Home » The Saturn Astra Died Too Soon: GM Hit Or Miss

The Saturn Astra Died Too Soon: GM Hit Or Miss

Saturn Astra Gm Hit Or Miss Ts2
ADVERTISEMENT

Isn’t it weird when fate forces cars to have unexpectedly short production runs? From Fisker’s battery supplier for the Karma drying up to the fire at the Hebmüller plant, automotive history is dotted with cars that maybe should’ve lived a little bit longer. The Saturn Astra is one of those cars. Welcome back to GM Hit or Miss, where we reheat the leftovers of GM’s throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks pre-bankruptcy product planning strategy to see what’s still good and what will have us hunched over a toilet in three-to-six hours.

In the late 2000s, the great Saturn experiment was effectively over. Through lack of investment and growing internal resentment, GM had left Saturn to the dogs, occasionally throwing it scraps like a rebadged Chevrolet Uplander. There would be no more Saturn-specific platforms, as Roger Smith’s great experiment was absorbed into the hive mind of bureaucracy.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

However, this did leave GM with a little bit of a problem — Saturn made its name on small cars, and the small cars GM was selling in America through the aughts simply weren’t good enough to tempt import buyers. So, instead of going to great expense and engineering something new, why not just take an Opel product from Europe and send it Saturn’s way?

Oh So Continental

Opel Astra Panoramic Windscreen 4

In fact, Opel had the perfect C-segment car in the form of the Astra, a credible Golf-fighting hatchback enjoying serious popularity in Europe. Sure, it may have been launched in 2004, but it was still leagues nicer than the stuff GM was peddling to Americans at the time. Not only was the Opel Astra H unexpectedly handsome, it also offered an overwhelming array of choice.

ADVERTISEMENT

Opel Astra Panoramic Windscreen 3

We’re talking three-door and five-door hatchbacks, along with a station wagon, a van, a sedan, and even a convertible. You could get it with an engine as small as a 1.3-liter diesel or as brawny as a 237-horsepower two-liter turbocharged four-banger. On the inside, it was millennium modern, with more silver plastic than an Apple store and enough available toys to feel reasonably special. Want digital radio, adaptive headlights, or perhaps simply an enormous windscreen? You could have it.

Saturn Astra 5 Door 2008 1600 02

However, to keep things cheap, Saturn settled on the three-door and five-door hatchback body styles and just one engine choice — a 1.8-liter U18XER four-cylinder engine making 138 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 125 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,800 rpm. Hitched to a five-speed manual, it seemed adequate for the segment, but not outstanding. God only knows what the four-speed automatic was like. Still, fuel economy figures of 24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway, and 27 mpg combined weren’t anything to sneeze at in 2008, and the Saturn Astra still came with some great kit.

2008 Saturn Astra Xr

ADVERTISEMENT

We’re talking about projector headlights when most compacts were using reflector units, an available panoramic sunroof on five-door cars, available LED ambient lighting, a standard multi-function display, and the option of sports suspension. Compared to most rivals, the Astra was borderline luxurious and had the goods to make a great showroom impression.

Saturn Astra Ad Copy

At the same time, Saturn pumped bulk money into marketing, playing up the Astra’s handling. There was a slot car-like minigame on the Saturn website and everything. It was all looking good, although the next big test for the Astra would be to pass the scrutiny of the American press. So, how did it fare?

Meet The Press

Saturn Astra 2008 1600 09

For the most part, especially considering the age of its design, the Saturn Astra did alright with the media. It scored a fourth-place finish in an eight-car Car And Driver comparison test, finishing behind a low-spec Toyota Corolla, a Subaru Impreza 2.5i, and a Volkswagen Rabbit S. That’s exactly mid-pack, and the publication summed the Astra up as “So German, so five-door, so almost satisfying.” Ouch. Unsurprisingly, the powertrain didn’t exactly pull the skin off a rice pudding, accelerating from zero-to-60 mph in a somewhat leisurely 9.3 seconds. That’s more than a second slower than a Scion xD, which is a car you probably haven’t thought about since the Great Recession. At the same time, Car And Driver didn’t find much to sing about in the build quality, writing that “For a German car, the Astra is surprisingly rattly-buzzy inside,” adding that “The shifter is clunky too.” However, it’s not all bad news.

