Two years ago this month, I saw a prototype Aura in a secret showing at Monterey, Calif., and I remember thinking that if the production vehicle was remotely as good as the prototype, Saturn would have a winner on its hands. The transformation from concept to production has been surprisingly faithful, and considering its price, the Aura is one of the better cars in all of General Motors.
The front-wheel-drive Aura is built at GM's Fairfax plant in Kansas City, Kan., on the same assembly line that produces the Chevrolet Malibu and Malibu Maxx.
Like the Sky, the Aura is an indicator of where Saturn is headed. Bold styling and refinement mean as much as value. A total stranger eyeballed the test car as it sat in a parking lot, and when I walked up he asked if it was a Lexus. That's a high compliment.
The Aura takes on competitors such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry with no apologies. It is quiet, smooth and agile.
The Aura's interior is most impressive. The instrument panel has a pebbled texture that is a nice counterpoint to selected areas of low-gloss, smooth plastic. Interior panels have tight gaps, and the gauges have LEDs with amber lighting. The audio and climate controls are simply designed and move with precision.
The XR's premium interior of two-tone Morocco Brown leather is as nice as an entry-level luxury car. The woodgrain trim is not the best imitation of wood, but the overall look and feel is startling for a car in this price range.
The back of the split-folding seat is covered with a hard surface for wear protection. The opening between the trunk and cabin is not overly generous, but it is wide enough for many large objects. The trunk has a lot of space.
The Aura XE starts at $20,595, while the XR begins at $24,595. The test car was a well-equipped XR whose sticker price was $26,295.
The XR's standard equipment included side-curtain airbags, Stabilitrak vehicle stability control system, anti-lock brakes, automatic climate control, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, 18-inch wheels, eight-speaker audio system, OnStar and rear-seat audio controls with wireless headphones. That's a very impressive listing for a base price of $24,595.
Other options usually found on more expensive cars include power adjustable pedals and a four-panel panoramic sunroof.
Both Auras have V-6 engines. The XE has a 3.5-liter with 224-horsepower and a four-speed automatic. The XR sports a 3.6-liter with four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing and 252 horsepower. The transmission is a six-speed automatic. It can be shifted manually and has paddles on the steering wheel.
If you like power and smoothness, the 3.6-liter engine is terrific. Vibration has been minimized, and acceleration is lively right from a stop. Fuel economy is rated at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway.
The fully independent suspension is tuned for responsive handling without sacrificing the ride quality, and while the Aura isn't quite as well-mannered as some top European brands, it is an excellent compromise between agility and comfort.
The XE has 17-inch wheels, while the XR comes with 18-inchers. The larger wheels are mounted with tires that heighten steering response and enhance cornering.
The base price of the test car was $24,595. Options included the premium package of Morocco Brown leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather shift knob and power moonroof. The sticker price was $26,295.
Three years or 36,000 miles.