Cars.comparison: Premium Hatchbacks

So you want something small and relatively fuel-efficient, but it also has to be stylish and fun to drive. If that's you, then a hatchback is a good choice. Here, two new ones — the Saturn Astra and Volvo C30 — square off against the car that jolted the segment when it was reintroduced for 2002: the Mini. Find out which is our editors' choice.

 = Category winner
The Contenders
2008 Mini Cooper S w/six-speed manual2008 Saturn Astra XR four-door w/five-speed manual2008 Volvo C30 T5 Version 1.0 w/six-speed manual
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Price as tested
Freshest look
Neither aggressive nor sporty, the Cooper is cute — as in puppy dogs and babies. It still gets attention, but many can't distinguish this redesigned model from the previous generation.It may be a new model in the U.S. that sports the new face of Saturn, but it's still the most likely to disappear in the crowd of other compact cars. Though it's controversial, we agree that the C30 is sharp and out of character for Volvo — in a good way. Its lines and oddly shaped rear window place it among the most unique models on the road. That's an accomplishment.
Engine and transmission
The new turbo engine moves the car as if it were on a zipline. Shifting is quick and light and adds to the exuberant driving experience.The lowest engine output among the three conspires with the Astra's five-speed manual to make this the pokiest of the pack and one of the slower cars sold. Another gear would at least help tap into its thrashy high-rpm power.The eager-revving turbo inline-five-cylinder and slick-shifting six-speed manual will have you visiting your favorite stretches of road frequently to exercise this exceptional drivetrain.
Gas mileage (city/highway, mpg)
Ride quality
It's not the softest ride, but it did improve with its recent redesign. You'll feel pockmarked streets, but they shouldn't rattle your teeth. Though our car had the optional sport suspension and 17-inch wheels, the ride quality was comfortable. The longer wheelbase smoothes road disruptions that would upset the Cooper. The base suspension should be softer still.The base suspension tuning is plenty firm, and travel on rough roads can be jarring. Uplevel Version 2.0 models come with an even stiffer setup.
Top go-kart
Nothing handles quite like a Mini Cooper. It brought the go-kart phenomenon back to the driving world, and it's still the best on the market.Despite its semi-independent rear suspension, the Astra handles very well, with good steering feedback and body control. It's no Cooper, but nothing else really is.The sporty suspension tuning helps the C30's cause here, but the steering feels a bit disconnected and can't compete with the Cooper S' telepathic moves.
Interior design
If you like eccentric, the Mini Cooper's interior is for you. Circles dominate the styling theme, and most controls and gauges aren't in the "right" place. Fans don't seem to mind, though.
For the price, this imported model's interior quality is good, but it's sullied by odd ergonomics that are foreign not just to Saturn, but to American drivers.
The flowing center control panel provides some flair and features elegantly integrated controls. Otherwise, the C30's cabin is rather ordinary, but the switches and buttons are where you'd expect them to be. Materials quality overall is good.
Seat comfort
The new front bucket seats in this version of the Cooper S are a big improvement over the previous generation's lumpy buckets. You notice that there's no center armrest, but that's not enough to overshadow the front seats' positive qualities. They're height-adjustable and supportive.Good seat adjustability is a plus, but the front buckets are narrow and might not fit some people very well. Volvo's synthetic T-Tec seating material isn't the most inviting.
Cargo area utility
The Cooper's cargo area isn't very big, and it's hard to get to via a small trunk opening. Even though the rear seats fold down, the Cooper is short on usability. There's nothing's special about the Astra's hatch, but there's nothing's weird, either, so it wins by default. Beware the protruding top-tether anchors on the folding rear backrests, though.The C30 has the most cargo room behind the rear seats (12.9 cubic feet), but a tall bumper and small liftgate opening don't make loading luggage easy.
Overall value
There are more options than you can imagine, but most are just fluff. Still, spending an extra $500 on stability control shouldn't be a choice a buyer has to make in this car. Based on price alone, the Astra is the best value. Even when loaded up with options like a stability system, sport suspension and two-panel moonroof, the Astra still costs less than the other two models' base prices.The starting price might seem high, but you don't need to add too many options to feel satisfied. The looks and power come standard.
Editors' choice
There's still nothing on the road quite like a Mini Cooper. Beneath the trendy looks is an authentic driver's car — with good gas mileage to boot.The wee Cooper almost deserves its own category, but regardless, the Astra's meek drivetrain can't even propel it past other rivals, like the C30, and into our hearts.As a fun and functional hatchback, the C30 ranks near the top. We wouldn't have thought Volvo could build this car, but we're glad it did.
Posted on 2/29/08
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