The Pontiac Astre is a subcompact, four passenger automobile produced by the Pontiac division of General Motors. Essentially a re-badged Chevrolet Vega, the Astre was introduced in Canada for the 1973 model year, sold there exclusively through 1974. The Astre debuted in the U.S. for the 1975 model year competing with other domestic and foreign subcompact cars including the Mercury Bobcat and Toyota Corolla. Built on the H-body platform, Astre's two-door model range included a Hatchback coupe, Notchback sedan, Safari wagon, and Panel delivery. The Astre shared the aluminum-block 2.3 liter inline-four engine with the Vega through 1976, but the final 1977 Astre models were built exclusively with Pontiac's all-iron 2.5 liter inline-four engine. The Astre was cancelled with the Vega at the end of the 1977 model year. The Sunbird Safari wagon, a re-badged Astre Safari wagon, continued for the 1978–'79 model years.
In 1968 GM chairman James Roche announced that General Motors would produce a new mini-car in the U.S. in two years. Pontiac's own small car program had been rejected. Not only did corporate management make the decision to enter the mini-car market, it also decided to develop the car itself. It was a corporate car, not a divisional one. Ed Cole formed a GM corporate design team exclusively for the Chevrolet Vega headed by William Munser, who had worked on the 1967-69 Chevrolet Camaro. The Pontiac Division was given its own version of the Vega for the Canadian market, named Astre for the 1973 model year. U.S. Pontiac dealers finally had a subcompact to sell when the Astre made its U.S. debut for the 1975 model year.
The Astre used the Vega 140-cid (2.3-liter) inline-4 engine through 1976. The engine features an aluminum-alloy cylinder block and cast-iron cylinder head with a single overhead camshaft (OHC). 1977 models featured Pontiac's 151-cid (2.5-liter) inline-4 engine with a cast-iron block and head with overhead valves (OHV). Transmissions are the 3 and 4-speed manual, 5-speed manual with overdrive (1976–'77 option) and the 3-speed automatic.
The Astre has a 97.0 inch wheelbase and a 65.4 inch width. The front suspension is short and long control arms with coil springs; the rear suspension is a four-link design with coil springs. A torque-arm design rear suspension replaced the four-link design starting with the 1976 models. The Astre is a rear wheel drive vehicle with a live rear axle. Steering is of a recirculating ball type with a power assist option. The brake system features front disc brakes with solid rotors, and rear drum brakes. Power assist was optional starting in the 1975 model year.
Models and changes
The Astre features Pontiac's trademark split grill, emblems and steering wheel with an upgraded interior trim to help differentiate itself from the Chevrolet Vega. Other styling differences compared to the Vega include — 1973 model Astres have a black-finish grill and clear parking lamp lenses on all models, and chrome headlight bezels on non-GTs. 1974-77 models have first generation Firebird-styled taillights on the Notchback and Hatchback.
The Hatchback Coupe featured a lower roofline and a fold-down rear seat. The Notchback Sedan had the lowest price, has more rear seat head room than the hatchback, and is the only model with an enclosed trunk.The Safari Wagon has more cargo capacity and a swing-up liftgate. A Panel delivery based on the wagon was sold through the 1975 model year. It has steel panels in place of the rear side glass, and an additional enclosed storage area. An auxiliary front passenger seat was optional.
The SJ Hatchback and SJ Safari Wagon models feature soft nylon upholstery, cut pile carpeting, padded and cloth covered door panels, and a fabric headliner, plus rally instruments, the higher-output two barrel engine, four-speed or automatic (over a 3-speed manual) gearbox and radial tires. A GT package option for the hatchback and Safari wagon combined the lower-line interior with the SJ's performance and handling features.
The 1974 model year brought the only major body design changes, due to revised front and rear 5-mph bumper standards. A slanted header panel with a new split grill and recessed headlamp bezels complement the larger, front 5-mph aluminum bumper. Front and rear license plate brackets were relocated and a larger rear 5-mph aluminum bumper was used increasing the overall length three inches compared to the 1973 models. A revised rear panel on notchback and hatchback models had new Firebird-styled taillights and ventilation grills were eliminated on trunk and hatch lids.
The 1975 Astre, introduced in the United States September 1974, gave U.S. Pontiac dealers a needed fuel efficient subcompact. A budget "S" series was added during '75. More than 267 changes were made including new High-energy electronic ignition system and a catalytic converter. Power brakes and a tilt steering wheel were new options. The slow-selling Astre Panel delivery was discontinued the end of the model year.
A unique Astre package was offered in 1975. Dubbed the 'Lil Wide Track, it was the creation of Jerry Juska of Dymar to help with lackluster Astre sales. Juska took his ideas to Dave Landrith of Motortown Corporation specializing in custom auto work. The package includes a front air dam, rear spoiler, appliance wire mag rims, window louvers, a chrome exhaust tip, and bright stripe decals for the hood, body sides, rear spoiler, door handles, and wheel centers. They assembled a couple of cars in Jan. and Feb. 1975 and took pictures to local Detroit dealers where the package gained acceptance. It added a little over $400 to the price of the Astre but dealers felt the difference in looks was worth the price. Production was later switched from an old warehouse in suburban Detroit to a factory beside the Lordstown Vega/Astre plant. An estimated 3000 Lil Wide Track Astres were ordered by dealerships. The package components were later offered as a dealer installed kit.
