This month Saturn's galaxy expands with the arrival of the 2008 Astra. Already a hit in Europe - nearly half a million were sold last year under the Opel and Vauxhall names - the compact 5-door and 3-door Astra hatchbacks replace the uninteresting and slow-selling Ion models.

Imported from a General Motors factory in Belgium, the Astra looks smooth, futuristic and enticing from the outside, and the optimism is not stifled on entry.

The new Saturn 5-door is handsome; the 3-door is assertively sporty in appearance. With the exception of a grille that features a chrome bar and Saturn badge, and different front and rear fascias to meet U.S. safety standards, what you'll see here is what you would get in Europe.

Refined Design Detail
Money was clearly invested in the cabin, with soft-touch plastics and nicely weighted switch and rotary controls. Easy-to-read instruments are set in a stylish 3-D panel with the speedometer and tachometer flanking the fuel gauge. An interesting styling touch is a crease in the center of the hood that is faintly, but discernibly, continued on the dash and center stack.

Seats are comfortable and supportive. The driver's perch incorporates a height adjustment, and paired with a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, should provide a driving position to suit most sizes. There is no center console, and the rear-passenger-oriented cupholders may be a European message to U.S. drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel.

Overall, passenger accommodations are generous, with plenty of room for front-seat occupants and enough head- and legroom for up to six-footers in the back of the 5-door, a little less in the 3-door coupe.

Highly Sensible
Being a hatchback, the Astra is very versatile. The rear seats split 60/40 and fold flat, opening up usable space that belies the car's tidy size. If you've never owned a hatchback, you'll be amazed at its appetite for cargo.

Unlike Europe, with several engine choices, the U.S. Astra has only one: GM's 1.8-liter Ecotec four cylinder. It produces a more than adequate 138 horsepower and delivers 90 percent of its 125 lb-ft of torque from 2200 to 6200 rpm. Directing the engine's power to the front wheels is either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic.

For those who like a manual shifter but aren't always adept at holding a car while stopped on an incline, Astra's Hill-Start Assistance is for you. To prevent rolling back, brake pressure is maintained for 1.5 seconds after the brake pedal is released, giving the driver enough time to engage the clutch.

Featuring variable valve timing, the Astra will achieve 24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway with the manual, and 24/30 with the automatic, according to Saturn. To help save fuel, the automatic slips into neutral automatically at a stop.

Balanced Package
The Astra doesn't sacrifice passenger comfort for driver enthusiasm. Instead, it strikes a nice balance between smooth ride and fun-to-drive. Tuned by Lotus, the suspension setup - MacPherson struts up front and a torsion-beam axle at the back - delivers an agile chassis, with good body control and resistance to understeer. Combined with an electro-hydraulic steering system, the Astra clings to corners and delights its driver like no previous Saturn.

Braking is controlled by four-wheel anti-lock brakes, vented in front, solid in the rear. The five-door comes standard with 16-inch wheels, the 3-door sports 17 inchers.

Savvy Pricing
With competitors such as the Mazda3, Honda Civic and Volkswagen Rabbit, the Astra immediately grabs attention with its pricing. The base XE 5-door has a no-haggle sticker of $15,995, including destination charges, and the upscale XR starts at $17,545. The 3-door coupe, available only in XR trim, begins at $18,495.

What makes these prices so appealing are the standard features. These include several not expected in this category, such as active head restraints, rain-sensing wipers, one-touch front and rear power windows, and an illuminated glove box. Neat options include heated fabric front seats, and a two-panel sunroof on the 5-door that Saturn says is the largest in the class.

Standard safety features include dual-stage frontal airbags, front-seat-mounted side airbags, head-curtain airbags for front- and rear-seat occupants, and four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes. Electronic stability control with traction control is standard on the 3-door, and optional on 5-door models.

The 2008 Astra is a relative bargain. If you're looking for a premium experience at a pauper's price, this may be your ride.

Larry E. Hall is editor of Northwest Auto News Service and a freelance automotive journalist based in Olympia, Wash. He has an intense interest in future automotive technology.

MSN Autos

© 2009 Microsoft

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