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Little Wagon Is Big on Value

Little Wagon Is Big on Value


Already on European roads for years, Saturn finally unveils the Astra wagon stateside.

Some journalists 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 bone-jarring ride.

On acceleration 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.

The interior 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 under $20,000.

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 characteristics.

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Joe Tralongo