ADVERTISEMENT

Saturn Astra 5 Door 2008 1600 04

Once up to speed, this Astra test car seemed to do well in the bends. As per Car and Driver: “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.” The magazine also wrote that “The Astra strikes a good compromise between frugality and fun,” and for those who just can’t get any enjoyment out of a 2009 Corolla, that meant the Astra was a reasonable option.

Come to think of it, that Sport Handling package was a steal, as Motor Trend also sang praise for it:

The setup proved very impressive over the challenging back roads of southeastern Ohio, where we had a lot of fun flinging the Astra from one corner to another. The suspension has sufficient travel, and its motions are well-damped. Understeer is present but not oppressive, and the tail can get lively, although stability control will gently step in to keep you out of trouble. We did wish for stronger brakes, however, and we experienced some torque steer on wet pavement (but none in the dry).

All in all, the Saturn Astra was a huge improvement for General Motors in North America, considering the automaker previously didn’t give a toot about small cars for the most part. Think about it — when the Astra launched, you could walk onto a Chevrolet lot and see certified pre-owned Cavaliers. That’s how far things had come in such a short period of time.

Going (for) Broke

2008 Saturn Astra Xr 5 Door

ADVERTISEMENT

While the Saturn Astra was an agreeable little car, it was launched for the 2008 model year, and we all know what happened starting in 2008. As soon as the subprime mortgage bubble burst, nobody had any money, and this was a problem for General Motors. It had been sinking in red ink for years, posting a $10.6 billion operating loss in 2005, and consumers drying up was the writing on the wall. On June 1, 2009, General Motors and its Saturn LLC subsidiary officially filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and through reorganization, it became abundantly clear that General Motors needed to downsize its bloated selection of brands.

2008 Saturn Astra Xr 3 Door

At first, GM was trying to sell Saturn to Penske Automotive Group. Yep, that Penske. On June 5, 2009, Automotive News reported that Penske agreed to buy Saturn, with GM partnering on manufacturing to keep cars rolling into showrooms. As per the outlet:

Saturn will be wholly owned by Penske Automotive, the nation’s second-largest auto dealership group. Initially, the retailer will partner with GM to keep the Aura sedan and the the Vue and Outlook crossovers in the lineup for at least two years.

However, that lasted all of about one summer, as Automotive News reported in September that Penske was out of the deal. The problem? Renault, oddly enough. As per Automotive News:

Penske had been negotiating with France’s Renault SA to acquire autos for Saturn once a production agreement with GM had expired. Those talks collapsed, scuttling the Saturn acquisition by the dealership group and its CEO, Roger Penske.

Thus, General Motors was forced to send Saturn to a farm upstate, and the Saturn Astra was dead after just two model years. Cue the violins.

ADVERTISEMENT

Kill Your Darlings

2008 Saturn Astra Xr 5 Door

So, was the Saturn Astra a hit or a miss? While a middling comparison test result and somewhat scarce presence on the ground suggests the latter, I can confirm that this thing was a hit. Look, the Ion that preceded it was a certified POS, and to even be in the fight was huge for GM. The Astra was the single best thing Saturn sold leading up to its death, and that includes the Sky roadster. General Motors finally gave Americans a reasonably priced, reasonably nice hatchback, only to kill it after a short production run.

Was it perfect? Absolutely not, but it was the sort of car that Americans both wanted and needed. If you manage to find a nice one with the five-speed manual and are in need of affordable transportation, don’t hesitate to snap one up. America could use more cars like this.

(Photo credits: Saturn, Opel)

Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.

ADVERTISEMENT

Relatedbar

Got a hot tip? Send it to us here. Or check out the stories on our homepage.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
95 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Box Rocket
Box Rocket
15 days ago

Late to the discussion.

I wanted to like the Astra. The “Top Gear” trio seemed to really like it (though that could have been advertising kickbacks or whatever). I was tentatively excited to see GM borrow a leaf from Ford’s book (de rigeur) in terms of bringing a decent modest Euro vehicle to our shores (less Catera, more… Hmm, they didn’t have a good track record of that until this, did they?).

So it made its way across the ocean, seemingly unchanged, which was not to its benefit: much like the GTO (Monaro) , 2nd-gen (US-bound) Colorado, regal tourX, current cascada, etc., they make the move to get the vehicle here, but it takes years, and by the time it makes it here there’s a few aspects that are badly dated that greatly diminishes the appeal. For the GTO and Astra it was the confounding and horrid infotainment systems. The Colorado, tourX, and cascada have dated interiors (the cascada also has a bad infotainment system). Add in the aspect of having parts only available internationally (doesn’t apply to the CO since it’s assembled here) and ownership becomes quite a risky commitment.

