love sports cars; others crave luxury. I like hatchbacks
-- or more precisely, small, fun-to-drive, fuel-efficient,
fully equipped hatchbacks. So when Saturn invited me
to San Diego to test-drive the Astra, their newest
compact wagon, I was all over it. The Astra is not
exactly new. It's been sold in Europe for four years
under the Opel Astra nameplate. But good design is
good design, and the European-spec Astra, which debuts
as a five-door wagon in two trims (a hot three-door model is
also available), remains relatively unchanged.
Grabbing the keys
to a bright red coupe, I set out, and in minutes I have
a good first impression. The Astra is a driver's car.
It's stable at high speeds and offers good
steering response and braking. The cabin is
surprisingly quiet, even when running on 18-inch tires, and
the sport suspension helps minimize sway and body roll
yet doesn't punish passengers with a
the Astra is best characterized as quick but not fast.
With only 138 horsepower under the hood, this car is
designed to strike a balance between acceptable
performance and good gas mileage. The engine emits the
slight vibration inherent to most four-cylinder engines, but
it's only noticeable on hard acceleration.
reveals an odd mix of good and bad. Features such as a
tilt/telescopic steering wheel, full cloth headliner, and
express power windows are almost unheard of at this
price, as is the high quality of the materials used to
form the dash, door panels, and seats. The sport
seats, which are unique to the three-door XR, are superior
to everything in this price range. Options include
heated cloth or leather seats and an upgraded
seven-speaker audio system with an MP3-compatible CD player.
You can have all these features and still come in
But cracks appear
in the Astra's armor, most arising from the rush to
get the car from Europe to America. Saturn only had
enough time to engineer in a single cup holder, and
there's no center armrest or auxiliary audio
input jack. In fairness, no car in this class offers all the
toys in the box. So while the Mazda3 offers four cup
holders and an auxiliary audio jack, the Astra comes
standard with features the base Mazda3 lacks, like
rain-sensing wipers and heated side mirrors.
Value is the
Astra's strong suit, and few cars in this class offer
its combination of European styling and mature driving