Astres were confined to a single series for 1976, but they were refined with extensive engine, chassis, and body integrity improvements. A modest facelift included a revised grill. The 2.3L engine, named Dura-built 140, received improved cooling and durability refinements, and a 5 years/60,000 mile warranty. The chassis received the new Pontiac Sunbird's upgraded components including the box-section front cross-member, larger rear brakes and torque-arm rear suspension, replacing the four-link design, and effectively eliminating wheel-hop on rough roads. The body received extensive anti-rust improvements.
The last-of-the-line '77s were treated to Pontiac's new 151-cid "Iron Duke" inline-4 engine. Both the cylinder block and cylinder head are cast-iron. Standard in the Astre and Sunbird, they were the first GM vehicles to utilize the engine which was widely used into the 1990s. 1977 Astre models also featured a new vertical design grill and aluminum wheels (13") were a new option. The "Formula" option was also introduced for the Astre's final year, which included the handling package, chrome valve cover, three-piece spoiler, Formula T/A steering wheel and special decals.
Astre production for the 1975 thru 1977 model years was 147,773. The majority were built in the United States at Lordstown Assembly in Lordstown, Ohio. Astres were also built at the GM of Canada plant Sainte-Thérèse Assembly in Quebec.
- 1973-1974 (GM of Canada) N/A
- 1975 Panel Delivery - 131 (included in 1975 Total)
Road Test April 1975, "Varations On A Vega Theme"—The Chevrolet Vega (Pontiac Astre) and Monza (Buick Skyhawk) meet head to head in GM's marketplace...which will win?—Chevrolet Vegas are everywhere; like the Volkswagen Beetle or the Model T, they have become cult cars, accounting for a very large slice of the domestic small-car market pie." "Introduced to the American consumer in the fall of 1970, the car has undergone substantial changes, but even in last year's confused market situation, it was obvious that a new configuration was necessary to fill the up-market needs of the potential Vega buyer who was less than enthusiastic about the car's basic styling and appointments. The result was the Monza, which uses a slick body and Vega mechanical components to create its image. General Motors, recognizing a real trend in the falling sales of big cars, then decided to use the Vega/Monza concept to its fullest and and market a small car in three of its divisions based on either the Vega or the Monza, creating the Oldsmobile Starfire and Buick Skyhawk. To the extent that the progeninitor of the lot is the Vega, they are all variations on its theme, and since none of the B-O-P boys market a Monza-car and a Vega-car, we decided that a comparison test was in order."
"Considering the fact that the sole powerplant for the Astre is the noisy and asthmatic SOHC 140 cid inline four-cylinder Vega engine, we had expected our test car to have a four-speed manual gearbox, but it wasn't meant to be: like almost everything else in California these days, our test Astre had an automatic transmission." "The Astre aced out the Skyhawk on the skid pad, though, and it is not so much a reflection of the car's handling as it is the balance and more (relatively) precise steering. The noise level of the Astre was somewhat higher than we expected; the engine is the culprit here; the insulation against road noise was very good."
"The Astre and Skyhawk are both hard cars to dislike, dispite the complaints we had about both of them. They had greatly disparate performance due to their vasty different engines, but both had about the same braking and handling figures, as well as people and cargo capacity. The level of finish and overall quality was about equal in both, so inevitably, the final decision—which is best?—must come down to subjective considerations. And here, despite the $400 price difference, we had to come down on the Skyhawk's side." "If basic parts of the old Vega theme—economy, contemporary styling and sportiness in a small package—are to be carried into the mercurial market of the late 70s, there is no doubt in our minds that the Skyhawk is a variation that can handle the job."
Car and Driver in a 1975 Pontiac Astre SJ review, Don Sherman said, "For $180 over the price of a Vega, the Astre features upgraded interior trim-primarily the items for which Chevrolet charges $134 in their custom interior. You also have the opportunity to go one big step up in luxury if you choose the SJ line which is available in hatchback and wagon body styles." "Everything you're likely to rub against, in fact, has the plush, expensive feel of a Ventura SJ or even a Grand Prix SJ. The only problem is that the illusion of big-car comfort is shattered when you start the engine. The chararteristic shake and rattle that erupts from the aluminum four could only be the song of a Vega, no matter how carefully it has been orchestrated by Pontiac." "But help is on the way: Pontiac engineers are redeveloping the old Chevy II cast-iron four as a proper future engine for the Astre, and this car is scheduled to get Monza's trailing-beam rear suspension in 1976. It's not enough to make it a modern, efficient subcompact—the weight gains are irreversible—but improvements will sharpen the Astre's personality as a nicely appointed little car with great gas mileage."
Car and Driver in a February 1977 Pontiac Astre road test, Don Sherman said, "The Astre is the Vega-polished and refined and significantly improved, but still a Vega in perhaps its ultimate state of development..It remained for Pontiac to do what Chevrolet probably should have done in the first place: the substitution of the marvelous old Chevy II cast-iron four-cylinder econo-motor for the much-troubled aluminum-block Vega engine. Sliding in and starting the engine was a revelation because its so quiet and smooth compared to the Vega. Also the Astre's interior trim was judged more plush than Vega's." "John R. Bond, the recently retired editor of Road & Track, once caused himself and GM a peck of trouble with the Federal Trade Commission by calling the Vega the best handling sedan from Detroit in the pages of his magazine, and though he may have been stretching the point a bit, the Vega/Astre does handle awfully well, provided there are no bumps in the road. The suspension is well tuned and the car stays flat and goes where its pointed."
Car and Driver in its 35th anniversary issue in 1990, amusingly recalled the Astre U.S. debut: "Detroit Fights Back - The Pontiac Astre is introduced. It's a Vega with better decals."