The aura on the malibu platform wasn’t so bad, but definitely felt like too-little, too-late. As rental car-cheap as the malibu already was, trying to position the aura was difficult, and Saturn was out of customers who cared enough.

So with Saturn shuttered, they pushed the Euro imports upmarket to Buick, hoping not to repeat the mistakes of the Catera and Cimarron. They did a better job with the Insignia/Regal especially in contrast to their past efforts, though making the GS version was laughingly embarrassing given its legacy. The tourX is relatively welcome as a Euro wagon, but its styling and value leave a lot to be desired.

The cascada seems to exist because rental companies needed a FWD-based convertible car since the Chrysler 200 left production. It looks like a giant bathtub with tiny occupants, though. The proportions are just off.

JShaawbaru
JShaawbaru
15 days ago

God only knows what the four-speed automatic was like.”

Actually, I do, unfortunately. I’ve driven a lot of cars with automatic transmissions, and for the most part I haven’t driven any that were notably bad… Other than the one in the Astra. It’s been 6 years since I owned it, so the details are a little foggy, but I mostly remember it not downshifting when it should have, making it feel like it had even less power than it actually did.

Brynjaminjones
Brynjaminjones
15 days ago

It’s worth noting that the US market also got a variant of the next generation of this Astra, in the form of the Buick Cascada.

The Cascada was basically a convertible version of the Opel Astra J.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
16 days ago

I considered one, and am still interested – but there are very few out there and lord knows what the spare part supply will be like.

A M
A M
16 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

The spare parts supply is likely a superposition of excellent and terrible. These things are all over the place…

…in Germany.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
15 days ago
Reply to  A M

I own two JDM cars and have no concerns with buying parts abroad – my fears are camshaft sensors, emissions sensors and such; they’re all US-market specific.

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
15 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

They’re not good. My company actually bought back one we’d sold to a customer because parts were unobtainium. He replaced it with a golf which was amazingly an even bigger POS. I think he has an X2 now. He’s apparently a glutton for punishment, and his torture tool of choice is apparently small German hatchbacks.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
16 days ago

Hit I’d say, but too late indeed.

Jimal
Jimal
16 days ago

I was looking long and hard at these when they were new, as sort of an ironic alternative to the series of Volkswagens I owned previous. The difference being that I still drive Volkswagens and would love to find an old Golf or Jetta in good condition to tinker on, something I’ve never considered with the Astra.

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
16 days ago

I liked the Astra and even considered replacing my 2002 SC2 with one. My family owned a several Saturns and I had a borderline unhealthy obsession with the brand as a kid. If they managed to produce a Red Line version of the Astra, I may have jumped on that wagon but I bought an A3 instead.

The Bonnie Situation
The Bonnie Situation
16 days ago

Owned an Astra 4dr 5spd for a few years. Biggest pros were fun to drive windy roads and lots of little quirks, like a service mode where you could watch the engine coolant temp and a bunch of other data on the center screen. Biggest con was hands down needed a 6th gear for freeway speeds. It droned so bad and was so loud that I would get a headache on road trips.

Also worth mentioning GM was selling the Vibe at the time. My take was the Astra was more fun to drive (I was never a fan of the Vibe’s clutch pedal ergonomics) but less roomy and without the Toyota reliability.

Andrew Bugenis
Andrew Bugenis
16 days ago

Odd to call this so much better than the ION. The ION was a Saturn home-grown car, the last one, still with polymer paneling and even better gas mileage than the Astra had, and the Red Line was exciting enough for snobby auto enthusiast times. I still miss my base-model quad coupe. Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve been into the three-door Astra, but it was not right for this market in the way the ION was (and would have performed better had sales not been cannibalized by the mechanically identical Cobalt and G5 twins).

EXL500
EXL500
16 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Bugenis

We’ll have to agree to disagree. I rented cars for decades, and the Ion was the second worst to the Ford/Kia crap can that wouldn’t start if it rained. I was rear ended on day two, and was so happy to get a replacement.

