Saturn has tinkered with the Aura lineup since we last looked at it. The brand introduced a hybrid model and a four-cylinder version for 2008 and has tweaked the four-cylinder model for 2009 to make it even more fuel efficient, with an EPA-estimated 22/33 mpg city/highway (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2008 model).
While Saturn has the right idea for these volatile times, the Aura still comes up short in terms of cabin quality, where it suffers from fit-and-finish problems.
Exterior & Styling
Like the Pontiac G6, the five-person Aura is built on an extended-length version of GM's midsize-car platform; along with the Chevrolet Malibu, it's one of the better-looking sedans using this design. It features subtle fender flares, a naturally arcing roofline and a short rear deck. The base XE model has standard 17-inch steel wheels. The uplevel XR gets 17-inch aluminum rims when powered by the four-cylinder engine, and it has 18-inch aluminum wheels when equipped with the V-6. The clear-lens taillights feature LEDs.
While its styling is appealing, I miss the aggressiveness of the concept version from a few auto shows ago. Here's hoping the Aura will eventually get a high-performance Red Line variant with the bulging fender flares, side skirts and gaping lower grille that gave the concept so much presence.
Ride & Handling
The Aura's road manners are a pleasant surprise. The four-wheel independent suspension has front and rear stabilizer bars, and when cornering, the XR model remains impressively flat for a family sedan; body roll is well controlled. The suspension is tuned for firmness, but it's fairly good at damping bumps in the road, too. It's a setup that's likely to appeal both to buyers looking for a sporty feel in their sedan as well as those who just need a means of transportation.
In keeping with the sporty dynamics of the chassis, it takes some effort to turn the steering wheel. Unfortunately, the driver isn't given much feedback in return for the added effort. The rim of the tilt/telescoping steering wheel is overly large, too; it feels a little bit like you're driving a bus.
I previously tested an Aura XR with 18-inch wheels and tires and found its cabin to be quiet. However, the latest 2009 Aura XR I drove was equipped with 17-inch wheels and low-rolling-resistance tires that could get noisy on the highway.
Going & Stopping
Saturn offers a four-cylinder or V-6 engine in the 2009 Aura, and both of them team with six-speed automatic transmissions. While the good gas mileage of the 169-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder will be appealing to many, the frugal fuel use doesn't come at the expense of acceptable performance, which is what this engine delivers. The six-speed automatic's gearing is well-matched to the four-cylinder, but under light acceleration the transmission didn't make the crispest shifts. However, the transmission seemed to perform better when accelerating with greater urgency. Over the course of a nearly 250-mile trip from Chicago to Detroit that consisted of mostly highway driving, the four-cylinder Aura XR averaged 31 mpg.
Choosing the 252-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 gets you a very strong engine that's also quite smooth. It emits a muted growl when accelerating hard and has plenty of power left when traveling at highway speeds. The six-speed automatics for the four-cylinder and V-6 include a clutchless-manual mode that lets the driver change gears using paddles on the steering wheel. The V-6 Aura's six-speed automatic makes downshifts that are quick and firm, though occasionally jerky. Four-wheel disc brakes deliver linear stopping performance.
I found a number of faults with the Aura's cabin when I first reviewed it, but Saturn appears to have made some improvements in the 2009 model. The driver's door armrest feels more solidly attached; before it felt like it was about to come loose each time you grasped its indentation to pull the door shut. Some trim pieces, however, don't fit together especially well. Rear passengers don't get a flip-down center armrest, either.
The cabin does have its strong points. The optional leather front seats are firm but comfortable, and the center dashboard's controls are smartly arranged.
The rear seats closest to the doors have comfortable backrests, and there's sufficient legroom, thanks in part to the carved-out backs of the front seats, which create extra room for rear passengers' knees.
The Aura received Good overall scores — the highest rating possible — in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests. Antilock brakes, traction control, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags and an electronic stability system are standard.
Cargo & Towing
At 14.9 cubic feet, the Aura's trunk is comparable to the competition. Folding the standard 60/40-split rear seats exposes a wide — but not especially tall — opening between the trunk and the cabin. Maximum towing capacity is 1,000 pounds when properly equipped.
Aura in the Market
Whether you'll like the Aura or not depends on what's most important to you in a car. If you value good gas mileage and capable handling in your midsize sedan, it's worth a look. If you're most concerned with how the car holds up on the inside, the Aura comes up short when compared to the competition.
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