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2007 Saturn Aura
Aura holds promise to compete


By KEVIN A. WILSON

AutoWeek | Published 08/14/06, 6:38 am et

AT A GLANCE:

ON SALE: Fall
BASE PRICE: $24,595
POWERTRAIN: 3.6-liter, 252-hp, 251-lb-ft V6; fwd, six-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT: 3647 lbs
0 TO 60 MPH: 6.8 seconds (est.)
FUEL MILEAGE (EPA COMBINED/AW OBSERVED): 22.9/23.0 mpg

When founded as a subsidiary (not a division) of General Motors in 1985, Saturn’s aim was to match Honda and Toyota. From the time it started selling cars in 1990, it never measured up on the product side, though its fresh-approach dealer network captured a vital segment of buyers who had sworn off ever again stepping into a Chevy or any other GM store. Saturn engendered loyalty all out of proportion to the objective merit of its cars.

Now Saturn is in the midst of a product turnaround that promises to match or exceed the Cadillac revival for setting things right. This month it is rolling out the Vue Green Line hybrid; we’ll drive the Sky Red Line soon; the Outlook crossover is coming up; and the core product—a mainstream front-drive family sedan—finally merits comparison with the competition.

That’s right. Our experience with a prototype Aura sedan suggests if it’s not a bull’s-eye centered directly on the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, it is darned close. When we asked each of the first three passengers invited into the Aura what they thought the car was, they all said, “Acura?” They had, perhaps, misread the name embroidered on the floormats, but they also hadn’t seen anything that said, “Nope, not an Acura.” From the embossed “Moroccan brown” leather to the cast-skin dash top to the console-mounted shifter, most everything the eye sees and the finger touches appears up to snuff.

Though the design resembles the Opel Vectra, when we parked the Aura near a 2005 Accord sedan, the similarity to the Honda design approach was evident. Mind you, that means it isn’t quite as sporty-looking as the Aura concept car that toured the show circuit early this year—it lacks the concept’s oversize wheels, aggressive fender flares and side skirts. Perhaps we’ll find that mean stance in a Red Line version?

The Aura is a handsome car, clean with a bit of jewelry to declare this isn’t the plain-Jane basic transportation that was Saturn’s forte. But Aura really surpasses expectations inside the cabin. This was a worry. Built on the same platform as the Saab 9-3 and Pontiac G6, the Aura also shares underpinnings with the Chevy Malibu, a competent car that needed a hurry-up interior redo and could still stand upgrades.

“Our aim was to take everything we know about this architecture, keep everything that’s right, and learn from everything that’s not,” says Saturn general manager Jill Lajdziak. In large measure, it appears the design and engineering teams have made the right choices.

For instance, the Aura has hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering standard—in the Malibu you get electric-assist unless you opt for the SS. The difference in feel is significant. We’ll reserve judgment until we experience full production cars, but this Aura’s ride and handling would not disappoint an Accord owner. The Aura’s wheelbase is the longer 112-inch version used in Malibu Maxx, which pays benefits in rear-seat room and ride quality. Handling tilts toward the European approach, with the four-link rear suspension and front struts tuned more like a Saab (or Opel) than a Pontiac.

And it’s quiet, in part attributable to laminated front-door windows and laminated steel doors. The chassis is stiff, too, with 60 percent of the steel in Aura of the high-strength variety, and there is a magnesium cross-car beam at the dash.

Can GM manufacturing meet the quality goal? The Fairfax plant in Kansas City, Kansas, where Aura is being built, scores high on J.D. Power surveys of quality assembly, topping Toyota’s U.S. plants in that measure.

When Lajdziak pulled an early pre-production example off that line in May, she was disappointed by the armrest/console storage-bin assembly. Within hours, in conference with design, engineering and manufacturing departments, Saturn decided to redo the part. The original target date for introduction was late July, but that has slipped to fall, not just because of the console but because of a general philosophy this car has to be right from the outset.

The XE base model uses the 3.5-liter V6 with VVT and a four-speed automatic, similar to Malibu’s drivetrain but upgraded for 2007 to improve the sound quality and refinement of this advanced pushrod engine. All Auras have four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS and traction control, a full array of airbags (including head curtains front and rear, and front seat-mounted thorax side airbags), automatic climate control, power windows, and a center console with sliding tambour door over the cupholders and dual-bin storage. Base price is $20,595 including destination.

Options include a sunroof ($800) and four-panel panoramic roof ($1,500). Power-adjustable pedals are offered in the preferred package. At this writing, we haven’t met a base model, but on paper its 224-hp, 220-lb-ft V6 outmuscles the Accord four-cylinder LX, and the price is slightly below Honda’s.

The XR model we sampled was optioned up from a base of $24,595 to slightly more than $27,000, which includes 17-inch alloy wheels (vs. 16s on the XE), eight-way power driver seat, advanced audio, stability control, seat heaters, remote start, and a choice of aluminum or woodgrain interior trim. The latter is good enough that you have to ask if it’s wood (it’s not), but we prefer the brushed-aluminum look.

