Mike Meoleny, Saturn’s Vehicle Chief Engineer, Midsize Vehicles, is responsible for the new Aura sedan, and says that General Motors knows that consumers have assigned this kind of cachet to certain vehicles within non-premium segments of the market. He agrees that, once upon a time, the Saturn brand enjoyed this same kind of prestige. Though it sold small, inexpensive cars when it launched in 1990, Saturn rapidly developed a loyal fan base that was proud to park a Saturn in the driveway. In response, General Motors promptly ignored Saturn fans by starving cash flow that could have been used to develop new models. A decade later, Saturn was a punch line, the product line was aged, and only die-hard fans were willing to accept old-tech engineering for no-haggle pricing and dent-resistant body panels.
It’s been some time in coming, but now, Saturn is looking to recapture that squandered brand aura. During the next few years, a flood of new models are arriving in showrooms equipped with stylish European design, sporty driving dynamics, and value-laden price tags in an effort to get Saturn put on shopping lists with key competitors from Japan. The new 2007 Saturn AURA is a step in the right direction. Based on the same platform from which the Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac G6, and Saab 9-3 spring, the Saturn Aura is our favorite of this quartet of GM sedans. It looks good, it drives great, it’s comfortable, and it’s quiet. Perhaps best of all, when equipped with every possible option, it costs about what the average transaction price for a new car is today $27,769.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Aura is as safe as the competition, or whether it is as reliable as the competition, or whether it holds its value as well as the competition. Let’s also not forget that over the years General Motors has promised on numerous occasions that its newest models beat the imports – does anyone remember the Cadillac Cimarron or the Oldsmobile Intrigue? And does anyone really think a Buick LaCrosse is just as good as a Lexus ES 350? At the very least, however, the new Saturn AURA gives customers that are still loyal to the brand a great reason to return to the dealer, trade-in that ratty old L- or S-Series, and drive home in a new family sedan that won’t make the neighbors question their values, their success, or their intelligence. Better yet, the Aura is one of the first of several new models that should rapidly change the general public’s perception of Saturn.
Saturn offers the Aura in two trim levels at launch, with a hybrid model expected to debut after the first of the year. On sale now and starting at just $20,595 including the $650 destination charge, the Saturn Aura XE is the base model and includes a long list of standard features. Included in the base price are a 3.5-liter V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission, 17-inch wheels and tires, antilock brakes, and traction control. The Aura XE also has power windows, power mirrors, power door locks, cruise control, and a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel. The driver’s seat has a power height adjuster, and the Aura XE is equipped with an automatic single-zone climate control system, a driver information center, a programmable universal remote, and a six-speaker stereo with a CD/MP3 player and an auxiliary input jack.
For another $4,000, the Saturn Aura XR adds a more sophisticated 3.6-liter V6 engine with a six-speed automatic transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels, projector beam fog lights, and chrome door handle trim. Inside, the front seats are heated, and the driver gets eight-way power adjustment. The Aura XR is also equipped with a remote vehicle start system for hot days and cold nights, heated side mirrors, remote keyless entry, a Saturn Advanced Audio system with eight speakers and a 240-watt amplifier, and rear audio controls with a set of wireless headphones.
In terms of safety equipment, every Saturn Aura comes equipped with dual-stage front airbags with a passenger sensing system, dual front side-impact airbags, and side curtain airbags. OnStar is also standard, equipped with a free year of Safe & Sound service which includes airbag deployment notification that will get rescue personnel to your location faster in the event of an accident. Other safety features include a tire pressure monitoring system and daytime running lights. Stability control is standard and available only on the uplevel Saturn XR.
Load the Saturn Aura XE with every option and you’ll come in at just over $26,000. That includes the Preferred Package ($375 – eight-way power driver’s seat, heated outside mirrors, steering wheel controls for the stereo), the Convenience Package ($700 – heated front seats, remote vehicle starting system, programmable universal remote, auto-dimming inside mirror with compass), the Enhanced Convenience Package ($425 – six-way power front passenger’s seat, power adjustable pedals), and the Premium Trim Package ($1,050 – leather trim for the seats, steering wheel, and shift knob). The Aura XE can also be decked out with premium floor mats ($100), a power sunroof ($800), a panoramic roof ($1,500), 17-inch alloy wheels ($400), chrome wheel covers ($200), XM satellite radio ($199), and an engine block heater ($50).
Like the XE model, the Saturn Aura XR can be equipped with the Enhanced Convenience Package, the Premium Trim Package, the upgraded floor mats, the power sunroof, the panoramic roof, the XM radio, and the engine block heater. Both cars are also offered with a new Directions & Connections service from OnStar that includes turn-by-turn audio navigation. Exclusive to the Saturn Aura XR is a Morocco Brown leather scheme for $100.
