COAL: 2008 Saturn Astra XR – Our German Orphan

In late summer of 2008, our Malibu Maxx went back on lease.  We had our Prizm, and decided to be a two compact car family, biased toward thrift.  Of interest to me was the new movement at Saturn.  They had started rebadging a few Opels and selling them as Saturns in an attempt to try and inject some life into the struggling brand.  The new Vue crossover was an Opel Antara. The Aura borrowed the front clip from a Vectra.

The German designed Opel Astra H came here from Belgium largely unmodified  over the Astra you’d buy in Europe. It struck a handsome profile with a sporty stance. Mrs. C test drove it and liked it as it would be her car to drive.   Our XR tester had leather seats, but not the available stability control, nor the nicer 5 spoke wheels.  I was quite taken by the sporty coupe…but is was $2,000 more for 2 less doors.   The price for the 4 door was right, barely $18,000 out the door. Ten years later, we still have it. It is the vehicle I’ve held on to the longest and it has 137,000 miles and counting.

Not For U.S. Consumers- The 1970 Rekord C Coupe and 1988 Manta GTE

I have always been curious about the interesting (to me at least) Opel product that never made it over here.  Now I would know what it would be like to own a real Opel. It’s quite accurate to say that GM mismanaged Opel from the early 2000s before selling it to PSA in 2017. Its last  profitable year was 1999. Opel was almost sold in 2009 during the bankruptcy but GM ultimately decided they were too inextricably linked at that point with engineering and technology sharing.

In its heyday, Opel was an autonomous crown jewel in the GM empire, rising from the ashes of World War Two.  It built solid, well priced cars for the average European  and they were very successful for decades. In peak years, Opel challenged VW for European sales leadership.   Detroit largely left them alone.   If you’re of a certain age, you remember Opel’s being sold at Buick dealerships  up until the mid 1970’s.

Opel’s Past U.S. Misfires- 1988-1993 Pontiac LeMans, 1996-2001 Cadillac Catera

Since that time, there were attempts by GM at getting Opel product here, but  it never translated well to American tastes.  First, there was the 1988 Pontiac LeMans, a Korean license-built Daewoo copy of an Opel Kadett, beset with quality problems, and it was a bust. Then in 1997, the Opel Omega-B, an “executive saloon”,  was rebranded as the  Cadillac Catera, the “Caddy that zigs”. Years before the resurgent 2003 “Art and Science “ CTS was introduced, it was in effort to woo would- be BMW and Benz buyers.  While it wasn’t a horrible car dynamically and sold 90,000 units during it’s five year run,  it was largely ignored. The platform lived on as the Australian Holden Monaro and for us, a bit  later as the 2004-2006 Pontiac GTO.

For this next experiment, it seemed that the Astra had a bit more going for it.  And that’s because in Europe, the Astra was (and still is) a very class competitive car.  In 2007, it was the second best-selling car in Europe, behind the Golf. Europeans have a much higher expectation of what a small car should be. Nowadays, Europeans are drifting to crossovers as well, but this size of car is still a huge market there.   To be a player there, the Astra has to be good.

Opel Astra Estate and Performance OPC- Would have been nice to see these Stateside

All based on the new Delta platform, the Astras in Europe came in many variants: saloon, convertible, hatchback and MPV (the Meriva). For powertrains,  you had your choice of at least 8 (!) powertains in gas and diesel, turbo and normally aspirated.  The  Opel Astra OPC  was a hot hatch in a class of the Focus ST or Mazdaspeed 3.  The U.S. Astra had only one engine choice, the 1.8L Ecotec 4 delivering 140 horsepower. In Europe, a smaller 1.6 and 1.3L (petrol) were offered as well.

I  daresay this dearth of the higher spec Astras had a lot to do with the fact that in 2008, the Dollar to Euro exchange rate was $1.47 to 1 Euro, in historically the greenback’s weakest period against that currency.  Also, Saturn planners, desperate for better product  wanted the car here quickly, so no time for much Americanization or dumbing it down.   They also had to be able to sell the Astra at a price American consumers would be willing to pay for a compact car. One has to believe that GM lost money on every one of these shipped here.

The Astra certainly didn’t  feel like the  Ion or Saturn S that preceded it.  The doors close with a satisfying “whump”.  Inside, it has soft touch, high quality surfaces in all the right places and excellent fit and finish. Even now, it does not feel too dated.  The vertical center stack and gauge cluster is handsome and upscale looking.   The perforated leather seats are supportive and sporty looking, and have held up very well.    The center console does not have a storage bin between the front seats, so no place to rest your right arm. It does have one center cup holder, though it is oddly placed behind the parking brake.

Over the road, it has a very solid, Teutonic feel to it. It corners very well and has excellent ride quality. While not a speedster, 0-60 in 9.5 seconds,  it feels very happy highway cruising at 80 and above. It could have used a six speed automatic to boost fuel economy. We get 27 MPG around town, and I’ve clocked 31-33 MPG on trips … not bad.   And I love the utility of a hatchback (this is my 4th). I can get my road bike in here without removing the front wheel. I would say it feels like a much more expensive car than it is.

Interesting Display Unit and Cruise Control on the Astra

Quirks?  Yes indeed. The unusual warning light symbols are not parallel with what we’re used to here, remedied simply by reviewing the owner’s manual.  The cruise control switch is oddly placed, not on the front of the steering wheel like most cars, but hidden  at the back of the signal stalk on a wafer thin tab. Fine…once you figure it out.  The seat pitch adjustment is via a large rotating knob instead of a lever and spring. Not bad, just different. The digital readout in the center stack is a weird orange font that reminds me of a 1976 Pong game, or an early computer terminal. The digital clock always runs about 3 minutes slow. How can that be?


2 Astra Coupes in One Place. A near statistcial impossibility?

The Astra should have had a lot going for it, even as a niche player, as the non-GTI Golf is.  Reviews were generally positive. But when you factor in GM’s and Saturn’s troubles, the global recession, a new model in a very crowded compact car field,  some quirkiness to the Astra and so on, it sold just 18,000 units in 2008-2009 before Saturn was shut down. I rarely see one.  And it’s really too bad, because I think it is a very good car. Its the best, most reliable and durable car I’ve ever owned. And it’s surprising that I’m saying this about a near automotive unicorn from an orphan brand.

Two years ago, I  put a new mass air flow sensor in and that was $800.00 and is the most costly repair  in 10 years. A check engine light now shows it needs a throttle body, it’s hesitating upon accelerating. My son’s friend has offered to fix it free in the local high school auto shop (I have the OEM part- $277@ Rock Auto. Risky perhaps, but I like Max and I’ll let him try and  hope the auto shop teacher bails him out if the repair goes sideways.

It has taken a few punches and has its share of creaks and groans now, but has no visible rust. Unusual given its home state. Right now, it’s driven by my 17-year-old son Adam.  It’s perfect for him to load his saxophones in back with the seats folded down to go to school. He keeps it a bit dirtier than I’d like, and I give him occasional doses of adulthood in making him pay for oil changes.  It is not getting quality miles – just short trips in a 3 mile radius mostly, so l take it out on occasion to put it though it’s paces.

2018 Astra- Still Going Strong Sans GM

I have not tired of the car and still enjoy driving it.  When Adam goes away to college next year…I don’t think I want to sell it. In fact, I likely will be driving it a bit more to keep miles off another COAL. Adam may take it to college in a few years but let’s not put the cart before the horse.  Maybe Shane, now 14, will inherit it when he gets his license in 2020.   Bottom line, I hope this car will be in the family for a long time to come.