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
16 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Bugenis

Coming from a 94 SW2 and an 02 SC2, I wanted to like the ION. On paper it sounded great but in execution it just didn’t live up to my expectations. I feel like Saturn/GM really leaned into the “it’s a car for people who don’t like cars”. In typical GM fashion, they rectified a lot of the initial complains with the car but it was ultimately too late.

That said, I fully support your love for the ION quad coupe. I got a lot of questions for buying a last-model year SC2. At that point the S-Series was no longer competitive but I didn’t care.

Andrew Bugenis
Andrew Bugenis
15 days ago

To be fair, my quad coupe was a last model year as well, a 2007. Even though it was base model it still had a 5hp bump over the previous year, it didn’t have the bizarre steering wheel that the Ions debuted with, and some other quality-of-life improvements. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been quite so kind about an ’04.

Dodd Lives
Dodd Lives
16 days ago

I had an Astra TwinTop Cabriolet as a rental for a week in Spain in 2007, and really enjoyed it. Watching the hardtop power itself up and down was like a flashback to riding in my dad’s ’59 Fairlane 500 Skyliner.

When these came on sale in Canada in 2008, I was car shopping at test drove a five-door. While it still handled well, it turned out that without the power hardtop and Spanish countryside, it wasn’t nearly as appealing. And that center stack really was horrible.

Max Headbolts
Max Headbolts
16 days ago

God only knows what the four-speed automatic was like.”

Terrible, these weren’t good cars in the US trim, no one was buying manuals in this segment, it was the same demographic as Scion, which aside from hipsters* was mostly purchased by old people looking for cheap reliable transportation. Bemoan the death of Saturn all you want, nothing made from the global GM parts bin was good in the US.

*I was one of them….

Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson
16 days ago

I wish PSA was the French partner for Penske, instead of Renault. No need to worry about stepping on a partner’s toes (ahem, Nissan), plus we could get the snazzy new DS models badged as Saturns when compacts like the Mini and Fiat 500 were still hot.

M0L0TOV
M0L0TOV
16 days ago

Weren’t part of the negotiations to bring Renault based Samsung cars to the U.S. and brand them as Saturns?

Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson
16 days ago
Reply to  M0L0TOV

Yes, but the rumor at the time was that Nissan objected because it might eat into their US market share.

Mrbrown89
Mrbrown89
16 days ago

We got the Astra in Mexico back in 2000, a friend had one and I remember it drove pretty solid but after a few years the car was almost done, everything rattled bad. My 2001 Nissan Sentra felt much better after the same treatment. Parts were expensive, hard to get because you needed to import them.

We got Astra, Vectra, Zafira, Corsa and Meriva. All of them gone after one generation or two. GM then switched to start importing Daewoo cars like the Spark or Aveo.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
16 days ago

I like these a lot, being the spiritual successor to the Kadett B Rally my mom drove when I was a kid, as well as the worst automotive decision I’ve ever made (my ’89 Pontiac LeMans GSE).

If I could find a three-door, I’d probably snap one up … and challenge my local electronics store to find a way to install a CarPlay unit in that first-generation iPod of a dash.

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
16 days ago

Almost bought a manual 5-door one for one of the kids (pre-Covid), but regrettably he was more comfortable with an auto box. It was an incredible deal price-/condition- wise.

Ben Chia
Ben Chia
16 days ago

Hmm, nah. The Opel Astra that spawned it looked decent, drove average and had terrible build quality.

The generation of Astra that came afterwards (2010/2011 or so) was better. Shame it came too late for Saturn.

CSRoad
CSRoad
16 days ago

My friend and neighbour had a 2009 5 door, 5 speed it was an OK car with a few nice features, but no Saturn, more a generic hatchback. Parts for it ended up being sourced from Germany thanks to the Internet, cheaper than buying here in Canada. IIRC it was a model year behind the Opel for most trim goods. Sadly the car at 13 years was pretty good still, but had outlived the owner. )-:

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
16 days ago

Low-volume, one-off version of a European car, only sold in the US for two years, good luck finding parts and helpful Youtubes.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
16 days ago

There’s millions of them all over the world tho; it’s not like it’s some euro exotic. And there’s absolutely more YouTube videos of how you do pretty much anything to your Vauxhall/Opel Astra than you can shake a stick at.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
16 days ago
Reply to  Gilbert Wham

I don’t see a large selection of parts available locally, which can be an issue sometimes.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
15 days ago

Fair, it would be Overnight Parts From Brentford for the Cousins, yeah…

95
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x