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Saturn keeps the new rides coming with the Astra

May 25, 2007|by MALCOLM GUNN / Wheelbase Communications

From the land of the Porsche 911 and BMW 3-series comes a vehicle that General Motors' Saturn division hopes will earn similar notoriety.

Developed by GM's German Opel branch, the Astra will cross the Atlantic Ocean later this year to replace the aging Ion as Saturn's entry-level compact.

In case you weren't aware, Saturn has been busy launching plenty of gleaming new products. In fact, the pace of change is so rapid that, by the time the Astra finds its way to dealer showrooms, the oldest model in the lineup will be the Sky sports car, which was new for the 2007 model year. The Sky has been incredibly popular, but take note that the recently introduced mid-size Aura sedan was voted the 2007 North American Car of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show back in January. The Aura was also spun from GM's German Opel division.

The new Astra, available in both two-door hatchback and four-door wagon models, displays a sleek look that's a significant departure from the Ion. The wheels are aggressively positioned outside the fenders and are contained only through the use of supplemental cladding.

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There's a subtle crease that extends the length of the hood, and distinctive chrome accent bars on the grille and just above the rear bumper add a certain upscale touch. Any cost-cutting measures that are often evident on many starting-point cars aren't evident on the Astra.

The two-door version, clearly the sportiest of the duo, does a great job of masking its practical hatchback side while the shape of the four-door wagon is reminiscent of the Dodge Caliber and Pontiac Vibe.

Unlike Saturns of old, the Astra has no polymer (plastic) ding- and-rust-resistant body panels. From now on, it's strictly sheet metal for the doors and fenders that, according to company sources, transmit less road noise into the cabin and offer a tighter fit with smaller gaps.

The Astra's interior appears as refined as the exterior, featuring a meaty steering wheel, large round gauges and smartly placed knobs and switches on the central control panel.

The Ion was adept at stretching a gallon of gas, and the Astra will try to achieve the same reputation with a similar standard 140-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder "Ecotec" powerplant that's connected to a five-speed manual transmission or optional four-speed automatic.

The Astra wagon will share the same two-model designation as the Aura sedan - base XE, and uplevel XR - while the the hatchback, because of its sportier nature, will be offered in XR trim only. As of this writing it's too early for Saturn to spill the beans on precise content for each, but it has been revealed that base wagons will come with power windows, outside mirrors and locks, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, six-speaker audio system, four-wheel disc brakes and six air bags, including side-impact protection. Hatchbacks will add stability and traction control, 17-inch alloy wheels (18-inchers are optional), steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, more responsive steering and sportier bucket seats with larger side bolsters and increased lumbar support.

On the option sheet will be heated front seats in cloth or leather, seven-speaker MP3-capable audio system with multi-disc CD changer, navigation system and an oversized two-panel power sunroof for the wagon.

Astra base pricing has yet to be announced but will likely exceed the $12,500 Ion by about $2,000. But one look at the Astra's impressive attributes, especially the European influence, and this new Saturn will look and drive like a bargain. Now that's what we call smart.

Copyright 2007 Wheelbase Communications

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