Nuts and Bolts
Saturn is not following the Japanese playbook with the new Aura’s powertrain choices. Looking for a standard four-cylinder engine with a manual transmission that gets more than 30 mpg on the highway? You’re not gonna find it here. Instead, the Aura XE comes with a 3.5-liter V6 equipped with variable valve timing (VVT), an engine similar to what main competitors offer as an upgrade. However, this V6 is attached to a four-speed automatic in a world where five- and six-speed slushboxes are becoming the norm. The Saturn Aura XE’s 3.5-liter engine makes 224 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 220 lb.-ft. torque at 4,000 rpm running on regular unleaded, and the EPA says it will get 20 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. We’ve experienced this V6 in a number of GM products, and think most people will have no trouble getting 25 mpg in combined driving.
Upgrade to the Saturn Aura XR and you’ll get a 3.6-liter, dual overhead cam V6 with VVT and a six-speed automatic with Driver Shift Control paddle shifters. This more sophisticated and stronger powerplant makes 252 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 251 lb.-ft. torque at 3,200 rpm on regular unleaded, and gets a rating of 20 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. During our first drive of the Aura XR, we achieved 20.3 mpg on a good mix of roads.
When the Saturn Aura Green Line debuts, it will receive the same gas/electric powertrain found in the Saturn VUE Green Line. In the Vue SUV, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine ponies up 170 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 162 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,400 rpm, and is attached to a five-kilowatt electric motor working in conjunction with a 36-volt NiMH battery pack. In the Vue, this hybrid powertrain weighs about 130 pounds more than its gas-only counterpart, and returns 27 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. Certainly, the lighter and more aerodynamic Aura will improve upon those figures.
Every Saturn Aura rides on MacPherson front struts and a four-link independent rear suspension with large stabilizer bars front and rear to control body roll. Unlike the Chevrolet Malibu that shares this Saturn’s platform, the Aura is equipped with conventional hydraulic variable-ratio steering, a big improvement in terms of road feel and responsiveness over the Chevy. It helps that the Aura XE rides on standard 17-inch wheels wearing 225/50 tires, and that the Aura XR comes with 18-inch alloys shod with identical sidewall profile and section width measurements. A four-wheel-disc braking system with ABS and dynamic rear proportioning is also standard, but stability control is reserved for the Aura XR trim level.
If you like the way the Aura looks, you’ll like how all future Saturns will be designed. Taking its cues from GM’s Opel division in Europe, the Aura is crisp, clean, and balanced. New brand highlights include a chrome grille bar with the red Saturn logo embedded front and center, distinctive upswept headlights, and LED taillights with silver trim. Nine colors are available: Berry Red, Black Onyx, Bronzed Pewter, Cream White, Golden Cashmere, Midnight Blue, Ocean Mist, Silver Pearl, and Techno Gray.
According to company spokespeople, the Aura’s interior “sets a new standard for the Saturn brand.” Designers aimed to deliver premium low-gloss materials, tight gap tolerances, and excellent fit and finish in the Aura to ensure that it would be perceived as upscale. To that end, amber LED gauge and ambient lighting intends to convey a premium ambience, along with the Morocco Brown leather option on the Aura XR. The dash is trimmed in fake wood or silver plastic, chrome is sprinkled throughout for added flair, the headliner is a plush woven mesh, and the pillars are actually covered in a cloth that matches the headliner instead of the usual patterned plastic.
Details like that last one will help make the Saturn Aura a success. However, we found that the Aura lacked some features that are rapidly becoming the standard in its class, things like a close assist handle for the inside of the trunk lid and a rear seat center armrest. Furthermore, it seems as though the upgraded materials were applied only to the upper half of the cabin because the lower dash and door panels still have a glossy appearance, and the plastic used to construct the center console sounds thin and hollow when rapped with a knuckle. The most glaring example of cost cutting inside the Aura, however, is the center armrest between the front seats. It’s got a textured rubbery surface, but is rock hard and looks dramatically out of place. At the very least, it should be covered in padded vinyl.
Controls are straight from the General Motors parts bin, which is fine since most of them feature intuitive design and clear markings. Plus, GM is very good at placing knobs, switches, and buttons right where you expect to find them. The gauges are unique to the Aura, the stalks have a remarkably refined feel, the knob for the panoramic sunroof twists just like an Audi or Volkswagen, and the paddle shifters work well unless you shuffle steer. But then, you’re supposed to have all your downshifting completed before you enter a turn, aren’t you?
Storage spots include a good sized glove box, and large center console bin with a rubber liner at the bottom, four door slots, and small door panel bins. A cubby box under the climate controls is deep enough to lose small items, and Saturn thoughtfully provides card clips on both visors.
Pop for the option packages that include power front seats, and you’ll be much happier with the 2007 Saturn Aura. In our well-equipped test samples, we found both multi-adjustable front seats to be comfortable during a lengthy drive, offering a good blend of comfort on the highway and support on twisty roads. The tilt and telescopic steering wheel and optional power adjustable pedals help the driver find an optimal position, and we couldn’t complain about resting an elbow on the soft upper portion of the driver’s door panel. For front seat occupants, the major disappointment is the center console armrest because it lacks padding and looks cheap in an interior that is otherwise convincingly upscale.
