News Column

Saturn Astra XR: Simply Fun to Drive

Ralph Gray

Saturn Astra XR

The Saturn Astra XR is an excellent example of what a "driver's car" ought to be. It's just fun to drive.

A driver's car doesn't have to be fast off the mark or styled like a bullet. All it needs to do is bring a smile to the operator's face.

Astra produces that in a three-door hatchback coupe. That drivers are in the driver's seat becomes apparent once behind the wheel.

The grab assist handle usually found over the driver's door is gone. It's replaced by a sunglasses holder for, of course, the driver. Fun drivers don't need the sissy straps anyway.

There's one cupholder. Guess who it is for.

The seat and steering wheel configuration dictates that the driver extend his arms straight out to handle the wheel. That's the way it's done on the Autobahn and the Astra comes from Opel, General Motor's European arm.

Like those Autobahn-influenced cars, the Astra comes alive at high speeds. It dawdles a bit away from the stoplight--just 9.6 seconds from 0-to-60 mph via a four-speed automatic transmission.

That's about what to expect from the 1.8L 140 horsepower four-cylinder engine. Acceleration is a shade quicker with a manual transmission.

But toss the Astra into a fast curve and it carves through, cutting into the heart of the sweeper. On the flat, Astra is straight as a ruler. It doesn't require a lot of wheel attention from the driver. It does the work. The steering is quick and accurate.

The accelerator pedal is a joy. It's easy to modulate on takeoff and holds a constant speed on the road almost better than cruise control.

The ride therefore is taut and ripples in the pavement are felt.

Seats are bolstered just right. Side mirrors are small and the view out the back is limited. There's not a lot of fidget room.

There are some unwelcome European touches, however. There's no center armrest or cubbyholes. Controls are marked in some sort of code. There's a little liquid crystal information display that looks like it's straight out of a 1984 Radio Shack TRS 100.

Climate controls are buried at the bottom of the instrument panel stack and the radio is unnecessarily complicated.

For some reason, you can't open locked doors by just pulling on the latch. You have to reach back and pull up the door tab or find the electric lock button on the dash.

An unwelcome U.S. touch is the cruise control system integrated with the turn signal level--shades of the old (un)Smart Stalk.

The Astra does come with GM's estimable Stabiltrak stability control, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock braking. And a grin.

Saturn Astra XR Saturn Astra XR

•Engine: 1.8L I-4.

•Dimensions: 102.9" wheelbase; 170.5" length.

•Base price: $17,875/tested $21,160.

•Fuel economy: 24/30 mpg.

Source: (c) 2008. All rights reserved.

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