Coming Soon as the 2008 Saturn Astra European style and urban practicality have shaped the Opel Astra, a version of the 2007 Opel GTC concept car. By Andy Enright, Contributor Date posted: 06-12-2007 140-hp, 1.8-liter engine - Front-wheel drive - Three-door or five-door hatchback - Built in Antwerp, Belgium When the news came to us that the 2008 Saturn Astra will be a rebadged version of our Opel Astra 1.8, our monstrously primped European superiority complex shifted into overdrive. We figured the Astra would do a number on the lackluster U.S. opposition when the first cars make landfall in November 2007. After all, those of us in Europe have been laughing ever since 2006 sales figures confirmed that Cadillac sold less than a third of the number it had so bullishly predicted at the beginning of the year. Here in the United Kingdom, Cadillac was outsold in 2006 even by Lamborghini. But the truth is, a 2008 Saturn Astra might have a hard time. The Chevrolet Cobalt hasn't exactly set the world on fire, despite its last-generation Opel Astra hardware, and no one wants to remember the Daewoo-built version of the Opel Astra that was sold as the Pontiac Le Mans from 1988-'93. It's all about the driving. And now that we've spent some time at the wheel of the Astra, we think you Yanks will like the new Saturn version. Twin Peaks When the Astra arrives at Saturn dealerships this fall, you'll never think about the Ion again. General Motors knows that the Astra will have to look right to make it in America. Two key criteria were identified early on in the program. First the car has to pass what GM executives refer to as the "shop window test." That is, an owner must be so enamored of the Astra's lines that he can't help but sneak a look at its reflection in a plate-glass window. (It's hard to see the Saturn Ion being subjected to such a thing, as potential buyers would recoil in horror at the car's panel fit.) The other design exam is called the "100-yard test." Since much of the buying decision is made within the first 100 yards of a test-drive, a potential buyer has to feel instantly impressed with the Astra's intuitive, easy-to-use controls. No matter what the design criteria might be, the Astra three-door hatch is handsome enough to snap the elastic band of your drawers at 100 yards. Opel had a huge degree of liberty in its styling of the Astra because the success of its Meriva and Zafira minivans allowed this practical hatchback to be about more than just schlepping the family about. The five-door Astra is a slick piece of design penmanship, yet the three-door Sport Hatch model knocks it into next week. Built at GM's plant in Antwerp, Belgium, the three-door hatch and the five-door share a platform, with the same 102.9-inch wheelbase, but the three-door is actually 1.5 inches longer and 0.6 inch lower, and it resembles the GTC concept car shown at the 2007 Geneva Auto Show. A TwinTop convertible with a folding hardtop is also sold in Europe, and it might be a possibility for the U.S. A stronger possibility is the Astra Panoramic, a three-door hatch with a windshield that stretches way back past the driver's head in one dizzying sweep, like the canopy of an F-16 fighter plane. Mild at Heart In Europe, the Astra represents part of Opel's sales resurgence thanks to a more dramatic sense of style. Saturn picked a 1.8-liter Ecotec inline-4 out of Opel's portfolio of Astra engines, a 140-horsepower design introduced in 2006 to coincide with the European Astra's first styling face-lift. Peak torque of 129 pound-feet arrives at 3,800 rpm, and variable valve timing delivers 90 percent of this from 2,200-6,200 rpm. It's even possible to detect a VTEC-like step change at around 4,500 rpm. It's not a particularly melodious power plant, but it makes some decent speed, as 60 mph comes up in 9.5 seconds and top whack is 129 mph. In European trim, the Ecotec's fuel economy is rated at 38.7 mpg on the combined cycle, and city driving is pegged at 28.5 mpg. Once this car arrives in America, your mileage may vary, as they say. Perhaps in time the 178-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter will get the green light for the Saturn Astra Red Line, or possibly the gutsy, 237-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter slugger fitted to the Vauxhall VXR and Opel OPC versions of the Astra. A Torsionary Tail European practicality is a fine thing, but this might be the Euro tuning you had in mind. There's nothing particularly remarkable about the specification of the Astra's suspension, as there's a MacPherson strut up front and a torsion beam at the back. When it comes to the way the Astra handles the road, though, this car is only a few percent shy of a Ford Focus or Volkswagen Rabbit. When the Astra is driven hard, you can detect a sense of reluctant inertia at the back of the car, but otherwise the Opel is composed and neat. The electrically assisted power steering doesn't deliver faithful feedback, though. Body control is acceptable and the rear suspension thumps only over bigger ruts and expansion joints. The brakes are beyond reproach. Find the Quality Inside Soft-touch materials help to make the Astra's interior inviting, although the navigation controls are fearfully fiddly. The cabin is the Astra's strongest point. In Europe the Astra often runs $2,000 cheaper than a comparable Volkswagen Golf, but no compromises have been made in this car's interior. The slam of the driver door alone feels more substantial than that of some Mercedes midrange models. It's worth remembering that the Astra has been spawned from a long line of fleet specials, and its transformation into something more prestigious has massively impressed Europeans. The interior details both look and feel expensive. The audio controls in the steering wheel and the combination of soft plastics, piano-black finishes and chrome-ringed dials give the cockpit a feel a long way removed from the average shopping hatch. On the other hand, the control system for the trip computer, stereo and satellite navigation is, to be frank, hideously complex and looks cheap to boot. The ergonomics aren't brilliant either, notably the gear lever that's set a couple of inches too far back. Saturn freely admits that not a whole lot will be changed from the European car, although three smallish cupholders have been added for the U.S. market. With a more generous equipment level and bigger 18-inch alloy wheels, the three-door car appeals to a younger audience that probably doesn't care about the generous headroom in the back of the five-door. Saturn will offer two trim levels (XE and XR) for five-door models, and a single trim (XR) in the three-door body style. When it comes to safety equipment, the Astra has electronic stability control with traction control, and its standard four-wheel disc brakes come with ABS. There are also front-seat airbags, front-seat side airbags, curtain-type airbags for front and rear-seat passengers, active head restraints and collapsible pedals, all of which have helped the Astra earn a five-star crash-test rating from European New Car Assessment Program. Lost in Translation? The European-only Astra Panoramic features a windshield that sweeps overhead like a fighter-plane canopy. Perhaps fearing that this European star performer will also suffer something lost in the translation, Saturn seems intent on playing down the Astra's chances in the U.S., insisting that it won't sell as well as the Ion. Perhaps the senior suits are just sandbagging. From here, the Astra has everything a Saturn should have. It looks right, drives with an intuitive feel and a dynamic composure that everyone can appreciate, and it's both spacious and safe. With all of our European superiority complex on this side of the Atlantic, we think the Astra shows that we know all the right things about small cars. The three-door hatchback has the taste of style and sport that Saturn is seeking in the U.S. First Impressions: The small car that made General Motors profitable in Europe could well turn the same trick for Saturn.