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Blake Noble

Quick Test: 2008 Saturn Astra XE

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Quick Test: 2008 Saturn Astra XE

Back Story:
Our humble family sedan, the trusty 2007 Saturn Aura XE V6, has been in the shop numerous times over the past two months for issues that have been plaguing everything from the audio system to the braking system to, just today, the on-board computer system (for a braking system-related problem). The first stop at the service department was a grueling five hour visit late last month, while the technicians tested the car out for two bad speakers, a bad stereo, a concerning grinding noise when you push on the brake pedal and shift into reverse or park, and taillights that came on when you pressed the gas pedal, but not the brake pedal. After Quantrell Saturn of Lexington handed it back to us, still with each of those cancerous gremlins taking a huge collective dump on the car's up-to-that-point good quality, they told us we'd have to come back in the following days for another visit while they waited for a huge slew of parts to be delivered. That second visit warranted a them giving us a loaner while they waited for a brand new braking system-related switch that was going bad to be delivered overnight.

The first car they loaned us was a ninety-five percent fully-loaded 2008 Saturn Vue Hybrid in What-The-Hell Mystic Blue, a color that was loud and proud and drew attention to a car that I felt that didn't need to be so loudly advertised, as if it wasn't already with various, clearly visible Hybrid badges stuck to its doors and rump. My overall impressions of the Vuebrid are surprisingly quite good, although I'd never actually buy one. I think it's also due a write-up as well.

So imagine my dismay when Quantrell didn't give us the keys to it today after they told us there was yet another overnight wait in store for the Aura as the on-board computer had started to sour and was causing the brake lights to, yet again, malfunction, causing them to not shut off as advertised. Ever. Instead of the cheeky blue cute-ute that I found a strange acceptance for, they gave us a swtichblade-style key that went to a dark blue hatchback, none other than an Astra five-door, the most ungainly member, in my opinion, of the Astra line-up.

The following are my impressions of the car.

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Q: So, what's the car got as far as features go?

A: This particular example of the Americanized Astra is just a few notches above having, well, nothing. It has cloth seats, the basic audio system, power windows and the oh-so-Euro central locking doors. As far as options go, it has air-conditioning, which was something that should have been standard as it was a stupidly expensive option on the Astra (the sticker price reads just a few bucks under a grand), and, strangely enough, heated seats. It's also sports a Made-In-Japan automatic. Yeah. Whoopity-do.

There's no leather surfaces anywhere. No sunroof. No CD changer. No traction control. Not that any of that stuff is actually very important to me, but it doesn't even have a set of attractive rims and tires (that is a must for me). It just has ugly plastic hubcaps painted in Drab Sliver that would look more appropriate on a Volkswagen Golf or Beetle, really. It has the 1.8 liter four-cylinder, which was the only engine available for the Astra here, that feels like it could barely blend a smoothie and sounds like a YardMan mowing down a hay field when accelerating.

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Q: Uh, yikes, I guess? Could you maybe elaborate on the powertrain more? That particular bit doesn't sound good so far ...

A: You're damned tootin' it doesn't sound good. Literally. When you're taking off from a dead stop and trying your damned best to wring the little 1.8 liter jerk of what little power it does have so that you don't get hit by that truck or that bus, the four-cylinder's annoying buzz seems to continuously bleed through the firewall and all of that sound-deadening material that lines it. You can almost hear the engine complaining, saying, "If you do that one more time, I swear, I'm going to call the Union and go on strike. Just you watch."

All of the juice, especially torque it seems, is cowering way up in the rev range, just begging for you not to even get near it. Maybe I'm just too used to a V8's willingness to giddy-up-n-go the minute you say when, but this car reminds me of all of the reasons why I'm not a fan of your basic four-cylinder engine in anything with a gas pedal and four wheels.

There is a bright side, though. When cruising at Interstate speeds, the buzz sort of goes away. Well, only to be replaced by the gawd-awful howl of the Good Year American Eagle tires.

The transmission is nothing but standard GM goodness. That's to be expected, though. Usually, GM transmissions, regardless of weather if it's the old three-speed auto from the '70s, the four-speed that GM used for, like, ever, or the new six-speed they're putting in everything now, shift smooth and work as near-perfect as a good transmission should. No qualms here ... except for the fact that you seem to lose a truckload of gas mileage with it. The window sticker shows mileage ratings that aren't any that much better than our Aura and that oh-so-low tech center-mounted DIC shows an average MPG that's one less than what we usually get in the Aura. I think I can say that, sometimes, smaller isn't always better.

Humorously, the Vuebrid we got before the Astra, seemed to be slighty better on gas than either one of them.

I will add that there are worse four-cylinder econoboxes out there, though. The Toyota Corolla is, hands down, the Gutless Supreme King in this class.

IMG_0012.jpg


Q: That doesn't sound good. I'm still not turning away just yet, though. Can you tell us about how it handles? Things of that sort? Maybe there's something good there, huh?

