Saturn Astra XR

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Description: Little Feet: Eight ways to shrink your carbon footprint: looking for the 35-mpg car.

Cue the violins! Financially struggling GM, after years of trying to export cars built with strong dollars into weak-currency markets, has reached into Germany for a small car built in euros to sell here. Profits at last? No way. The dollar plummeted, making this Opel-built, Saturn-labeled five-door an expensive import, at least in the near term.

The Astra follows the European formula for family haulers, a two-box design similar in concept to VW’s Rabbit but about five inches longer. The extra length pays off big in the back, with excellent foot space and a cushion perfectly shaped for support, even though it’s rather low. Three-across seating is surprisingly good, too, with none of the usual gripes from “hump boy.”

The 1.8-liter is about as wimpy as its 138-hp rating would suggest, strolling to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds on the way to a last-place finish in the quarter at 17.1 seconds and 82 mph. Braking was about average, but skidpad grip topped the ranking at 0.84 g. Fuel economy on our test loop ranked fourth before rounding down to 24 mpg, matching the Astra’s EPA city rating for 2008.

We very much liked the feel, shape, and look of the cloth seats front and back, but we’re less enthusiastic about other interior details—markings on the knobs and switches are inscrutable, and the center-dash display looks like some IBM leftover from the ’80s DOS age. For a German car, the Astra is surprisingly rattly-buzzy inside. The shifter is clunky, too.

The optional Sport Handling package ($695) is surely to blame for the crisp ride, but it brings this car alive in the twisties, with quick responses and lots of kickback in the steering.



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