New Saturn alters small-car universe



With the exception of new front and rear fascias, there are precious few alterations on the 2008 Saturn Astra.


Usually, when a manufacturer imports one of its European designs, it gets unwanted suspension tweaks, trim changes, engine changes, name changes — basically anything the automaker feels is too foreign for we unkempt Canadians.

This time is different. Saturn has changed as little as possible on the 2008 Astra. With the exception of new front and rear fascias there are precious few alterations: the front brake rotors are larger to accommodate different brake pad material without sacrificing performance; the engine has a standard oil-pan heater for colder climates; and there’s an additional catalytic converter to reduce emissions.

Saturn even kept the European stereo. Yodel-ay-he-hoo.

For those of us who spent our nine months in the womb programming digital clocks, the Euro deck is a breeze. If your first telephone was a rotary-dialer, consult the owner’s manual. There’s also no auxiliary input jack; that space in the radio’s backside was wired for standard OnStar.

Neither I, nor the Astra’s creators, were particularly worried about dehydrating while driving the car, but I must mention it has only three cupholders — all of which are behind the driver.

Under the hood of the Astra is a modern 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine that makes 138 horsepower.

Under the hood is a modern 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine that makes 138 horsepower. As typical of European-tuned small displacement engines, the Ecotec is happy to rev, tractable at low revs and fuel-efficient.

The handling department never closes whether you go for a base model, $17,900 XE five-door or plump for the $21,255 XR three-door. In other world markets, GM sells both sedan and wagon models of this vehicle, but has smartly chosen to offer only hatchbacks in North America.

They’re the coolest, after all.

Quibbles aside, everything from the headliner down to the floor mats is happily unchanged. Switches, body panel shut lines, sight lines and materials were designed by a team that loves to drive.

The range starts with the value-minded XE. Air conditioning is optional on the base car, as is a four-speed auto and heated seats. Cruise control is standard. Moving up to the 5-door XR model, a wonderful class-exclusive option is a gigantic two-pane sunroof with sunshades, along with sport suspension. Leather is also optional on all Astras. A three-door XR with sport package and optional 18-inch wheels is the range topper.

This car is so good it will fundamentally alter the small-car market in Canada. In other words, vote with your pocketbook. It makes other domestic compacts look old-world by comparison.

2008 Saturn Astra

  • Type: Compact 5-pass hatchback FWD

  • Price: $17,900 – $21,255

  • Engine: 1.8L L4 DOHC

  • HP: 138 @ 6,300

  • Torque: 125 @ 3,800


  • Best European-sourced small car in Canada

  • Good looks, performance and emotive design