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Motoring: Saturn turning heads with new Euro look

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | August 25th, 2008

Over the years if there was one brand I really didn't like, it was Saturn. Yes, while I appreciated the polymer panels that were dent resistant, and their friendly approach to car sales, the cars themselves were rubbish.

Driving a Saturn was about as enjoyable as cutting your nails. When I drove the new Saturn Sky roadster last year, sadly, my impressions about the kind of cars Saturn makes made no change.

I have a feeling Bob Lutz, the person in charge of General Motors (GM), felt the same way I did. Lutz knows a lot about cars and how to manage car companies and has transformed every car company he has had a hand in running.

Lutz went to work to not only change Saturn, but transform it completely.

As a result is the car you see featured this week, the Saturn Astra.

This car was not designed to be a Saturn, in fact this stylish hatchback was designed by GM's European divisions and is marketed as the Vauxhall Astra in England and as an Opel Astra in the rest of Europe.

To bring this vehicle to the North American market, they simply stuck some Saturn badges on it and put it on a ship headed west.

The end result is a car that I have been waiting for a long time. Europeans really know how to make great small cars, and this Astra is no exception.

Lets start with its looks. I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but everyone who saw this car commented what a beautiful car it was, and I agree. I love it from every angle, in fact the three-door version is in my mind one of the best looking cars on sale in Canada right now.

My test car was the five-door model, which has to be one of the best looking five-door hatches on the market. Equipped with those lovely five-spoke wheels, this car looks aggressive and fast.

In reality, the version we get here in Canada is not very fast. The only engine available at the moment is a 1.8-litre, 16-valve, four-cylinder unit, which produces a respectable 138 hp. That engine can be mated to either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels.

My test car came with the automatic gearbox, which is a smooth unit, but lacks technical features like a semi-automatic system for manual gear selection. So if you want to speed up, you have to mash your right foot into the floor, and at highway speeds even that will not bring you any rapid acceleration. Straight-line speed is not its forte, but it is economical. In my week, I averaged nine-litres/100km on an urban cycle, which is quite good. In these days of ever rising fuel prices, I can easily sacrifice a bit of performance for good fuel economy.

No sacrifices were made in the handling department. This is one of the best handling cars in its class. Its European designed chassis, tuned at the Nurburgring racetrack in Germany, results in a car that grips very well into corners and doesn't even lean too much. I loved tossing this car through twists and turns. Just be careful when having fun, because the brakes, while quite decent, do require a firm determination to bring this car to a stop.

So as a performance car it is good, as a practical car it is better. There is enough room in here for four adults, five in a squeeze. The trunk is very spacious, the rear seats also fold down for more carrying room. The seats are very comfortable, so definitely a good small car to take on long trips. The quality of the interior fit and finish is first-class and it has cool features too, like the oversized sunroof.

The only drawback I found in this interior was the lack of cup holders. In North America, we sure like our drinks in the car, and in the front, there is a single cup holder, placed inconveniently behind the handbrake.

Overall the interior is a fine place to spend time in and as a whole, I really do like this car.

So finally a Saturn I would love to own, and it's priced right too. Base price for an Astra is $17,900. My loaded tester was just about $25,000, and that is still good value.

So if you have not been to a Saturn showroom for years, it's about time you go now, it's worth it.
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