EXPERT REVIEW

Star-Telegram.com's view


Some cars are just cars.

But once in a while, one comes along that is much more than that.

It grabs a person’s attention at first glance, radiating an aura that is quite compelling. And so it was with me for the all-new Saturn Aura midsize sedan.

The first time I saw it was from a distance at the 2006 Detroit auto show, and I was quite surprised to find, when I got closer, that it was a Saturn.

Until recently, you understand, Saturns really had no auras. They really weren’t supposed to.

Introduced in 1990 as General Motors Corp.’s answer to the popular Japanese econoboxes of the time, Saturns were no-nonsense, affordable, economical and practical cars for people who view cars as merely appliances of modern life.

Saturns were always quite plain vanilla, yet some Americans embraced them heartily for a while.

But the brand didn’t grow along with its customers. And as for the compact vehicle class where Saturn was stuck for more than a decade, the Japanese competitors kept getting better.

An attempt to sell a midsize Saturn sedan – the L-series – failed just a few years ago, and General Motors once even considered abandoning the brand altogether.

But there were good lessons to be learned from the Saturn experiment.

And the brand, despite its stagnation, still had a good name among a considerable number of U.S. consumers.

The pluses were: solid, dependable vehicles; a sales process that used reasonable fixed prices to eliminate the haggling that many consumers find unpleasant; and service after the sale rivaling that of luxury brands such as Lexus and Infiniti.

The big problem, though, was the product.

Many of Saturn’s original customers had moved on to bigger and better vehicles, not because they became disenchanted with the Saturn brand, but because their lifestyles evolved to where Saturn’s limited range of vehicles no longer fit.

Today, though, GM has reinvented Saturn.

This is no longer the company of the inexpensive appliance vehicle. GM is moving Saturn upscale, responding to the needs of today’s middle-class consumers who expect style and performance in their cars.

The core values of the Saturn brand remain – quality manufacturing, no-haggle fixed pricing and solid-gold service. But the vehicles in showrooms now are not your generic Saturns of old.

Last year’s introduction of the Saturn Sky two-seat roadster was one of the first clues that Saturn was moving in an exciting new direction.

This little car is so popular and in such short supply that some customers have been waiting for six months or more to get one. And these customers aren’t the same ones who buy practical econoboxes – they’re auto enthusiasts, a quite particular group of consumers who wouldn’t have considered a Saturn in the past.

Now we have the Aura, which arguably is the best midsize sedan on the market. Some of my colleagues apparently agree, as they voted the Aura “North American Car of the Year” for 2007 at the Detroit auto show this past week.

Why is the Aura so good?

Because it takes all of the practical attributes that have made appliance cars such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry so popular, then adds a generous measure of pizzazz, something that has been rare in an affordable midsize family sedan, let alone a Saturn.

Pizzazz might not even be a strong enough word to describe the curb appeal of the Aura, which, quite frankly, looks like a car that should cost thousands of dollars more than it does – say, mid-$30,000s and up instead of the $20,995 where Aura prices begin.

Our test vehicle, the uplevel XR model (base price $24,995 with freight), even came with a leather interior package ($800 and other options, yet had a sticker totaling just $26,919 (with freight), quite a bargain compared with equally equipped competitors such as the Camry and Accord.

But even the entry XE model comes with a large list of standard equipment, giving consumers a very well-equipped vehicle for the under-$22,000 starting price.

That includes the base 3.5-liter V-6 engine, rated at 224 horsepower and 220 foot-pounds of torque, and a four-speed automatic transmission. Base models of most other midsize sedans come with a four-cylinder engine, which isn’t offered in the Aura.

Coming later this year, though, will be a gasoline-electric hybrid version of the Aura, using the same powertrain that comes in the Saturn Vue Green Line hybrid compact SUV.

That system includes a 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor to provide nearly V-6 power, but the fuel economy of a four-cylinder. To be called the Aura Green Line, it is expected to have 25 percent better fuel economy than the base Aura, which is 20 miles per galloncity/30 highway. The price will be just under $23,000.

The XR model we tested comes with a zippy 3.6-liter V-6 engine rated at 252 horsepower and 251 foot-pounds of torque.

It’s connected to a six-speed automatic transmission, also a rarity in this class of vehicle. The transmission comes with steering-wheel-mounted paddles for optional clutchless manual shifting. Fuel economy ratings are 20 city/28 highway.

This engine and transmission package, along with the sporty suspension, gives the Aura the feel of a sport sedan, something quite new for a Saturn product.

The Aura’s European styling features some design elements that are common among several new Saturn products, such as the Sky and the new Outlook midsize crossover utility vehicle. These include headlights with what GM refers to as a “jewel-like” appearance, and a chrome grille bar.

Base models come with 17-inch wheels, but with the XR, there are fancier 18-inch polished, 14-spoke, cast-aluminum wheels, as well as performance tires.

Premium materials have been used throughout the cockpit, and both the fit and finish are exceptional. This is another area where GM cars have been lacking in the past, but there is nothing cheap or sloppy-looking about the Aura’s interior.

The reclining front bucket seats are quite comfortable, and the rear bench seat is roomy enough for three people, with ample legroom.

On our test car, standard features included automatic climate control; a center console with dual storage bins and cupholders; a driver-information center; power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote; steering wheel audio controls; auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass; eight-way power driver’s seat; fog lights; heated outside mirrors; A/FM/compact-disc stereo with six-disc changer, auxiliary input jack and eight speakers; universal garage/gate opener; rear-seat audio controls with wireless headphones; tilt and telescopic steering column; stainless-steel exhaust with dual chrome exhaust tips; and remote vehicle starting.

Safety features abound on this vehicle. First, the XR model comes with GM’s Stabilitrak electronic-stability control, but both models have front seat-mounted side air bags and a side-curtain air bag system for both rows of seats. The Aura also comes with four-wheel antilock disc brakes, a tire-pressure monitoring system, theft-deterrent system and daytime running lights.

Extras on our vehicle besides the leather package included power-adjustable pedals and a six-way power front passenger seat ($425); a four-panel panoramic power sunroof ($800); and XM satellite radio ($199), with three months of free service.

Other options include the GM OnStar vehicle communications/navigation system.

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.

At a Glance: 2007 Saturn Aura

The package: Midsize, four-door, five-passenger, front-wheel-drive, V-6 powered sedan. Highlights: New for 2007, this is Saturn’s best sedan yet, giving the brand a solid entry in the highly competitive midsize segment. It has great styling, a well-designed interior, and good performance, especially with the uplevel model. Negatives: No four-cylinder model with a lower entry-level price for budget-minded consumers. Engines: 3.5-liter V-6; 3.6-liter V-6. Transmissions: Four-speed automatic; six-speed automatic. Power/torque: 224 HP/220 foot-pounds (3.5-liter); 252 HP/251 foot-pounds (3.6-liter).. Length: 190.0 inches. Curb weight: 3,528-3,647 pounds Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock. Electronic stability control: Standard on XR model. Side air bags: Front seat-mounted; side curtain for both rows. Trunk capacity: 15.7 cubic feet. EPA fuel economy: 20 miles per gallon city/30 highway (3.5-liter); 20/28 (3.6-liter). Fuel capacity/type: 16.3 gallons/regular unleaded. Major competitors: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Mazda 6, Mitsubishi Galant, Chrysler Sebring, Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Subaru Legacy, Pontiac G6, Volkswagen Passat, . Base price range: $20,345-$24,345 plus $650 freight. Price as tested: $26,919, including freight and options (XR 3.6-liter). On the Road rating: 9.4 (of a possible 10).

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