In anticipation of the Astra’s arrival, I said to myself, "finally, this division is bold enough to give us quality products directly from its European Opel line, and finally, we are getting rid of what I always considered a bad joke, the Saturn ION." And you know what? I was wrong. Oh sure, the ION was indeed a bad joke when it came to quality and design, but at least it sold! Now, Saturn dealers have to figure out how to move a car of vastly superior quality, but unfortunately, that is not well suited to the North American public. Consequently, results have been mixed. Well, at least that was my conclusion after test driving the three-door Astra XR, let’s be honest, is charming at first glance.
I truly wanted to love it!
What a lovely design! It is rare for compacts, even European models, to have such sexy lines. Well-balanced with a plunging beltline and striking contours, this Astra looks like nothing else on the market. Right from the start, I noticed the high quality body materials and its meticulous, eye-catching assembly. In this regard, Asian rides like the Civic and Mazda3 have nothing on the Astra.
Disillusionment sets in on board however, where the comfort features that we would expect are conspicuous by their absence. The dash looks nice, but it is not at all ergonomic, the dials for the ventilation system are illegible and poorly positioned, the radio is difficult to use and the cup-holders, like the central arm-rest, are nowhere to be found.
Behind the wheel, the seat is relatively enveloping but is too firm to be truly comfortable. The lack of arm space is disappointing, and a little more storage space for the things in my pockets would have been nice. Fortunately, the adjustable seat and telescopic steering wheel help you find a good driving position. On a more positive note, the Astra features sumptuous materials on board as well as a very high quality finish, evidence of the difference between European and North American standards.
As for equipment, the Astra we tested had just about everything it could have possibly had, except for a top-notch audio system, a sunroof and an automatic transmission. What’s more, I was disappointed that there was neither satellite radio, an iPod auxilary input jack, nor a Bluetooth system, which seemed inconceivable considering the target market for this type of car.
A labour union 140 horses strong…
Believe me, the sound of the 140 horses under the hood is a lot more powerful than the engine’s actual output will be. Like a unionized labourer who does only the minimum work required, these horses tend to be lazy and do not step up when it is time to perform. Even paired with a manual transmission, they are disappointing. Worse still, they demand fuel more often than the average. In fact, fuel consumption rarely dips below 9 litres per 100 kilometres, unbefitting a supposedly economical car. It just goes to show that this 1.8-litre Ecotec engine is quite simply uncompetitive. Interestingly, the technical specs, power and engine capacity in particular, are similar to those of the Honda Civic, but the comparison ends when the subject of efficiency arises.
With 18-inch wheels and very firm seats, I don’t have to tell you that comfort is relatively limited, and while the car features good stability, the rear suspension creates a sometimes disconcerting body imbalance in turns. These annoyances are a shame, since the Astra is far from completely disappointing. The car has an excellent chassis, well-calibrated steering and an excellent braking system. It is only an independent rear suspension away from demonstrating better balance in turns.
What about a sedan?
I know, I know, it took someone finally daring to introduce a hatchback in this category for the sedan to be missed. Personally, I have always had a weakness for the often prettier and more practical hatchbacks. However, the average North American prefers sedans, and because we know that Opel offers the Astra in five versions in Europe (three doors, five doors, sedan, wagon and convertible coupe), one can’t help but wonder why the Saturn brain trust chose not to offer them in our market. Selection like that would have undoubtedly helped Saturn reconnect with ION customers who have no desire for a hatchback and would have helped sales as a result.
Yet, lukewarm sales cannot be blamed entirely on disappointment with some of the Astra’s flaws; the reasonably high purchase price must shoulder some of the blame as well. Furthermore, let’s not forget that since August 1st of this year, Saturn does not lease its vehicles anymore, thereby turning away a large part of its clientele. Fortunately, the financing terms are quite favourable and there are significant rebates for those who do not resort to financing, otherwise sales would be even more modest…