Saturn's new Astra hatchback delivers a distinctly European driving experience. If you're familiar with this Saturn's origins — it's a product of GM's Opel brand in Europe — that probably won't come as a surprise to you, but it sure might to a number of Saturn buyers who come strolling into a dealership for a test drive.
What's likely to catch shoppers' eyes first is the two-door Astra XR's styling. It's much sleeker than the four-door hatchback, which is covered in a separate review, and features tapered side windows that increase the car's sportiness. The two-door's height is also a little shorter than the four-door's. This, combined with the coupe's long side doors, makes the car look longer and less boxy, even though the two- and four-doors are the same length.
The two-door Astra XR has a sport suspension, and it gives the Astra the ability to hold its own with a Volkswagen GTI in terms of cornering performance. Unfortunately, the very firm suspension means occupants are subject to a jarring ride on rough roads that's quite tiring. A softer setup would likely be preferable for many drivers, even if it gave up some handling prowess. The XR trim is the only version of the two-door Astra, so if you don't want the sport suspension you have to choose a four-door.
Even though the suspension communicates every bump and hole in the road to the cabin, the Astra didn't suffer from any squeaks or rattles. The car has a very solid feel to it on the whole, which bolsters its credibility as a premium offering in the hatchback segment.
All Astras are powered by a 138-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that can team with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. My test vehicle had the automatic.
The four-cylinder makes adequate power, but considering the two-door's sporty looks the modest power is a bit of a letdown; something so sporty-looking deserves a more entertaining engine. The benefit, however, is better gas mileage — 24/30 mpg with the automatic transmission and 24/32 mpg with the manual — than two of its turbocharged rivals, the GTI and Volvo C30. The automatic transmission, though, hampers performance; it occasionally feels a little out of sync with the engine in terms of when it should change gears.
The automatic doesn't include a clutchless-manual mode for the driver to take control of gear changes, but it does give you the old-style "3," "2" and "1" settings after "D," which limit the highest gear it can be in at any one time.
The Astra's cabin is a bit of a mixed bag. While overall material quality and detailing is pretty good, the European controls and interfaces won't be familiar to most U.S. buyers. A number of buttons include symbols that, even after looking at them for a few minutes, aren't understandable. After fiddling with the controls awhile you get the hang of most of them, though.
The standard front sport seats in the two-door Astra XR are super firm — some of the firmest I've tested — and like the suspension I wouldn't mind if they were a tad softer. Leather-upholstered seats are included in the optional Premium Trim package, which also includes a leather-covered steering wheel.
Another shortcoming of the two-door Astra's cabin is poor rear visibility that's compromised by a small rear window and rather large C-pillars. This makes backing up more difficult than it should be in a car this size.
In terms of utility, the two-door Astra offers 12 cubic feet of cargo space behind the split-folding backseat. The space is pretty sizable considering the hatchback's low roof and sporty shape. Folding the rear backrests opens up 37.8 cubic feet of cargo room.
So where does the two-door Astra fit in the market? Its $18,375 base price is similar to a base Mini Cooper, and it's significantly lower than the GTI and C30, which start at nearly $23,000. It doesn't, however, have an energetic turbo engine like the VW and Volvo do.
Enthusiasts will likely find that to be the most frustrating thing about this car: It can't deliver the exciting driving experience that its looks suggest. However, if you're more interested in curb appeal than performance and can overlook its curious controls, you should add the two-door Astra to your consideration list.
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