SAN DIEGO – The ’08 Saturn Astra most likely will puzzle American consumers with its European flavor, and perhaps General Motors Corp. should have ironed out a few of those wrinkles before rebadging Adam Opel GmbH’s best-selling car for the U.S.

But the awkwardly positioned cupholders, dash-mounted door-lock switch and intensely foreign-looking center stack rank as only minor oddities against a powertrain that cries out for some help from a turbocharger.

That said, the Astra arrives as the economical, highly functional and stylish entry-level car the Saturn brand has needed since its disastrous Ion.

During a recent drive through the city and countryside here, as well as subsequent testing around Detroit, 3- and 5-door Astras equipped with a 1.8L, gasoline 4-cyl. and 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual transmissions demonstrate plucky resolve. When moderately accelerating from a dead stop, negotiating light traffic or meandering a lonely stretch of highway, either setup proves sufficient.

But open the throttle to get the jump at a stoplight, enter an expressway or climb a significant grade and the Astra’s 138-hp mill quickly becomes overwhelmed. Even with an innovative “kick-down” feature engaged by mashing the accelerator, the powertrain leaves drivers craving the little bit of extra gusto a turbocharger could provide.

The real crime? GM makes a pair of turbocharged 4-cyl. gasoline engines available to Astra buyers in Europe that dole out an impressive 200 hp.

The auto maker won’t speculate on whether additional powertrains will be offered in the future, but if the Astra sticks around for any length of time a Red Line performance treatment would seem logical.

GM says it would like to build the Astra in the U.S. at some point, allowing it to better tailor the car to local market tastes while dodging the financial hit European imports have been taking from the weak dollar. That could open things up to a broader engine range, but only if the initial car is a success.

Despite the somewhat anemic performance, the powertrain does offer a couple pleasant surprises. One is a smooth shifting, short-throwing 5-speed manual gearbox not found on other GM cars in the U.S. Perfectly mounted with superb feel, it’s much more driver-oriented, without the clumsy clutch found on some econoboxes.

Although the 4-speed automatic bears no significant performance traits, it does include a feature that automatically shifts the transmission to neutral at idle to save gas. The Astra’s fuel economy rating for the manual and automatic transmission beat the Volkswagen Rabbit and Mazda3 5-door, its key competitors.

One improvement over the European Astra is the extra attention to minimizing noise, vibration and harshness. The Saturn is a veritable quiet room on wheels compared with its Opel twin, due mostly to extra engine-compartment dampening.

But GM did not tinker with the suspension and, ironically, it may prove the determining factor behind Astra’s success or failure in the U.S. Leveraging a simple, independent McPherson strut design up front and a semi-independent torsion beam rear suspension, the chassis is as tightly tuned as one might expect from European engineers, who travel impeccably kept roadways.

Along the twisties outside San Diego, Astra provides excellent connectivity to the pavement and exhibits wonderfully nimble manners, entering and exiting corners flatly and sticking to the pavement over dips and crests in the roadway.

Its electro-hydraulic steering feels well-weighted, linear and especially quick on 3-door models. Front rotors measuring an unusually large 12.2 ins. (30.5 cm), part of a 4-wheel disc system, provide excellent stopping power.

’08 Saturn Astra
Vehicle type front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger coupe or hatchback
Engine 1.8L DOHC 4 cyl.
Power (SAE net) 138 hp @ 6,300 rpm
Torque 125 lb. ft. (170 Nm) @ 3,800 rpm
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Transmission 5-speed manual/4-speed automatic
Wheelbase 102.9 ins. (261.4 cm)
Overall length 170.5 ins. (433.1 cm)
Overall width 69 ins. (175.3 cm)
Overall height 3-door 55.8 ins. (141.7 cm); 5-door 57.4 ins. (145.8 cm)
Curb weight 3-door 2,833 lbs. (1,285 kg); 5-door 2,921 lbs. (1,324.9 kg)
Base price $15,995
Fuel economy 24/32 (9.8/7.4 L/100 km) to 24/30 (9.8/7.8 L/100 km)
Competition Volkswagen Rabbit, Mazda3
Pros Cons
Stylish exterior design Woefully underpowered
Tightly-tuned chassis Scary center stack
Quality interior materials Frustratingly foreign

All-season tires wrapped around 16-in.-18-in. wheels provide excellent grip, and GM makes summer performance skin available.

But those excellent ride and handling characteristics could prove Astra’s downfall, as well. During subsequent testing along much nastier, weather-beaten roadways in Detroit, the setup reveals its performance-for-comfort tradeoff, and the sacrifice may prove too great for many soft Yankee tushies.

Americans also might take umbrage with Astra’s center stack. It’s an intense design and not terribly intuitive. GM says the V-shaped center stack complements the rest of the interior. That may be true, but at first glance it looks like an angry robot ready to bite back.

And although the entertainment dials and HVAC knobs have a pleasant, tactile feel, some are puzzlingly redundant functions. The lack of an MP3 jack is downright inexcusable for its segment.

Exiting the Astra also is maddening the first few times, because unlike other GM vehicles the door locks don’t automatically release when the transmission is shifted into park. Instead, the driver must hunt down a locking switch located above the center stack. We were unsure whether one Detroit valet would ever make it out alive.

The cupholders added at the back of the center console seem an afterthought. Interior fit and finish, however, is of a high standard, and premium materials were selected for the seating surfaces and headliner. Seats provide ample support.

Astra also rates a pretty good looker, especially the 3-door model. With a wide track, short overhangs, bold wheel flares and a steeply raked windshield, the car looks as nimble as it handles.

But beauty is only skin deep. So until GM remedies the shortcomings in the power department and more expertly homologizes Astra’s fine European traits to American tastes, its stay in the U.S. could be short-lived.