From the driver’s standpoint, the biggest upgrade to the XR is GM’s high-feature 3.6-liter overhead-cam aluminum-block V6 with VVT coupled to a six-speed automatic (the first front-drive application for this transmission). It makes a strong 252 hp and, more importantly, follows the Camry example with a displacement advantage over the Honda. This pays off with 251 lb-ft of torque at only 3200 rpm (vs. 211 at 5000 for the Accord’s 3.0-liter and 248 at 4200 for the Camry’s 3.5-liter).

Aura launches smartly from a stop with sharp upshifts from the new transmission that pleased our drivers who approached it as a sporty sedan, but annoyed those who sought the silky smoothness of Camry.

The sixth gear helps the XR post EPA fuel economy ratings of 20 city/28 highway (the XE matches Honda’s V6/five-speed automatic at 20/29 mpg, while Camry’s V6/six-speed automatic boasts 22/31 mpg). Next spring Saturn launches a four-cylinder hybrid Aura employing a drivetrain similar to that in the Vue Green Line, aiming to maximize fuel economy in a segment where Honda uses hybrid technology to boost V6 performance.

Advocates for Honda, Toyota or Saturn can all point to differences to justify their preferences, but the news here is GM finally has a car that merits comparison. We think Saturn may have a hit on its hands. How big a hit?

Lajdziak isn’t taking anything for granted. “I’m not calling volumes,” she says. “There are quite a few things Toyota does well, and not forecasting sales volume is one.”
 

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I've had my eye on this one for awhile now as a possible replacement for the trep when I'm ready to trade it in. Might not be for a few more years, but I really like the looks and standard features on the Aura. My wife drives a '06 Ion (well once it comes back from the body shop from her accident on 8/3), and its an enjoyable car to drive. What makes it more fun is the 5 speed, although it could have benefitted from a 6th gear as it sits around 2500 rpm range at highway speeds (60 + mph). Gotta love a stick shift!

I liked Saturns when they first started out. Something fresh, and inexpensive and had something different you didn't see in some of the other brands. Over the years, though, I thought they started to get a little pricy. Our Ion is actually very comparable in price, slightly less, than some of its competition in class. I think the Aura will do well. As far as Saturn's hybrid systems, well that's debateable. Their "green line" system doesn't offer the same kind of fuel economy as other hybrid systems, because they have gone with a lower power system to suppliment the gas engine. Whereas Honda, Toyota and Ford versions can run solely on electric power at slow speeds, the Saturn won't. What that does is make the hybrid system lighter, as it needs a smaller battery. I have my doubts as to how well they will do with their green line vehicles. If they are similarly priced as other hybrids in respective classes, I'm of the thought that people will be more swayed to the competition based on fuel economy. I guess we wait and see.
 

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froggy81500 said:
I've had my eye on this one for awhile now as a possible replacement for the trep when I'm ready to trade it in. Might not be for a few more years,
Same thinking in our household. I do wish they would have kept the styling closer to the concept but maybe they will bring that back later.

We just got rid of our '93 Saturn in June. Great, dependable car all the way until the end. Now a buddy of mine is driving it as his daily commuter. If this car does as well in dependability and GM does not try and screw anything up, I will probably have one in my garage when the Trep finally gives up the ghost.
 

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Am I seeing things?

Is it just me, or do I see a bit of Chrysler in the styling? I mean, just look at the back end!

And the wheels and the trim around the windows.......

Looks like someone crossed a Malibu with a Sebring or a 300m!

Hey, I hate to say it, but I kinda like it. The performance is good at least.
 

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I got a pretty good look at them this morning. Stopped by the Chevy dealer to see where they're at with my wife's car (she got hit by a paving truck 2 weeks ago in her brand new Ion!) and next door at Saturn, there were 2 Aura's in the back and another upfront. Nice. I didn't get right up and look in the windows, I'm sure I'll get a chance later when they finish fixing her Ion.
 

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caddy cts front, ion/neon rear and 300 body, interesting to look at, but not to look at for a long time...
 

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yea it looks good for a Opel,, i dont know,, seen a lot of problems out of saturns,, some people are lucky and get a good one,, the ion/ chev caviler is a ok beast,, the saturn seems to be put together a tad better than its chevy cousin,, so maybe thats saying something,, all i know is we get a lot of the line workers from the saturn plant in spring hill tn,, and i hear a lot of horror stories
 

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Nice to look at, but will people pay this much for a midsize Saturn?

GM & Saab combined make me not even want to follow this. We're through with true GM's.

We had an '03 Vue that was the biggest piece of ****... in the dealership 5 times within 25k miles... axle shafts busted at 3k, weather stripping made for whistling, stuck "accel" on cruise, among others. We traded it in for our '05 Vibe when I noticed the manual trans had some dirt on one of the seals. It had just started seeping. The Vibe is a Toyota Matrix with a different body; it's a little over 2 yrs old (early '05) & we've put 50k miles on it... no problems yet! Again, looks nice but don't trust the reliability.
 
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