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New compact Saturn brings Euro flair

January 31, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
A little bit of Europe is rolling onto American roads. The new Saturn is designed for a tight budget.It's no secret the domestic auto industry hasn't been in great shape lately. But one of the few bright spots is General Motors' Saturn division, with interesting vehicles like the SKY sports car and the new VUE SUV, which is also available as a hybrid to save fuel.

Now Saturn is rolling out a new compact that's also ready to deal with increasing fuel prices -- the ASTRA. It's a space-efficient design and starts at about $16,000.

Plus, it's fun to drive.

But the most interesting thing about the ASTRA isn't what it has or does, but where it comes from. The Opel Astra, virtually the same car, is built and sold in Europe. GM decided that some American drivers might like a little European flair in a small car. So the Belgian-built Opel Astra is now sold here as the Saturn ASTRA.

It's the beginning of an exchange program of sorts. In the coming years, certain Saturn models will be sold as Opel's in Europe, and some Opel's will come here as Saturn's.

The ASTRA is our first taste of what Europeans like in a car, both good and not-so-good. The hatchback is handy; no sedan will be offered. There's a sporting character you don't often find in small cars sold here. Acceleration is pretty good. Drivers in places like Germany don't want to get run over on the Autobahn.

And the ASTRA figuratively turns on a dime, a trait welcome in many European cities.

On the downside, the funky Euro controls can be a bit confusing at first. For example, you won't find a power lock switch on the doors -- it's above the radio.

And folks in Europe have yet to fully embrace the concept of beverages on the run, so the ASTRA's one cup holder up front is awkwardly placed.

But those small items aside, this is a pretty good little car and will probably end up being another feather in Saturn's increasingly stylish cap after a long journey across the Atlantic.

 

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