When the Saturn Aura arrived two years ago, it was the newest Camry fighter -- a term thrown around for American midsize cars hoping to steal some of Toyota Motor Corp.'s best-selling midsize car customers.

But every newcomer learns quickly that the Aura is not a Camry.

Thankfully, the refreshed Saturn Aura isn't one either. It's the Aura Saturn should have introduced two years ago.

The main reason: the new Aura gets 33 miles per gallon.

The new 2.4-liter engine and transmission are the main ingredients in its new powertrain. It's a winning combination that nearly matches both the Chevrolet Malibu and Aura mild hybrid sedans in highway mileage and out performs both on the road.

The Aura, even with the 169-horsepower four-banger, has lots of pep. And instead of a clunky four-speed tranny, the six-speed auto glides through each gear. On heavy acceleration, the shifts are concise. On milder acceleration and braking, the shifts click gently up or down.

I had almost forgotten how nice the Aura is inside. While there are no dramatic interior changes to for the 2009 model, there are some additions. The steering wheel now includes standard controls, and it's wrapped in leather.

The dash still has that cool, gentle line pushing across it, and the wood trim still adds a touch of sophistication that many $25,000 cars lack. It's simple and elegant; not offering too much, but just enough.

The seats include a double stitch that I thought I might notice while driving but I didn't. The seats are comfortable and nicely bolstered to provide some holding action in long sweepers.

The fun of the Aura really lies in its handling. Promoted as European styling and handling, the Aura remains true to that promise. The steering is precise and nicely weighted. Hold it through a turn and the feedback from the wheel feels like a sports car.

The body rolls very little through turns, and while the four-cylinder engine doesn't pack as powerful of a punch as the V-6, it still has plenty left in reserve on the highway.

The difference, of course, is the six-speed transmission, which is much smoother and seems to fit perfectly with the smaller engine. Why wasn't Saturn doing this before? (OK, that was rhetorical. The reason is Saturn didn't have this powertrain available.)

One of the problems Saturn faced in the past was its failure to offer a four-cylinder engine when a vehicle was launched. That could account for the low sales numbers. It can win every award in the book, and it deserves them, but consumers like four-cylinder engines, even more now than two years ago.

The four-cylinder XR delivers. It hits 33 mpg on the highway -- outperforming the Camry and Honda Accord. It manages 22 mpg in the city, which seems a little low, but acceptable when you consider average mileage is in the high 20s.

The mileage numbers may lure some customers into the dealership, but the ride will seal the deal.

Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at (313) 223-3217 or sburgess@detnews.com.

2009 Saturn Aura

Type: Five-passenger midsize sedan.

Final assembly: Fairfax Assembly Plant, Kansas City, Kan.

Key competition: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima

Engines/Power:

2.4-liter four-cylinder/169 hp at 6,400 rpm; 160 pound-feet torque at 4,500 rpm

2.4-liter four-cylinder (hybrid): 164-hp at 6,400 rpm; 159 pound-feet torque at 5,000 rpm

3.6-liter six-cylinder: 252-hp at 6,300 rpm; 251 pound-feet torque at 3,200 rpm

EPA gas mileage:

2.4-liter: 22 / 33

2.4-liter (hybrid): 26 / 34

3.6-liter: 17 / 26

Steering:

XR/XE: Hydraulic rack-and-pinion

Hybrid: Electronic power steering

Turning circle: 40.4 feet

Brakes:

Front: 11.6 ventilated rotors

Rear: 10.6 solid rotors

Suspension:

Front: MacPherson strut with aluminum L-shaped control arms

Rear:

XE/Hybrid: Four-link independent with twin tube gas shocks.

XR: Four-link independent with monotube shocks

Dimensions (inches):

Wheelbase: 112.3

Length: 190

Width: 70.3

Height: 57.6

Curb weight:

XE: 3,436 pounds

XR: 3,438 pounds

XR (six-cylinder): 3,605 pounds

Hybrid: 3,523 pounds

Interior (inches):

Front/Rear

Headroom: 39.4 / 37.4

Legroom: 45.2 / 37.6

Shoulder room: 55.9 / 54

Hip room: 53 / 52.2

Cargo space:

XE and XR: 14.9 cubic feet Hybrid: 13.1 cubic feet

Fuel tank: 16.3 gallons

Source: General Motors Corp.

What's new for 2009:

Segment-best non-hybrid highway fuel economy (33 mpg) on XE and XR four-cylinder models

New XR model with Ecotec 2.4L four-cylinder engine

"Green Line" name and badge discontinued

All four-cylinder models equipped with standard six-speed automatic transmission with paddle TapShift (except Hybrid)

3.5L V-6-equipped XE model discontinued

StabiliTrak standard on all models

Heated leather-appointed seats standard on all XR models (Ebony and Morocco Brown leather available)

Bluetooth hands-free phone connection available with XE and Hybrid Preferred Package, standard on XR

17-inch alloy wheels with low rolling-resistance tires replace 16-inch alloy on Aura Hybrid

Premium trim package with leather available on Aura Hybrid

Hybrid decals added on windshield and back glass on Aura Hybrid

Decklid badging moves from bright bar to painted surface

Available All Season Package includes rubber floor mats, molded splash guards

XM Satellite Radio display includes artist and song displayed simultaneously

Redundant audio controls standard on all models except hybrid

Leather-wrapped steering wheel standard on XR

Source: General Motors Corp.