A: Yeah, actually there is. The steering is decently weighted with good feedback. You grip a fat wheel and with an effortless nudge left or right, you go left or right. For more spirited driving through curves, just hold on tight and steer, steer, steer. This car doesn't handle like an underpowered five-door econobox. It almost handles ... kinda sporty, kinda spirited. It handles like a go-cart, just without the pep to back it up.

The ride isn't cushy, but it isn't spine shattering stiff either. It's quite well-poised. This car also has very little body-roll. That leaves me wondering just how the guys over at Opel tuned what is a surprisingly good suspension. I wish the Aura was as good here.

The brakes, though, tend to be a little bit touchy. If you just tap them, you come to a stop with a hard jerk. This could have used some work.

If this thing had the old Cobalt SS's supercharged 2.0L EcoTec, the six-speed manual, and a well-balanced all-wheel drive system, I actually might not be ashamed to shamefully park one in a far corner of my driveway and tool around in it during the winter while my rear-drive behemoths hibernate.

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Q: Ah! So it does have a redeeming quality after all! What about that interior, though?

A: You shouldn't have asked.

Yeah, I know. For once GM has made a small car that has an interior which isn't made out of old gum wrappers and melted down Tupperware. Three-quarters of the dash is at least covered by soft-touch plastics, so if you feel the need to mosey on out late at night to do some nude grinding on the passenger side dashpad or above that stupid DIC, then you'll be feelin' alright. The pillar trim is covered with a nice woven material that matches the headliner (thank God rat fur is a thing of the past). The doors always slam with a vault-like thud. Most everything does seem to feel buttoned-down and almost as sturdy as an old end-table.

And my God, those seats. Like the Vuebrid we had, the seats are nice, firm, and supportive without being as rock-hard as a Central Park park bench. I could sleep in those seats if I had to. You always get out of the car with a back that feels refreshed and ready to go. They also grip your body quite well. It's short of just having a Swedish masseuse in the seat back from being perfect. Here's something else the Opel guys got right. They can make a damn good set of seats.

However, the grab handles are rather brittle to the touch and feel as cheap as cheap gets whereas other cars pay attention to this area and try to make them feel as substantial as possible. It is a "high-traffic" area after all. There is no center armrest, so your right elbow always winds up falling down what feels like an endless pit. I'd trade that stupid, awkward cupholder for an actual armrest, thanks.

You only have one color option for the Astra's Teutonic guts: grey and grey, with extra grey. I would image that this is what it would feel like to be Santa Claus stuck in a chimney at Christmastime. The design itself isn't something I'd really write home about, either. Yes, it is one leap and half of a bound above the Cobalt, but it sort of feels like everything is carved out of one solid block of plastic.

Then there's the center stack. The stereo and HVAC panels don't exactly have the best fit in the world either. They always seem to appear to be off-centered, crooked. The stereo controls themselves also feel cheap. The volume knob makes a chintzy click with each turn, like something is broken-off back there. Every button feels cheap to the touch. The silver paint looks dull and cheap too. Was it too much to ask for some Piano Black accents, like in the Sky? And maybe use actual rubber covers for all of the buttons?

The ugliest thing about the center stack, though, is the DIC that I've been randomly bitching about. The uber-pixelated font is ugly and you have three different ones for three different bits of information, so not only is it ugly, it isn't uniform. Oddly enough, the odometer on the DIC and the odometer between the speedo and tach didn't sync up by some few odd miles. Go figure.

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Q: Well, what's your overall verdict?

A: Honestly, you can do far worse than picking up one of these. You could buy a new Hyundai Elantra or Toyota Corolla, for example. This is also better than a Focus, I think. It most certainly looks better, even as the ungainly five-door. Yes, you could also do a little bit better as well. The Mazda 3 might have the dumbest front fascia ever, but it's still a sporty compact car that, now, doesn't look awkward (except for the front) as a sedan if four-doors and an actual truck matter to you.

I say that, in the end, if you want a nice, used compact car, pick up the three-door model. Overall, you won't regret it.

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Excellent write up. The autotrajic kills this car, as do the all season tires. With a 5 speed and real tires the car is transformed. The son of one of the guys in our VW TDI club lives in Cinci and got one of these.

With real tires and a manual...this is a real car. For real.

Chris

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your car lacked the sport package (much better and sportier ride and handling).

it lacked the advanced audio (far better DIC display and many audio control options)

it lacked the manual trans (much more powerful, lots less drone at cruising speeds)

it lacked leather and twin panel sunroof for the luxury touch

the firm seats, nicer plastics, solid door thuds and overall feeling of quality become endearing. absolutely is a better car than the focus. most certainly at least as a manual, is better for the driver than many compacts right now.

all the big flaws are fixable. armrest can be added accessory and dvd/nav/usb/bt head units are available that match the dash perfectly and look factory.

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Excellent write up. The autotrajic kills this car, as do the all season tires. With a 5 speed and real tires the car is transformed. The son of one of the guys in our VW TDI club lives in Cinci and got one of these.

With real tires and a manual...this is a real car. For real.

Chris

the 3 door XR with 18 inch wheels is the most lively. summer tires, you feel the bumps more, and it steers quicker.

this could be the worst automatic out there but the manual is equally good as the auto is bad.

at steady 65 mph, you should see 33-35 mpg in this car w/ stick. its got good mpg. 35-40 is possible from user reports.

