Saturn has hatched a midsize sedan that does something remarkable for a U.S. automobile: It offers real competition against perennial class leaders Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

The new Aura is the latest manifestation of Saturn’s product line do-over, and it’s a solid hit that should bring fresh Saturn buyers into the fold. Saturn’s original cult following is long gone after so many years of the GM division producing the same old, same old.

It took an amalgam of GM resources to create Aura, primarily Germany’s Opel division that produced the well-engineered chassis. Aura gets the firm, supple suspension and responsive steering of the popular Opel Vectra, helping the Saturn achieve something akin to European stability and poise.

Although Aura is basically a mainstream sedan, like Camry and Accord, it’s also fun to drive, with agile handling and solid steering. And for the price, starting just over $20,000 for the base XE model, Aura feels particularly refined.

I drove the $24,000 XR version that felt more like a sport sedan than a moderately priced family car, with its 252-horsepower V-6 hooked to a six-speed automatic with manual paddle shifters.

Aura should lift Saturn’s fortunes, although moving in on Accord and Camry could be a task. The biggest thing the Japanese sedans have going for them is are their enviable reputations for reliability. It will take some years with a trouble-free record for Aura to build its own street credentials.

PERFORMANCE: The XR model comes with the smooth-running 3.6-liter dual-overhead-cam V-6, an upgrade from the XE’s 3.5-liter, 224-horsepower engine. The 3.6 has generous power across the rpm range, with a quiet, sophisticated feel. Another upgrade for the XR is the six-speed tranny, instead of the four-speed in the XE. Shifting is smooth and predictable, and the paddle shifters provide some sporty input. The shifter setup is somewhat awkward, however, with upshifts requiring a push forward with your thumb. A manual transmission option would be nice.

DRIVABILITY: Other than some torque steer under acceleration, Aura’s ride is both comfortable and agile. Cornering is firm and balanced, while the suspension absorbs road irregularities and rough pavement with easy grace. The steering is nicely weighted with the slightly heavier feel of a European car, which in my experience enhances the sense of precision and control. Drivers accustomed to the lighter touch of most domestic and Asian sedans might find it too heavy.

STYLING: Aura has a distinctive look with strong Saturn styling cues, such as the thick chrome accent above the grille. Some reviewers have complained that the Aura’s body is poorly constructed, with uneven seams and irregular fit. My test car looked pretty tight, although the trunk lid was slightly off center. Still, that’s an easy fix.

INTERIOR: Aura’s dashboard and trim seem pretty high end for this price range, even though standard GM parts are evident. But the otherwise sharp interior was marred by some particularly chintzy-looking plastic wood trim. They need to lose that stuff. The XR comes with a full set of safety airbags, stability control and four-wheel antilock disc brakes.

BOTTOM LINE: An impressive debut for a family sedan that hits the mark.

Saturn Aura XR

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive. Engine: 3.6-liter V-6, 252 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, 251 pound-feet torque at 3,200 rpm. Transmission: Six-speed automatic. Wheelbase: 112.3 inches. Overall length: 190 inches. Curb weight: 3,647 pounds. EPA rating: 20 city, 28 highway.

HIGHS: Driving refinement, nice styling, moderate price. LOWS: OWS: Chintzy “wood” trim, torque steer, awkward paddle shifting.

Pricing Base price: $23,945. Price as tested: $27,019.

OPTIONS -Leather seats, steering wheel and shift knob, $800. -Sunroof, $800. -Power seats and adjustable pedals, $425. -Satellite radio, $199. -Floor and trunk mats, $100. -Morocco brown leather package, $100. -Shipping, $650.

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