Much is made about the original philosophy behind GM’s Saturn division, which was to lure import buyers from their Corollas and Civics and get them into Saturn’s SLs and SCs.

Combined with plastic body panels and no-haggle pricing, General Motors thought it hand created a winner. But the fact always remained that Saturn’s products lacked both an American identity and Japanese reliability. It was like going for sushi at McDonald’s. Still, the brand ended up outliving Oldsmobile and ditching its oft-touted plastic body panels.

Now, instead of fighting the imports with American innovation, Saturn is battling back with a few imports of its own. The Belgian-made Astra never suffers from a lack of ride comfort or handling over its peers, and the only complaint you’ll ever hear handling-wise is from stoplight racers with body piercings and noise violations. But come on. This is an economy car … and a damn fine-handling one at that.

Between corners, there’s sufficient power to crush eggs after grocery shopping. Now, if you decide to read other reviews on the car, the tester will probably say power from the 1.8-litre Ecotec four-cylinder engine is merely adequate. Not so. It’s just as much as you’ll ever need, with a good torque spread and well-spaced gear ratios to chuff you along.

Top-notch build quality and high-grade plastics combine with clean-cut European style to make the interior one of the best in its class. You’ll even notice that an impressive trip computer sits smack in the middle of the car’s dash. In lesser models, the information and screen is toned down a notch, but in XR trim with the top-grade stereo, it gets as advanced as a graphic equalizer! The final interesting feature — and class exclusive — is an optional dual-panel sunroof that lightens the interior, sports a large opening and features a sunshade.

Saturn is billing the three-door Astra as the upscale model, with the five-door as the entry-level product at just $17,900 for an XE without air conditioning. The only three-door trim level is XR, for $21,225. Fully loaded, the three-door even comes with 18-inch wheels.

Those shopping for a small car should immediately take a look at the Astra. I’ve said before that it should make a big impact in Canada. It will. But moreover, strong sales may convince other manufacturers with impressive European and Japanese products to enter the Canadian market with previously unseen technologies. As it stands now, the Astra is a great car and hangs with the class leaders as the final chapter in Saturn’s product renaissance.