Saturn Astra car reviews

Review Notes: Saturn Astra XR Automatic

saturn astra car review

Personality Go-kart
Why we’d buy it Cornering, connected-to-the-road feel, decent mileage, bargain price
Why we wouldn’t Poorly thought out controls
Gas mileage 24 city, 30 highway (EPA/automatic)
Written by David Zatz

The Saturn Astra comes straight from GM’s European engineers, breaking with the Saturn mold in every way other than the grille. The engine was designed in the US but made in Hungary; the manual transmission hails from Austria, the automatic from Japan; and a third of the other parts come from Germany, coming together in Belgium. The basic shape and intent is similar to the Volkswagen Golf: a hatchback with fashionably sloping roof and four doors, with a small exterior and decently sized interior, sized between the Golf and the Civic and Corolla.

Through intelligent layout, the little Astra can hold four people comfortably, as long as none are too large, while still having room for cargo. Thanks to the efficient use of space, we were able to get far over the rated 24 mpg around town, despite an automatic transmission; highway mileage is in the 30s.

Our test car had the Sport Handling Package, standard on the XR coupe and optional on the XR hatchback; it includes seventeen-inch wheels, electronic stability control, quicker steering, and firmer springs and dampers, and a lower ride height. The result is a car that feels like a go-kart, a setup that generally gets high praise from auto reviewers; it makes for a thrilling ride and competent cornering, but it also transmits the feel of every bit of the road surface into the car, which is not necessarily what everyone wants, at least not all the time.

The Sport Handling Package almost completely takes body roll out, and makes sharp corners almost too easy; still, we suspect that most owners will actually be happier with the standard suspension, which is responsive but not quite as insistent on sharing the feel of the road. Those who do love to spin around turns at far greater speeds than they really should, will love this option; it provides a shocking feel of stability and shows off the Astra's strong body rigidity. The car stays stable over bumps and cracked roads, too, with the stability control subtly helping out when all else fails. Unfortunately, stability control appears to be available only as part of this package.

The front suspension is a conventional independent strut design, while the rear uses a torsion-beam axle; though it's transparent to the driver, the Saturn uses electro-hydraulic power steering. All complaints about feeling each pebble aside, the Astra's cornering was surprising - no, stunning. The car hugged the road without substantial body roll, taking fast, tight turns without any sign that adhesion could be lost. With the Sport Handling Package, the Saturn Astra can easily convince a driver they're in a Porsche or BMW, at least until they hit the gas pedal.

The Ecotec four-cylinder engine should be a good choice for a vehicle of this size, but thanks to modern safety equipment and sound insulation, even a small, sporty hatch ends up weighing nearly 3,000 pounds, and the 138 horsepower engine sometimes was less than ideally responsive. With 125 lb-ft of torque, the engine had a nice balance between off-the-line torque and rev-happy power; it launched decently and produced fairly even power up to redline, but 0-60 times reflected the Astra's weight, and responses weren’t always particularly snappy.

The Astra just begs for the five-speed stickshift, but we had the four-speed automatic, which shifted fairly aggressively to optimize acceleration and economy. The Aisin automatic worked well and was intelligently tuned (though we sometimes found ourselves without a needed 2-1 downshift), but this is a vehicle where any automatic feels out of place. Getting up to speed on the highway was no problem, as the engine flew up to redline in first; there was a bit of a power gap going from first to second, but sprints were still respectable.

The real issue is not so much the actual speed as the gap between the car's personality and the power; the Astra feels so much like a sports car, it seems to demand a sportier engine. The muffler engineers were hard at work giving it that big-mill growl, too, which doesn't help; the Astra makes noise like a high-performance sports car, but it moves like an economy car. One also doesn't necessarily want a loud, growly engine all the time, without getting the benefits of it; the exhaust tuning could be sporty, but it could also be yet more noise pollution. Mild-mannered, economy-tuned powerplants probably don't need to be this loud. All that said, acceleration is not out of line with the price tag.

Visibility is quite good for the most part, with the exception of the usual rear quarter, where the large roof pillar gets in the way; however, the headrest covers much of the same territory so at least it's not "rear quarter plus headrest."

The interior seems to have been designed with a Saab-like desire for being out of the ordinary; of course, there are reasons why ordinary cars are designed the way they are. It simply feels better, for example, to have turn signals stick up or down, when you push them up or down, rather than having the lever return to its center while still keeping the turn signal on. That's particularly true when you're just changing lanes; it takes a while to get the feel of the system, which requires a gentle tap to shut off again if you haven't gone around a turn. Too much of a tap, and the trooper behind you starts to wonder how much you've had to drink.

Brian Pope noted: You can cancel the signal by pushing in either direction. If you're signaling right and want to cancel that signal, you can simply push the blinker stalk Up/Right again and it will cancel, without alerting the Trooper behind you that you're not used to the car yet. Furthermore, if you simply want to change lanes, it only takes a gentle tap to turn the blinker on in the first place- if you do not fully depress the signal lever, the car will automatically blink three times to indicate a lane change and then auto-cancel the signal. Once you get used to it, the blinker setup is actually quite convenient.

Another less than ideal control was the rheostat, which had to be held up against its limit while the light level changed; if you like that sort of thing, you'll also like the wheel-mounted audio control, which works the same way. The fog light button provided little feedback. Worst of all may be the cruise control, mounted in the ancient GM position at the end of the turn signal stalk, but this time set into the end; it's far too easy to hit the two cruise buttons at the end of the stalk while meaning to do something else, such as cancel the turn signal. Cars should not be set up as dexterity tests.

