Kiss Our Astra? Maybe Not So Much European-inspired styling gives the Astra a sporty appeal. By: Laura Burstein , Automotive Editor The field of fun yet functional hatchback coupes under $20,000 hasn't ever been what you'd call broad. So when GM announced it would bring its Opel Astra across the Atlantic and re-brand it as a replacement for the Saturn Ion for 2008, those who knew the European brand's reputation for good build quality and sharp handling were hopeful that the Saturn Astra would breathe fresh competition into a class led by only a select few. Although the 2009 Astra is relatively new to the U.S. market, the compact hatchback first launched in Europe in 1991 and the current generation has been around since 2004. The Astra has done well in Europe, and GM (which plans to share more models between the Opel and Saturn brands) is hoping the Astra will find the same success in the States. But the endeavor hasn't been without challenges. Executives at GM admit the Belgian-made hatchback has become more expensive to produce thanks to the declining U.S. dollar. At a base price of $19,545 before the destination charge, the 2009 Saturn Astra XR coupe starts at nearly $3,000 more than its closest rival, the 2009 Volkswagen Rabbit coupe, which boasts a 2.5-liter inline-5 which makes 32 horsepower more than the Aura's 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. One factor that might fall in the 2009 Saturn Astra Coupe's favor is that it's one of only a couple of two-door compact hatchbacks on the market. Many highly rated models, such as the Honda Fit and Mazda Mazda3 wagon, only come in four-door options. Others like the Hyundai Accent are too small to be considered direct competitors. So even if buyers aren't particularly moved by the Astra coupe's sporty styling, dynamic handling or reasonable fuel economy, the relative lack of alternatives might be enough of a reason for some to buy. Performance While not the most powerful, the Astra's 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine gets an EPA combined average of 27 mpg, regardless of transmission. Our car was equipped with the only engine available, a 1.8-liter inline-4 that makes 138 hp and 125 pound-feet of torque. Power is routed to the front wheels through a five-speed manual (although a four-speed automatic is also available). We have mixed feelings about the Astra's abilities. Handlingwise, the XR coupe is able, although calling it "fun" might be an overstatement. The steering is quick and agile, and despite some body roll around corners, the Astra is stable and easy to drive. However, the shifter responds rather lazily, which makes quick shifts nearly impossible. The Opel-derived suspension is relatively firm, yet the ride remains comfortable. However, Saturn has tuned the Astra to maximize mpg, which, while a commendable goal, comes at the expense of performance. Even though the engine's specs are competitive, the engine feels sluggish off the line, and tall gear ratios make the hatch feel gutless. Heaven forbid you find yourself changing lanes in front of a car that's going faster than you expected; you just might find yourself on the receiving end of some less-than-friendly hand gestures. Then again, you might not notice, since you'll be uttering your own expletives as you stand on the throttle wondering why nothing's happening. On the track, our 2009 Saturn Astra Coupe didn't break any records. It made it from zero to 60 mph in an underwhelming 8.9 seconds and reached the quarter-mile in 16.6 seconds at 83.9 mph. Through the slalom, the Astra's average speed was 66.4 mph. We felt quite a bit of body roll, but the car was still fairly confident and easy to drive. Brakes were average; our three-door stopped from 60 mph in 126 feet. Now, about that fuel economy. The EPA estimates the 2009 Astra XR Coupe with the manual transmission gets 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined, compared with 21/30/24 mpg for the 2009 Rabbit with the manual transmission. However, our combined observed fuel economy for the Astra coupe was only 22 mpg, although our results might not be in line with those of the average driver. But even using published numbers, the long-term fuel savings might not justify the Astra's higher sticker price. According to EPA estimated fuel costs, the much more powerful 2009 Rabbit is only $188 more per year to drive. In this respect, the Astra can't necessarily claim to be a better overall value. Comfort Front seats offer sporty bolstering and good support. Despite its shortcomings, there are still ways in which the 2009 Saturn Astra tries to be a sporty car. For example, the front seats are firm and aggressively bolstered for a compact hatchback, and offer good support. The seats have a wide range of adjustability, although the manual seatback adjustment knob is inherently hard on hands and wrists. The manual lumbar is a nice feature, especially for long road trips. In our time with the car, the Astra coupe's front seats comfortably accommodated drivers and passengers of various sizes. Rear seats might prove a bit of a challenge for taller passengers, as there is limited leg- and headroom. But this isn't unusual for a car of this class. On the plus side, getting into the backseat is pretty easy thanks to the wide gap created when the front seat is folded forward. This is especially convenient when installing a child safety seat. As for cabin noise, the Astra is relatively quiet around town, but we did notice quite a bit of wind noise from the driver-side window at freeway speeds. Function The trunk is adequately roomy; a removable cargo shelf opens up even more space. Naturally, one of the motivating factors for buying a compact hatchback over a traditional coupe is cargo capacity. And although the Astra's 12 cubic feet of luggage room falls short of the Rabbit's 15 cubes, the Astra still has plenty of space. With the rear seats in place, we were able to fit a large suitcase and a stroller in the trunk, and with the cargo shelf removed, we had additional space to pile a little more stuff on top. Rear-seat space is adequate for a child safety seat, and ingress — even with car seat in hand — is relatively easy for a two-door. When the rear 60/40-split seats are down (which look more like 70/30), it opens the Astra up to nearly 45 cubic feet of space. We have a few pet peeves when it comes to the controls and interior layout. The single cupholder on the Astra's center console sits so far back behind the driver that it requires twisting and bending in all sorts of uncomfortable ways in order to reach (not to mention that it's a potentially dangerous distraction). Also, the climate control buttons are located at the bottom of the center stack, which leaves them partially blocked by the shifter. The onboard computer display, while easy to read, is a garish shade of orange, and its controls are somewhat confusing and labeled with nonintuitive terminology: The button that displays fuel economy and range, for example, is labeled BC (for "board computer"). Many functions just have to be discovered by trial and error. In addition, visibility out the back window is hampered by the Astra's drastically sloping roof line. And perhaps most significantly, the Astra — on all trim levels — lacks increasingly common entertainment features like satellite radio and an auxiliary jack. Design/Fit and Finish A mix of colors and finishes lends a stylish touch, despite lots of plastic. Thanks to its European roots, the 2009 Astra Coupe is one of the best-looking Saturns we've seen. The exterior design looks almost as if it could have come from its German competitor, Volkswagen. On the inside, the interior looks well put together, and a combination of soft-touch materials and different-colored finishes gives the Astra a more upscale appearance than Saturns past. In this respect, the 2009 Saturn Astra is on par with its Rabbit rival. An aggressively sloping roof line looks cool but hampers space and rearward visibility. Pros - Well-crafted interior, relatively sporty handling, respectable fuel economy. Cons - Power not readily on tap, somewhat expensive for class, some interior design/layout flaws. Who Should Buy This Vehicle - Young singles or couples looking for a sporty-styled hatchback that offers a decent amount of space and respectable fuel economy. Others To Consider - Honda Civic Si, Mini Cooper, Scion xD, Volkswagen Rabbit.