SAN DIEGO – As Christmas lists go, Jill Lajdziak’s seems awfully modest.

“I’d just like to get our message out there. That’s all I want,” says General Motors Corp.’s Saturn division general manager during a preview of the ’08 Saturn Astra here.

Specifically, she would like to convince more Americans Saturn finally boasts a product portfolio to match its renowned retail experience. But given the brand’s history, Lajdziak admits that’s not an easy wish to fulfill.

GM launched Saturn in 1991 with the S-Series small car and a no-haggle sales approach that resonated with consumers seeking a combination of value and quality similar to what Japanese auto makers were selling. Critics gushed over the idea of the homespun import-killer.

But as GM chased America’s growing preference for larger product offerings, such as fullsize pickup trucks and SUVs, it wasn’t until 1999 that Saturn added a second product – the larger L-Series sedan.

A replacement for the S-Series didn’t arrive until 2003, when the same critics dismissed the Ion sedan and coupe, especially their center-mounted gauges, as a disappointment. By the time a minivan finally drove up in 2004, most Saturn loyalists had outgrown the brand or jumped into an import.

“(The) distribution channel probably atrophied a little bit because we hadn’t given it as dynamic and complete of a portfolio as it might have liked,” GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner says in a recent interview with Ward's.

One industry analyst puts it more succinctly: “They starved it,” says Jim Hossack, a consultant with AutoPacific in Tustin, CA. “They starved it of product. They starved it of management talent. They starved it of everything, and its potential was squandered.”

GM in recent times has sought to reconcile Saturn’s dilemma. In 2003, Saturn operations were summoned to Detroit from its principal manufacturing site in Spring Hill, TN, and integrated fully into the GM structure.

Management further decided to infuse the brand with a European flavor by more closely aligning Saturn with its European cousin, GM’s German-made Opel brand, a relationship that dates back to the L-Series platform.

Today, it includes architectures that underpin the award-winning Aura midsize sedan, Vue cross/utility vehicle and Sky roadster.

The Astra 3-door coupe and 5-door sedan start arriving at dealers next week and go on sale Jan. 2, doubling Saturn’s portfolio to six vehicles in a span of less than 22 months. The oldest vehicle in the lineup dates back to 2006. “They’re getting into shape,” Wagoner says.

Wagoner and Lajdziak both readily concede Saturn’s comeback won’t happen overnight. “It will take awhile,” says Lajdziak, who joined Saturn in 1986 as manager of retail selection and took over the division’s reins in 2004. “But it’s working already.”

Lajdziak points to the brand’s sales gains this year against an industry that’s fallen below trend.

Through November, Saturn sales in the U.S. rose 7.9% to 221,895 units, compared with 205,689 in like-2006, according to Ward's data, while its market inched up to 1.5% from prior-year’s 1.4%. Total light-vehicle sales in the 11 months slipped 2.5% to 14.7 million vehicles from year-ago’s 15.1 million.

Related document: <i>Ward's</i> U.S. Light Vehicle Sales by Brand and Group

Saturn’s residual values are higher, too, gaining eight percentage points between third-quarter 2004 and third-quarter 2007, Lajdziak says, while industry residual values climbed one percentage point in the period.

Saturn’s residuals are higher than the Ford, Hyundai and Chrysler brands, she adds, with the 8-passenger Outlook CUV currently even with the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.

Lajdziak says Saturn’s transaction prices year-to-date have risen 15.0% to an average of $21,137, from $17,065 in 2005, with more buyers coming from higher household incomes and educational backgrounds.

But in sticking with the brand’s heritage, buyers still cite value, fuel economy and exterior styling as top reasons for their purchase, she says.

That bodes well for the Astra, a refined, boldly styled and fuel-efficient small car that GM will import to the U.S. without softening its taut European ride and handling to meet plusher American tastes.

It’s also an effort to provide younger, urban-minded consumers with a premium small car much in the vein of the Mini from BMW AG.

“We didn’t dumb (the Astra) down a bit,” Lajdziak tells Ward's. “We federalized it to meet emissions, added cupholders in the rear seats and swapped out the steering wheel. Otherwise, it’s an Opel.”

And a real bargain, Lajdziak claims. Astra will start at $15,995 for a 5-door XE model with a 5-speed manual transmission. Base price for a top-of-the-range 3-door XR model with 5-speed manual starts at $18,495.

Customers can add features such as leather seats, 7-speaker stereo system, and 4-speed Aisin automatic transmission without pushing too far above $20,000.

Saturn officials at the Astra preview here say even with the weak dollar GM has priced the car to earn a profit.

Both body styles and trim levels receive a 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl. engine optimized by variable-valve timing and pumping out 140 hp and 126 lb.-ft. of torque (171 Nm).

GM says a popularly equipped Astra XE 5-door will cost nearly $1,200 less than comparably equipped models from its key competitors – the ’08 Volkswagen Rabbit 4-door and ’08 Mazda3 5-door Sport.

Although official fuel-economy numbers from the Environmental Protection Agency have not been released, GM believes Astra also will trump the Rabbit and Mazda3 with an expected rating of 24/32 (10-7 L/100 km) city/highway for the manual transmission and 24/30 (10-8 L/100 km) with the automatic.

Lajdziak has no problem recognizing the car’s ties to the European Opel brand. Car buyers often look suspiciously on so-called “badge-engineering,” but she says associating Saturn with a vehicle that has enjoyed such resounding success around the world can only help.

The Opel Astra sells an average of 500,000 units annually in Europe and ranks as the continent’s No.2 best-selling vehicle.

“Our customers know the Opel Astra,” says Lajdziak. “Many have driven one. They know it’s a car that is fun to drive. In fact, Saturn and Opel target the same customer.”

At the same time, the Astra will seek a much different customer than the Ion it replaces – younger, better educated and wealthier, and a greater percentage of males.

Lajdziak says additional opportunities exist to enhance Saturn’s tie with the Opel brand. She admits to looking closely at the Opel Zafira multi-purpose vehicle that seats seven passengers and has enjoyed much the same success in Europe as the Astra. The Zafira also sells well in Asia and South America.

Lajdziak declines to say whether Saturn vehicles will share the Astra’s diesel mill.

But the two divisions do share similar histories. The Opel brand suffered mightily at the turn of the century before management at parent Adam Opel GmbH launched Project Olympia, a turnaround that improved the auto maker’s quality, productivity and filled holes in its portfolio with stylish and functional vehicles.

The effort also succeeded in moving the Opel brand up-market, just as Saturn intends.

AutoPacific’s Hossack likes Saturn’s chances. “It’s good product that makes all the difference,” he says, calling the Astra impressive. “Given time, Saturn will change its image. But (the) process could take up to 10 years, or five years at the very minimum. And we’re only a couple years into this.”