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Saturn's snappy new 2008 Astra hatchback is long, low and sleek. The Astra is a global car; it is sold in Europe as the Opel Astra and it is the second best selling car on the continent-almost 10 million sold since the Astra was first introduced in 1991.

Designed and engineered in Germany, the Astra's chassis, suspension and power train are geared to European tastes where drivers like sporty, responsive and fuel-efficient small vehicles.

Both two-door and four-door hatchback models of the Astra are powered by a four-cylinder, 138-horsepower engine. Two transmissions are available: a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic.

The hatchback's acceleration is acceptable, the ride is firm and steering is responsive. The four-door version with an automatic transmission is pretty much the same. It is a solid ride and, for the most part, quick and agile.

The amount of rear seat head room in the two-door Astra is quite surprising. The four-door version has even more head room. And remarkably, the rear seats do not feel cramped because there are very clear views out the side of the car in both models. The model's wide rear door openings in the four-door model make getting in and out quite easy as well. And, once inside the car, it is nice to know that the cloth interior can be equipped with heated front seats.

For a small car, the Astra drives big and the car is quiet, especially for a four-cylinder engine.

The Astra can be ordered with 16-, 17- or 18-inch wheels. It can also be equipped with a dual pane moonroof and it has express-down windows. Its side airbags provide thorax and pelvic protection and the vehicle has OnStar, which is free the first year. n

EPA fuel economy:

City: 24, Highway: 32 (with manual transmission)

Base MSRP:

$15,375 to $17,875