Sunday, February 18, 2007

Engineered overseas, Astra and G8 may bring boost to U.S. brands

Thursday, February 08, 2007
Scott Burgess: GM's global vision comes into focus
Engineered overseas, Astra and G8 may bring boost to U.S. brands

CHICAGO -- General Motors Corp.'s vision of a boundaryless global company that melds the strengths of its far-flung operations came into sharp focus Wednesday at the Chicago Auto Show.

GM used the stage to unveil its German-made Saturn Astra and Pontiac G8, developed in Australia -- two cars designed to breathe new life into lagging American brands.

Imported from GM's Opel division, the small and sporty Saturn Astra is a symbol of the increasingly global auto industry. It's not an American car with European styling. It's a European car coming to America, made by Detroit's General Motors Corp.

GM buyers could be the winner. European engineers have spent decades perfecting small vehicles that sip $5 gas but are far more refined than the typical American econbox. This is one reason why Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally is talking about bringing the European Ford Mondeo to the states.

The Astra, which comes in three- and five-door versions (which is to say two- and four-door hatchbacks) brings to mind another vehicle with sensible European manners and performance to Saturn's portfolio -- the midsize Aura. The Astra provides Saturn with a real competitor to the Honda Civic.

Best of all, Saturn didn't muck up the Astra, now in its third generation in Europe. The front and rear ends were adjusted to adhere to American safety standards, and the Opel badge was changed to a Saturn one.

GM's Opel Astra performs well on the Autobahn and the showroom. Since its redesign in 2004, Opel has sold more than 1.3 million Astras in Europe. It's powered by a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder ECOTEC engine, which pounds out 140-horsepower. Its interior fit and finish is excellent. It's an exciting car -- especially the five-door model, which I prefer over the three-door coupe.

The coupe's back seat feels more cramped, in part, because the extremely small back window cuts too sharply toward the back of the vehicle. All of the Astras should hit U.S. dealer showrooms by the end of the year.

From Australia with torque

GM's second introduction Wednesday -- the Pontiac G8 sedan -- is another creation in GM's increasingly global product development strategy.

It was designed in Australia, where powerful rear-wheel drive cars are as popular as Foster's lager. The GT version shown in Chicago should be a blast to drive. The performance sedan will be Pontiac's new flagship, replacing the Grand Prix next year.

Its 6-liter, 362-horsepower V-8 may not win you environmental points, but your Woodward Dream Cruise street cred will be off the charts. The exterior of the G8 is menacing. Its dual hood scoops and honeycomb grille provide a machined look and its flared fenders highlight a broad, brooding stance. The beltline rises toward the rear of the vehicle and its high, short deck give it a forward-pitched stance profile that suggests this thing is fast. I can't wait to find out.

We can dream, can't we?

The international flair in Chicago didn't stop with GM's offerings. The supercharged BMW Alpina B7 is simply a dream that few will get the chance to live.

BMW will only bring about 200 of the 7-Series rockets to America. But those who get the chance and have $115,000 to spend on it will relish every minute.

Pushing more than 500-horses through its 4.4-liter, supercharged V-8, this car meshes pure luxury with high performance. What's not to love about this car?

A bull market for Ford?

One word not common to the German language -- but still center stage all day -- was Taurus.

Ford introduced the set of vehicles formerly known as the Five Hundred, the Freestyle and the Mercury Montego. They have now been bestowed the titles 2008 Ford Taurus, Taurus X crossover and Mercury Sable.

Despite some harsh media criticism, I like the trio, especially the crossover formerly known as a station wagon. The two-toned Taurus X Eddie Bauer edition shown in Chicago looks sharp. The three-bar grille and new front end conforms with Ford's styling.

More importantly, all three vehicles will receive Ford's new 3.5-liter engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that will be a huge improvement over the groaning and heaving 3.0-liter V-6 in the current version.

While the new Taurus and Sable still have bland profiles, they look better with their new names than they did with their old ones.

Another German standout from the show was the Volkswagen 2008 R32. Think of it as a Volkswagen GTI on Red Bull. The small R32 will have a 3.2-liter V-6 pushing 250-horses.

The performance tuning and all-wheel drive (another feature not offered on the GTI) should make this car a pure performer. Its brushed aluminum grill and one-piece front fascia will draw appreciative glances from aficionados but little from the untrained eye -- until it blasts past an unsuspecting commuter.

You can reach Scott Burgess at (313) 223-3217 or

© Copyright 2007 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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