Saturn Astra XR Review

Small cars needn't be cheap. Not as in price tag, but as in materials and craftsmanship. Unfortunately, there's a history in this country of domestic automakers not doing their best work on small cars and of foreign automakers "Americanizing" the products they sell here (the low point of which had to have been the 1978 VW Rabbit and its color-keyed "Americans like this stuff" interior).

GM should be applauded for what it's done with the Saturn Astra. It has taken the car known as the Opel Astra in Germany, put it on a boat and shipped it to the States. Period. Yes, that means you actually have to read the owner's manual to find out what the symbols on the controls represent. But it also means that the controls haven't been switched out for cheaper plastics, that the suspension pieces haven't been traded for ones giving a softer ride at the expense of control and that stuff the Europeans get standard can't be made optional.

The Astra is exceptionally well-equipped. The 5-door XR comes with a 1.8 liter 16-valve four cylinder engine and a 5-speed manual, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, remote keyless entry, tire pressure monitor, a theft deterrent system, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, power door locks, a seven-speaker AM/FM/CD/mp3 audio system and 16 inch alloy wheels. The 3-door comes with all that, but with 17 inch alloy wheels.

You don't get something for nothing, of course, so the base price is where some of the competition reaches the bottom line...$16,925 for the 5-door and $17,875 for the 3-door. But stop there, with the cars as equipped, and you're about even. Our testers had upgraded sound systems, automatic transmissions and sunroofs added...the 3-door got a leather interior. If it was our money, we'd pass on all that (okay, we might spring the $595 for the Advanced Audio Package).

No, the Astra's not a pavement-burner with that 1.8 liter four...but it's more than adequate...and the EPA says both the 3-door and the 5-door will get 24 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway. And they both feel like they're carved out of solid blocks of steel. German engineering and all that. GM deserves to be rewarded for leaving well enough alone with the Astra. Hopefully, hundreds of thousands of customers will do just that.