Rear occupants won’t be as happy as those up front. The split folding 60/40 rear bench seat is merely OK, mounted a bit low and lacking in thigh support, and doesn’t feel as roomy as the Pontiac G6, though the specs say that each car offers 37.6 inches of leg room in back. In both the Saturn and the Pontiac, passengers face hard front seatbacks that are dished in the center to provide additional knee clearance. There is no center armrest, an oversight in a car designed to compete against the best from Asia.
Loading the trunk requires lifting items over the Aura’s tall bumper and through a relatively small opening covered by a strut-supported lid that has no inside close assist handle. Our test cars came equipped with a thick load floor mat, just like a top-shelf Toyota Camry. The trunk measures 15.7 cubic feet of cargo room, which is competitive but not class leading.
Saturn turned us loose on the writhing two-lane roads of Santa Barbara wine country, and we wasted no time in putting a fully-loaded Aura XR to the sport sedan test. Given previous experience in the Aura’s platform-mates, our expectations weren’t high, and that might be why we think it’s plenty of fun to drive.
The Aura XR’s 3.6-liter V6 is strong, delivering good power throughout the rev range, and the six-speed automatic is responsive to manual input through the paddle shifters and always shifts unobtrusively. Like any real sporting sedan, the Aura’s transmission won’t automatically upshift for you when you’re in manual mode, which is selected by sliding the gear shifter all the way to the bottom of the pattern. Under hard acceleration, there is a hint of torque steer, but it’s certainly better than the previous generation Nissan Altima 3.5SE.
When it comes time to stop, or turn, the Saturn Aura isn’t quite as impressive. The brake pedal feels too stiff and doesn’t offer enough range of travel, making it harder to fine tune the amount of pressure the calipers are exerting on the brake pads. This is more of an issue under normal driving conditions. When we hammered the car on Santa Barbara County’s back roads, we appreciated the quick response to input and the ability of the brakes to bite hard for tight curves. Likewise, the steering felt better and more natural when driving in a spirited fashion, featuring lively response, good road feel, and steadiness in fast sweepers. If there was anything to complain about, it was column shake over quick, lumpy corners. Also, on the highway, we thought there was too much play on center, and when cruising around town assist levels were a bit too light.
Offsetting any issues with the steering and brakes, the Saturn Aura’s suspension tuning is exceptional, doing a wonderful job of masking the inherent tendency of a front-drive car to feel nose heavy and ponderous in curves. Saturn has deftly blended enough ride compliance to keep occupants comfortable with enough stiffness to control body motions and create an engaging, entertaining driving character. Adding to the Aura’s driving pleasure is a quiet cabin into which minor levels of wind and tire noise intrude. So quiet was one of our test examples that the creaking and buzzing in that car’s dashboard rapidly became a major irritant.
Does the Saturn Aura have dent-resistant body panels?
As Saturn gets absorbed into General Motors and is treated less like a separate company and more like a division, it will be sharing design and engineering with other GM products. That means its dent-resistant body panels are history once the Ion and Vue are redesigned and replaced in coming years. Short answer: Aura doesn’t have ‘em, so get a lower deductible on your collision insurance.
Will the Saturn Aura be sold at no-haggle prices by friendly sales consultants?
Saturn built its reputation on customer satisfaction, and that’s a big reason that there are still loyalists dedicated to their cars and the dealers that sell and service them. The plan, of course, is to sell the Aura at value-laden sticker prices, and given that a fully loaded XR model comes in under $28,000, the retail price looks right. Recently, however, Saturn has been forced to offer rebates, subsidized leases, and low-APR financing to move the metal…er, plastic. Plus, gleeful Saturn dealers have been jacking prices on the desirable Sky roadster by several thousand dollars, which kinds shoots a giant, gaping hole in the whole no-haggle pricing philosophy. We’ll see if consumers think the Aura is good enough to command sticker price.
There are many choices in the midsize sedan segment. Should I consider the Saturn Aura?
Saturn has a compelling value equation and a good product in the Aura, making it worthy of a test drive. And don’t forget: Saturn owners love the treatment they get at the dealership. It’s possible that this combination of right pricing, right design, right performance, and respectful dealers will make you forget all about the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry.
Test Vehicle: 2007 Saturn Aura XR
Price of Test Vehicle: $27,719 (including the $650 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 3.6-liter V6 with variable valve timing
Engine Horsepower: 252 at 6,400 rpm
Engine Torque: 251 lb.-ft. at 3,200 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift feature
Curb weight, lbs.: 3,647
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 20/28 mpg
Observed Fuel Economy: 20.3 mpg
Length: 190 inches
Width: 70.3 inches
Wheelbase: 112.3 inches
Height: 57.6 inches
Leg room (front/rear): 42.2/37.6 inches
Head room (front/rear): 39.4/37.4 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: Five
Max. Cargo Volume: 15.7 cu.-ft.
Competitors: Acura TSX, Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Impala, Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler Sebring, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Azera, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Amanti, Kia Optima, Mazda 6, Mercury Milan, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Altima, Nissan Maxima, Pontiac G6, Pontiac Grand Prix, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Jetta, Volkswagen Passat
Photos courtesy of Saturn