ICOME FROM a long line of Europeans -- illiterate, mud-eating Europeans from the Outer Hebrides, to be exact, whose idea of a good time was to go down to the firth and watch the plague victims wash out to sea. Even so, I've always had an affinity for the Continent. Between New Orleans and Amsterdam, I prefer Amsterdam. I'll take Rousseau over Jefferson, Beck's over Budweiser, Formula One over NASCAR, and Heidi Klum over my knee.
And, as many able correspondents to this column have pointed out, I seem to prefer European cars. I suppose that's fair. Everybody has his or her own tastes. I simply prefer superior cars with epic racing and engineering pedigrees, while others prefer Toyotas.
Europhiles are often miserable to discover, when they rent a car overseas, that some big old Detroit firms actually make terrific small cars with the lean, quick-twitch muscle fiber of a proper European. They just don't import them to the U.S. To its credit, GM has been changing that in recent years. The Saturn division is now the conduit for a raft of German-engineered products, such as the Saturn Vue compact SUV, which is a re-badge of the Opel Antara (Opel is a GM division based in Russelsheim, Germany). The Saturn Aura is the Opel Vectra by any other name. And, with the Saturn Astra sporty hatch, GM has dispensed with even the formality of renaming. This car is exactly the same Opel Astra you'd rent at Charles de Gaulle airport. It's also badged as a Holden Astra (Pacific Rim), a Vauxhall Astra (Britain) and Chevrolet Astra (South America). From this you can conclude that GM really, really likes the name Astra.
The new U.S. version -- rolling into Saturn dealerships now -- comes in three- and five-door models. I spent the week in a three-door in up-level XR trim, equipped with optional leather seats ($745), an upgraded audio system ($595) and 18-inch alloy wheels ($495) slathered with fantastic Dunlop summer performance tires. Delivered, our test car priced out at $20,330.
Now, granted, you put these wheels and these tires on Barney Oldfield's coffin and it would turn and corner awesomely. Even so, the Saturn Astra is striking in the fact that none of the tensed ligaments and bunched muscle -- the overall sense of ready athleticism -- of the Euro-spec model has been relaxed for American consumption. This is a stiff, flat-cornering little road racer that is hugely entertaining to drive, even if it is just slightly, um, boisterous. The steering wheel is fat and heavy in your hands; the ratio is quick and the response off center immediate. Give it a little tug to the right or left and the car tacks instantly with big, biting turn-in. Pull the Astra into a long fast sweeper and the car takes a well-controlled set and just hangs on like crazy. Shaking this car in a turn is like trying to drag William Shatner away from the craft services table.
Yes, it's got torque steer. Absolutely, it's got a front-wheel-drive push to it. But it's all so delightfully unrefined. In terms of corner-shooting dynamics, I'd put this car up against the class of the field, which is the Mazda3, and that's high praise. Both these cars combine a deep sense of composure and rail-to-rail confidence with that ineffable quotient of fun, the liveliness of a carbon-fiber fly rod or a well-oiled riding crop (see Heidi Klum, above).
Where the Saturn comes in for extra praise is that it hasn't been cruelly lobotomized by some chassis engineers who have decided Americans don't like a too-firm ride or don't appreciate a car that's "darty." This is the continental absinthe, right from the bottle.
The Astra three-door is also, quite plainly, the coolest-looking car in its class. The dramatic bowed shape of what's called the DLO (daylight opening), the rakish profile, the harmonious geometry of the lighting instruments and body contours and well-planted stance all make it kind of incredible that this sleek road weasel is the replacement for that awful gorgon, the Saturn Ion. Over a foot shorter overall, but on virtually the same wheelbase, the Astra completely erases the memories of the Ion as if it were an out-of-favor Politburo member written out of the Soviet history books.
(Here's a potential trouble spot: Opel is already well along with the replacement for the Astra, which will be unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show in 2009. If you really like the look of this car, maybe you should look fast.)
Under the hood is a 1.8-liter, DOHC inline four with variable valve timing -- which GM loves to call Ecotec -- twisting the meter to 138 hp at 6,300 rpm and 125 pound-feet of torque at 3,800 rpm.
This is a punchy little unit and fairly well balanced in its mission between performance and fuel economy. But, be aware, the Astra is no straight-line hero. The on-tap horsepower is sufficient to push the 2,833-pound car out of its own way and around town it doesn't feel weak-limbed. But avoid impromptu drag races. Also, if I had but one wish for the Astra, it would be that the car had a sixth overdrive gear. At California highway speeds, the engine sounds a little fevered, and fuel economy falls off badly (as the instantaneous fuel consumption readout will tell you). At 75 mph, the car returns about 22 miles to the gallon; at 65 mph, it gets better than 30, but then you run the risk of becoming somebody's hood ornament.
The Opel -- um, sorry -- the Saturn Astra is by no means a perfect car. The interior design is a bit of a rubberized mess and the monochrome digital display in the center of the dash looks like something from the Mongolian space program. But it's well equipped, a great value, surprisingly comfortable -- even in the back, under that umbrella of a roof -- and on a tight twisty, it's just phenomenal.
It makes me long for the old country.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
2008 Saturn Astra XR
Base price: $17,875
Price, as tested: $20,330
Powertrain: 1.8-liter DOHC inline four with variable-valve timing; five-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 138 at 6,300 rpm
Torque: 125 pound-feet at 3,800 rpm
Curb weight: 2,833 pounds
0-60 mph: 8 seconds
Wheelbase: 102.9 inches
Overall length: 171.1 inches
EPA fuel economy: 24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway (regular gasoline)
Final thoughts: Euro thrash