chances to keep the American buyer in
mind. Undoubtedly, a number of Astra reviews in the next few months
will draw comparisons to Saturn's ill-fated Ion compact. But the new
Saturn doesn't deserve to be associated with that monster. It's got
the stuff to keep pace with the leaders, even if it's a step or two
behind. -- Eric Tingwall, Inside Line Contest Winner
and Citizen Journalist