One of Europe’s best-selling cars joins the Saturn bench this fall and takes the spotlight at this week’s Chicago auto show.

With the Astra, built by General Motors Corp.’s German subsidiary Adam Opel GmbH, Saturn seeks to enliven its small-car presence and compete against the Honda Civic, Volkswagen Rabbit and Mazda3, among others. It replaces the Ion, which saw deliveries rise 1.1% to 102,042 units last year, Ward’s data shows.

In Europe, the Astra sold 515,302 units in 2006, edged out by the VW Golf’s sales of 564,799.

The North American Astra is virtually identical to the European model, with only unique front and rear fascias differentiating it.

A 1.8L Ecotec 4-cyl. engine will power the Astra, generating 140 hp.

Mated to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission, the mill squeezes out more power with the addition of variable valve timing.

Saturn will offer the Astra in 3- and 5-door versions beginning in the fourth quarter.

The 5-door Astra gets 16-in. tires, while the 3-door gets 17-in. wheels. Optional features include larger performance tires for both models and a 2-panel sunroof for the 5-door.

The first U.S.-bound Astras will be shipped from Antwerp, Belgium. GM has not announced any North American production plans for the vehicle, but media reports speculate it may be built at Saturn’s Spring Hill, TN, plant, which currently awaits a new product.

The auto maker is expected to begin assembly of next-generation Astras by the end of 2008 for the Mexican market at a plant under construction in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

Saturn also debuts the ’08 Vue Red Line with a DOHC 3.6L V-6 VVT engine that delivers 250 hp and 243 lb.-ft. (329 Nm) of torque at 4,400 rpm. The mill is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission, and the SUV is available in front- or all-wheel drive.

The new Red Line has a large, lower air opening; projector-beam fog lamps; special fascia; spoiler and chrome exhaust tips; and 18 in. alloy wheels. It goes on sale in the third quarter.

Saturn’s ’08 Vue will come as a mild hybrid, but the brand also will offer a Vue Green Line hybrid-electric vehicle with GM’s new Two Mode hybrid system beginning in third-quarter 2008. Saturn notes the Two Mode Green Line will deliver a 50% improvement in fuel economy vs. the non-HEV model.

The Vue Green Line arrives in the fourth quarter.

In addition to the Astra, GM unveils another rebadged import: the Pontiac G8. The rear-wheel-drive car is a modified Holden Commodore SS, the V-8 version of the sedan, from Australian division GM Holden Ltd.

GM also offers up two special-edition Corvettes: a Ron Fellows ALMS GT1 Champion Corvette Z06 and the Indianapolis 500 Pace Car Replica Corvette Convertible.

Named for racing legend Fellows, the Arctic White Z06 is the first signed, special-edition Corvette. GM plans to build just 399 of the fully loaded sports car with a sticker price of $79,945.

The auto maker will produce 500 of the Atomic Orange Indy 500 Pace Car clone, powered with a 400-hp small-block V-8 engine and priced at $68,245.

scanderson@wardsauto.com