Saturn pulls the plug on its homely compact and finds a stylish replacement in the Opel Astra BY RAY HUTTON May 2006 Saturn is becoming the American name for GM’s German subsidiary, Opel. At the end of 2007, the Saturn Ion compact reportedly will be replaced with the Opel Astra. According to Automotive News, the new Astra-based Saturn will not only be designed in Europe but also will be exported from there. The Ion ceases production in Spring Hill, Tennessee, at the end of this year. GM officials won’t confirm that the Astra is the Ion’s replacement or tell us what it will be called. Whatever the name, the scribes at Automotive News expect it to be priced from about $16,000 — some $3500 more than the Ion. We have been driving the Opel Astra in Europe to give you an idea of what’s in store for Saturn and how it compares with the small-car competition. The Opel Astra took a big step forward when it appeared in Europe two years ago. Its predecessor had been a dowdy thing, outclassed by the original Ford Focus in the most competitive sector of the European car market. The styling of the fifth-generation Astra is more exciting and more sporting, and the design and quality of its interior is a quantum leap from the previous car’s. Martin Smith, then design chief at Opel — now with Ford — can take credit for that. He made his name with Audi interiors, arguably regarded as the best in the business. The Astra entered the European arena as one of the best, if not the best, of the bunch. Bigger and more spacious than its predecessor at 167 inches — it is 5.5 inches longer — it is also nicer to drive. GM’s European engineers have learned from Ford’s success with the nimble Focus that drivers appreciate cars that steer precisely and handle confidently. Ford has also moved on in Europe with a bigger and better Focus (not sold in the U.S., where the old model continues), but the Astra beats it on style and presentation. In Europe the Astra sees a wide range of engines — gasoline of 1.4, 1.6, and 1.8 liters and a turbocharged 2.0-liter; and 1.7- and 1.9-liter diesels with three different power outputs. The most powerful engines come with six-speed gearboxes. The message is that anything the opposition can do so can the new Astra. It can even do some things better than the others. The list of its novel features is impressive. ESP-Plus electronic stability control, CDC continuously variable damping, and a switchable sport mode work together to provide fast and safe progress. The sport setting not only stiffens the suspension but also sharpens the response of the steering wheel and accelerator pedal. There is hill-start assist, which automatically maintains brake pressure to avoid rolling back on an incline, and trailer stability control, which uses the car’s braking system to rein in a snaking caravan or trailer. The problem, and the reason for qualifying the Astra’s excellence rating, is that none of these things is standard equipment on the cheaper Astras that most Europeans buy. The entry-level Astra 1.4 has power steering, ABS, and four airbags, but that is no more than is expected from a new hatchback. Although it has a relatively unsophisticated torsion beam rear suspension, the regular Astra is comfortable and stays tidy even on bumpy, twisting roads. Only in the ultimate performance version, the 240-hp Astra OPC (which may appear here in Saturn Red Line guise), do shortcomings really become apparent; its propensity for wheelspin and torque steer make it a wild ride. The Ford Focus ST may not look as exciting, but it is altogether more civilized and composed. The 1.8-liter 16-valve with 125 horsepower would seem the most appropriate power unit for the conventional U.S. version, although a detuned version of the OPC’s 2.0-liter turbo Ecotec engine would be more competitive; currently in Europe, that engine is supplied in two different states of tune, 170 and 200horsepower. The Opel Astra, also sold in Britain as the Vauxhall Astra, has gone through five generations since 1980, when it was the first European GM car to adopt front-wheel drive. It has been, by turns, dull and ordinary, overtly aerodynamic, then boring again. The Astra Mark IV, introduced in 1998, was the watershed; the Ford Focus was launched at the same time and looked, drove, and sold better. For the latest version of the Astra, which came to the market in 2004, GM was determined to trump the opposition. The new model appeared six months before the second-gen Focus and had improved styling and a classy interior and offered a wider variety of body styles. In 2005, the Astra was Europe’s second-bestselling car behind the Volkswagen Golf, and in April this year, the Vauxhall Astra pushed the Focus off the top of the U.K. sales charts. The current Astra shares components of the so-called Delta platform with the Saturn Ion. In Europe, the Astra comes in a bewildering array of models: three- and five-door hatchbacks, the Twin-Top coupe-convertible with a retractable hardtop, and a station wagon built on an extended wheelbase shared with the Zafira minivan. But there is no four-door sedan, traditionally the most popular format in the U.S. Saturn will likely present the five-door as a kind of sporty hatch, like the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Corolla Matrix. The three-door, with its dramatically plunging rear roofline, is called the GTC (Grand Touring Coupe) by Opel and would make a suitable replacement for the Saturn Ion quad coupe, although it doesn’t have the quad’s rear-hinged demi-doors. It does, however, offer a unique feature of its own: The optional panoramic roof is an enormous tinted windshield that extends uninterrupted to the B-pillars and gives the feeling of riding in a glass bubble.