The usual GM obsession with having warning lights to tell us the daytime running lights are on is apparently maintained in Belgium, as the Astra had a DRL indicator. That contrasted with the bright yellow warning on the rear-view mirror, which told us with great urgency whether the passenger airbag was on or off - not something we need to know every time we look in that direction.

At the top of the center stack was a nice informational display, which combined radio and trip computer layouts; it's GM's old European design, which rules out the use of an aftermarket stereo but is rather nice otherwise. The display has now been made snazzier by adding folder icons, which really isn't necessary since there are only two modes; it would have been better to eliminate the folder-icon space and move the climate controls up half an inch.

The controls might have been easier to use had they been placed within better reach and given bolder markings; as it was, the ventilation controls, sitting at the bottom of the center stack, required too much eyes-off-the-road time, with subtle markings and a position far too far from the windshield. Even the radio was low in the stack and strangely marked.

Our car included an optional stereo with a digital signal processor, which let us customize the signal for optimal results in the driver's seat, front seats, or everywhere; it made a pretty big difference in the sound, but setting the various sound options took much more attention than simpler, more conventional systems without big wheels and display screens. To be fair, most conventional vehicles don't hide a seven-band equalizer in their stereo controls, either. The level of information provided was gratifying, and the old-fashioned bright-amber-on-dark-brown display (which some adults may remember from mainframes or DOS) made it easier to read than on bright, brash high-resolution color LED screens; but, again, there was a lot of driver distraction required for things that were once easily accomplished via touch, with a couple of knobs.

The display shows the outside temperature and time with instant gas mileage and fuel range, or one of two user-resettable trip displays with the number of miles, average speed, fuel used, and average gas mileage. When not in trip computer mode, the system shows music information; or lets the driver set a small number of vehicle preferences, including whether the radio is shut off by the ignition switch or just its own on/off switch. Manipulating the display is, like playing with the radio, somewhat hard to get used to, with unconventional controls; but the clear display, while low resolution, is quite handy.

The backlighting is clear and, like the information display, a traditional European amber, designed to provide clarity without affecting night vision. A huge speedometer and tachometer dominate the instrument panel, accompanied only by a small gas gauge; the tachometer is marked out the same way as the speedometer, in the German tradition, and the two can sometimes be confused (which is why tachometers normally do x1,000 instead of x100). The speedometer includes a small km/h scale, which is the same color and a bit small. While we doubt the Astra can get there, the speedometer goes up to 160 mph; as always, we suspect they would have been better served by using a 140 mph speedometer that was easier to read.

Seats were designed for a sporty feel, and while they had moderately good body-holding ability to help in sharp cornering, their adjustability may not fit everyone's needs. Rear seats have a fairly steep angle, while front seats work better when reclined. Getting into the Astra was fairly easy, front or back, with the car not too low, despite its sporty appearance; however, rear door handle was set fairly well back, and the door frame swelled out towards the top, so that opening the rear doors could involve a bit of dodge-ems for people with shorter arms.

Interior storage includes map pockets on all four doors, a massive, two-level glove compartment, a small bin by the center stack, a sunglass holder above the driver's door, and a single front cupholder - with no storage bin between the front seats. Rear seat passengers also get map pockets on the backs of the front seats, and twin cupholders that fold out from the front of the rear seat.

Behind the rear seats sits the storage area; a traditional setup ties the light tonneau cover to the hatch, so that raising the hatch automatically lifts the cover and allows access to a 12-cubic-foot storage area (nearly 39 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down).

Up above, what appeared to be a massive sunroof stretched from the front of the car to the back; this turned out to be a combination of stationary and moving sunroof, a clever feature that increases the airy feel of the car, at least for the rear seat passengers. The shade for the sunroof is moved electrically, probably because it reaches so far back; this takes a bit longer than just grabbing it and shoving it into position (it opens all the way by itself, but requires a mahoot with his finger on the button to close). The extra-large sunroof is a nice feature.

The brakes seemed very effective; a four-wheel antilock disk brake system with cornering control is standard, as is tire pressure monitoring, and, for that matter, six airbags (front, seat-mounted. and side-curtain) and active head restraints. Some of the more surprising standard features across the board were the tilting, telescoping steering column and automatic wipers; cruise; OnStar; and six-speaker stereo. These aren't features one normally finds on a $16,000 car (that's for a manual XE, with destination included). That's not even counting the “normal” standard features: theft deterrent, rear wiper/washer, heated folding outside mirrors, power windows and locks, front and rear map lights, floor mats, and cargo tie-down hooks -- all included on the base model.

The XR is similar but has alloy wheels, steering wheel mounted audio controls, filtered air conditioning, a seven-speaker stereo, and fog lamps, at around $1,500 more. The prices are very competitive, especially given the warranty: GM's standard five years and 100,000 miles on the powertrain, and Saturn's unique 30 day / 1,500 mile free vehicle exchange. Roadside assistance is also included.

Our test car was, as one might expect, a bit pricier. Saturn added the advanced audio package, at $600, essentially (as far as we can tell) a CD changer; the leather seats with heated front seats at $800; the four-speed automatic at $1,325; a huge power sunroof at $1,000; and the sport handling package, at $700. All told, our test car came to just under $22,000, which takes it out of “what a bargain” territory. Your choices will probably be different - for one thing, we suggest you don't bother with the automatic. Learning to drive a shift would be worth the extra speed and gas mileage, especially if you get paid (in effect) $1,325 to do it.

It's hard to have more fun for this money - the Astra easily beats cars like the Civic in that regard. Whether it's the ideal daily driver for you depends on a few things, including whether you love whippin' around those turns.