I had two for 2.5 weeks while in Germany last October, and I have nothing but fantastic things to say!
My 2 rentals (both with powered hard top convertibles) were both 07 Astras, but the first had a 1.6 with 5 speed and heated seats. Low end torque wasn't anything fun, but with the factory 16's offered, I was able to hold a consistent speed of 170-180kph on the Autobahn, (but with Ferrari's and Alfas in your rear view mirror once you venture into the passing lane, left me wishing that I had opted for a larger displacement car, or at least a car with a turbo-charger to accelerate faster to those blinding speeds of the Autobahn).
My second rental was a 1.8 litre motor (same as what's offered here in N.A., save the powered hard-top convertible). Sure it had much more noticeable torque, but it sure sucked back the fuel a lot faster when pushed up thru 150-190kph speeds.
Body ridgity on my rentals left a lot to be desired. Since it was a hard top convertible, there were several creaks and groans that became apparent once we travelled into the higher, and colder climates of the Swiss Alps.
Low speed handling on both cars reminded me of my 88 325is BMW, yet, the electronic-assisted steering made the whole experience of negotiating small euro streets much more enjoyable than anticipated!
In Europe, there's several powertrains offered for the Astra nameplate. Gas models range in size from 1.4 thru turbo charged 2.0 (considering the speeds I was able to obtain with the 1.8, made me shiver considering what a larger motor with a turbo could accomplish!). Then there's a couple of diesel motors with or without turbos offered, for a total of about 6-7 motors. Then there's also the choice of auto or 5 speed (6 if you have the turbo model). Unfortunately all we get is the 1.8 naturally aspirated gas motor with either a 4 speed auto or 5 speed stick.
After driving this car in Germany and Switzerland, I really wished that the Saturn version would be the same. So last month I took a trip to my local Saturn dealer to test drive the N.A. version. The only disappointments came when I noticed no rear fog lights, and no height adjustments for the headlights, different optics for the headlights, and no other versions offered than the 3 and 5 door. In Europe, buyers have both hatches to choose from, but also a sedan, wagon, coupe, and hard-top convertible coupes. So basically, whatever target price you hope to keep, there's an Astra model right for you!
Aside from the above differences, the car's just as enjoyable as the Euro counterpart. When I came back from Germany last fall/winter, I raved to a close friend of mine about how great this little car was, and how much I'd love to own a new Saturn, touting how much better it is than ANY other N.A. car offered. Everything from it's handling, to it's superior build quality and reliable powertrain, and not to mention its fantastic price advantage over the Japanese and other Euro offerings, make this car UNBEATABLE!!!
The only drawbacks I noticed on the 2 door version (both in HT and convertible forms) was the rear view when making lane changes, it's nothing short of terrible! I mean they could have saved $ by not having rear 1/4 panel windows!
My other gripe comes from the arrangement of the radio and climate controls. There's a fantastic LED screen in the centre of the dash, but the configuration of the buttons and dials makes a simple task of changing the temp or radio acoustics a chore, causing you to have to take your eyes off the road for several seconds. After getting used to the steering wheel mounted controls for the radio helps a bit, until you have to change the climate controls. Not good in my books!
Do yourself a favour, if you're reading this review, and find small hatches fun and interesting to drive, you GOTTA get yourself into the drivers seat and test drive one.