Edited by regfootball
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Vxmmi.jpg

this is what is available in aftermarket, touchscreen control, backup camera too.

that gear shifter is one knob i enjoy wrapping my hand around. you don't get that in a cobalt.

Edited by regfootball
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This is what is giving me hope for a GM car in my future. If we do this as a small Buick and get the details right...

I'm in lust at the thought.

Chris

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What's the point? How about a review of the soon to be gone Vibe or G6?

I'm sure someone will find it useful. After all, you can buy one used and I think this is one of the best buys on the used car market as far as compact cars go.

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What's the point? How about a review of the soon to be gone Vibe or G6?

Because some reviews are useful as used car reviews. Not everyone buys new.

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$ for $ it is an excellent used car buy.

Again, great write up.

Chris

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Brand new Astra XE 5-Doors, more loaded than the one you tested, are going for 11'900 here in Canada, brand new.

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Nice writeup! I still like the Astra. It's a flawed car, but its still a nice ride, especially in 3-door form.

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Thanks everyone for the kind words. It really means a whole lot. :)

I noticed two typos that squeaked by me after proof-reading it. I'll make sure the next review I'll have up tomorrow doesn't repeat that same error.

Edited by whiteknight
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I will not crucify you for your typos. I mean, I know I never make them or anything, but we can't all be perfect. :smilewide:

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the thing to me is, the 08 astra is fun, and the 011 is supposed to be a quite a bit more improved.

lets hope the buick astra is awesome and that GMNA does not eff up the translation.

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I can't believe I'm saying this but if we get this ...

opel-astra-2010-gtc-img_6.jpg

... here in the States as Buick with a similar formula like I mentioned in my write-up, I wouldn't completely hate driving one until a proper and trim Camaro debuts.

Why do I feel dirty now?

Edited by whiteknight
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IIRC there was very little changes to the Astra when it was brought over here. Just US spec bumpers.

its what they didnt bring over. an armrest, an mp3 jack. a sunroof or glass roof on the 3 door. an optional motor. a better automatic.

and they didnt advertise it well. also the spec sheet and pricing was poorly done.

they really should have equipped the XE only one way. Some XE's have the dual panel roof which is absurd. I think i saw one with the hubcaps and dual roof one time. WTF?

A/C should have been standard. maybe only 200 of them were shipped w/o air, but WHY?

18's should have been optional with all season on the 5 door. although i think the 17's w sport package are nice.

yes astras have these incredible features no one knows about like rainsense wipers.

this is how i would have done this.

stabilitrak should have been standard across the board.

XE 5 door, A/C std. PW PL CC basic radio with mp3 input. armrest, cupholder. no sunroof option on the XE or at most a single panel. i would have made 16" alum wheels the only wheels. heated seats optional. NO leather option on the XE. audio upgrade a dealer accessory option.

XR 5 door i would have made sport pack with 17's standard. heated seats standard. steering wheel radio controls std. bluetooth std. twin panel roof a standalone option. leather an option. uplevel audio standard. i would have considered 18's with HP A/S or summer tires an accessory option at the dealer. leather and sunroof could have been combined into a package with a discount.

I would have tried like hell to get a much better automatic in the car.

3 door i would have offered an XE and XR. I would have offered similar packaging as the 5 door but made sure a glass roof or sunroof was availale in the 3 door. I think a 3 door XE would have done pretty well if priced under 16,500 MSRP and driveable with features.

i would have had better color choices, or at least more. tan interior option would have been nice.

there should have been a red line version.

one thing about this car. the interior smell in this car is very unique..typical US brand cars do not smell like this one inside.

Edited by regfootball
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I can't believe I'm saying this but if we get this ...

opel-astra-2010-gtc-img_6.jpg

... here in the States as Buick with a similar formula like I mentioned in my write-up, I wouldn't completely hate driving one until a proper and trim Camaro debuts.

Why do I feel dirty now?

the whole scuttlebut about the camaro being heavy is irrelevant when you see one at the dealer in the flesh. the styling and package and performance are so good, a few extra pounds is sort of nit picky thing at that point really. who makes a car like the camaro? the mustang is the only car affordable and close to badass that is lighter. to me the only possible killer flaw is the interior, and even then, to me if i wanted a musclecar, the camaro has the two main things nailed dead on. styling and performance. nothing combines those two like the camaro, and most likely it will be several years before it is remade or anyone comes close to doing it better. the mustang is nice, but just doesn't have the visual sizzle.

why deprive yourself of living in the now, when you have no certainty if camaro will even be around in 2015?

yeah, i'll take that pontiac g8 ute. wait............

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one thing about this car. the interior smell in this car is very unique..typical US brand cars do not smell like this one inside.

I actually noticed this. The Astra loaner only has 17,000 miles on it, so it still does have that new car smell. I can't exactly put my finger on what the Astra's new car smell reminds me of, though. I want to say it smells ... sweeter than a new North American or Mexican made car.

Edited by whiteknight
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