All the exotic carmakers do it - Ferrari, Bentley, and Lamborghini, for example. Executive car producers like Mercedes, BMW, and Audi do it, too. And so do the manufacturers of humdrum cars like Toyota , VW, Nissan, and Chrysler. Even Alfa Romeo thinks it can do it and is beavering away behind the scenes to make it happen. But GM and Ford? They just can't seem to be able to get it right, which means they're needlessly wasting millions of development dollars each year.
I'm talking, of course, about building global cars. How is it that VW can build the Golf and Passat and Toyota is able to produce the Yaris and Corolla and both companies can sell identical all over the world without too much difficulty, while GM and Ford have never been able to find a single car to keep Asian, European, and American customers happy?
Ford's best attempt, the Focus, got off to a great start in America and looked like becoming the company's first, global, mainstream success, but in transferring production to Mexico it seems much of the quality control got lost in translation and the Euro-chic Focus' reputation ended up in the Euro-trash. For the all-new 2008 model, Ford's designers have grabbed their security blankies and designed a car reminiscent of the good-ol' Escort in terms of design and layout so a bland sedan and coupe replace the bold sedan and hatchback models. An opportunity is missed and status quo is restored.
Not to worry, though, because just as Ford beats a hasty retreat GM steps in to take up the fight. Its resurgent Saturn division is currently preparing to launch the all-new Astra, a car that's more-or-less identical to the European Opel Astra in every significant way...or so we hope. Rather than importing the car from Europe -- which it will do at launch, to get the car more quickly -- GM will build the car Stateside (in Tennessee, we understand) and massage some of the more expensive content out to make it a more cost-effective proposition for the U.S. market. However, we're pretty sure that GM and Saturn will have learned from Ford's experience with the Focus, so what arrives on Saturn forecourts in the fall of 2007 will be much closer to its European sibling that the over-diluted Focus was back in 2000.
What's it like?
So what is the European Astra like, then? Pretty darn good, actually. At its European launch in 2004 it was praised for its sporty and funky styling and, with the exception of federal bumpers and Saturn grille, its basic appearance won't be altered for American consumption. Fortunately for Saturn, the three-door hatchback (known in Europe as the GTC) has been styled to resemble a rakish coupe (it's still a roomy five-seater, though), helping it to poach sales from the new Focus Coupe and Scion tC, while the five-door hatchback is slightly more conservatively styled to make it more appealing to family buyers. (Pictured here are the U.S. Saturn versions, fresh off embargo.)
Opel has also just unveiled a new four-door Astra sedan for Eastern Europe (they prefer sedans out East) and you can be sure that will make its way Stateside before long also, though Saturn declines to comment on that. The Astra wagon and hardtop convertible won't be offered in the U.S., however.
As you might expect from a GM product, the interior isn't quite as exciting as the exterior and what little glitz the Euro-Astra has will probably have to be pulled to keep costs down (fancy one-touch stalks and windows, for example). Even so, the Astra will remain as spacious as ever and will offer a great driving position and excellent visibility, too.
Mechanically, the Astra isn't as sophisticated as its main rivals in Europe, with its basic torsion-beam rear suspension, but the good news is engineers have worked wonders with it and in terms of ride and handling it's not disgraced by the agile and refined European-model Focus and Golf. This bodes well or American customers too, because Saturn wants to keep that sporty European feel to help it win over younger buyers.
I've driven several Opel Astras over the past few months and where they truly excel is in terms of ride and refinement, as well as body control and steering precision. They feel agile and willing, even if they could use a bit more feel and involvement, while the gearchange and brakes operate with slickness and consistency, making it an amusing car to hustle along and a fine long-distance companion.
The Saturn Astra's engines are likely to be versions of GM's global Ecotec four. The U.S. engine is a 140-hp 1.8-liter Ecotec engine, which proved adequately powerful if somewhat lacking in smoothness at high revs. A five-speed manual will be standard on all Saturn Astras, with a four-speed automatic offered as an option.
Opel, like most European carmakers, is shifting towards smaller, turbocharged engines in a bid to lower emissions and fuel consumption without affecting performance, so the company's excellent 180-hp, 1.6-liter turbo is likely to be the pick of the revised European Astra range, which goes on sale in February.
Meanwhile, American enthusiasts are no doubt be hoping that the Astra Red Line will be little more than a re-badged version of the howling-mad, 240-hp, 2.0-liter turbo Astra OPC (Opel Performance Center). The Red Line coupe will probably use most of the OPC's bodywork and chassis tweaks, but whether it will get the 260-hp, 2.0-liter turbo GM stuffs in the Solstice, remains up for conjecture.
Frankly, that might be an issue. The Astra's chassis simply isn't sophisticated enough to cope with all that power and torque and as a result, the OPC is a surprisingly frustrating and uninspiring car to drive. Turn off the stability control and you'll find that when you're not quenching torque-steer and wheel-spin, you're doing battle with oversteer and understeer as it bounces and skips its way over uneven surfaces. Leave the traction control on and the dashboard lights light up like Vegas at night, especially if there's a hint of moisture on the road.
As with the Focus, the Astra's success as a global model depends on the American division's final execution. If Saturn gets it right, the Astra will be seen as a good-looking, fun, and classy little car that will do great business for Saturn and will also do a lot to raise the brand's profile with trendy young Americans. If they get it wrong…well, I guess nothing much will have changed, will it?
2008 Saturn Astra (estimated figures)
Base price: $17,500
Engines: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 145 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 167.3 x 69.0 x 57.5 in
Wheelbase: 102.9 in
Curb weight: 2546 lb
Fuel economy (city/hwy): 27/36 mpg (est., 2.0-liter manual)
Safety equipment: Dual front, side, and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes and stability control
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors; OnStar; AM/FM/CD player
Warranty: Five years/100,000 miles
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