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2007 Frankfurt Auto Show: Eric Drives the Saturn Astra

Date: Sept 12, 2007

Source: Edmunds Inside Line

Author: Eric Tingwall

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2007 Frankfurt Auto Show: Eric Drives the Saturn Astra

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.

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 black headlights.

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


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