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Saturn has introduced an all-new mid-size sedan called the Aura. The 2007 Saturn Aura is the company's first truly credible entry in the most competitive segment of the automobile market. Compared with Saturn's last mid-size car, the unloved L-Series sedan and wagon that died quiet deaths back in 2004, the Aura is decidedly modern and fresh, with Euro character and aesthetic flair. Interestingly, the Aura has none of the plastic body panels that made Saturn famous in the 1990s.
The Aura is based on the same safe, solid architecture as the Saab 9-3, which sells for thousands of dollars more. Compared with the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion, the Aura is well equipped with safety and comfort features.
Aura comes with a choice of two powerful V6 engines. (And a hybrid model is on its way.) The Aura is competitively priced: The base XE starts at less than $20,495 and comes with a 224-horsepower V6 and four-speed automatic. The more powerful XR features a 252-hp V6 and six-speed automatic. Both V6 engines offer good fuel economy, rated 20 mpg city and 28-29 mpg highway.
The cabin is tastefully done and laid out well. All the controls work very well and the sound setup is particularly convenient. Saturn's interior materials are still behind the leaders in the segment, but the design is pleasing. We preferred the cloth over the standard leather option, but we liked the Moroccan Brown leather that's available on the Aura XR model.
Underway, the Saturn Aura is quiet and handles well. We found it drives like a European family sedan, taut and responsive, with brakes, suspension and powertrain working together to respond to the driver's wishes. This is not surprising, given the Aura shares its structure with the German Opel Vectra.
On the road, the Saturn Aura behaves very much like a European family sedan. In other words, it has a taut feel with good steering quality and an overall feeling that the brakes, suspension and powertrain are in agreement with each other. This is not surprising, given the car's structural roots, which are shared with the fine-driving Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra.
The XE's 224-hp 3.5-liter V6 and four-speed automatic are good enough for most drivers, in our opinion. The base 3.5-liter V6 is much more powerful than the four-cylinders found in most of the base models of the Aura's competition. It could be a touch smoother and quieter under full-throttle, but the strong acceleration speaks for itself. Even better, the engine quiets back down to near silence as soon as cruising speeds are attained.
The XR's 252-hp 3.6-liter V6 is considerably stronger and more relaxed in character, thanks to a more sophisticated engine design. The six-speed automatic comes with optional Tap-Shift paddle shifters on the steering wheel to make manual shifting possible when the selector is moved from D to M. While the XR's engine and transmission are undeniably more enjoyable than those of the XE, they are not so much better as to warrant buying the XR on that basis alone, which is meant to be a testament to the quality of the base 3.5-liter engine rather than a criticism of the 3.6-liter motor. (The XR's Moroccan Brown leather option comes to mind, for example.)
Fuel efficiency is excellent for both models and compares favorably with other mid-size sedans. The Aura XE is rated 20 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. Even more remarkable is the Aura XR's nearly identical 20 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway, in spite of its significant additional power. Credit the taller gearing of the six-speed automatic, which allows the engine to spin at a lower rpm at highway speeds.
The fully independent suspension splits the difference between ride quality and handling, both of which are quite good. While handling feels much like that of the Saab 9-3 with which it shares its architecture, the ride quality is more like that of a Toyota Camry, which is known for its smoothness. Furthermore, thanks to the use of sound-deadening materials everywhere from the firewall to the side glass and wheelwells, the interior is near-silent even at speeds over 75 mph.
The Aura's variable-ratio power steering is well weighted at highway speeds, offering plenty of road feel, while with just 2.8 turns, lock-to-lock, it's plenty helpful in low-speed parking lot maneuvers. Offsetting that, however, is a particularly wide 40.4-foot turning circle.
The Aura features four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. They felt good and worked well in normal driving.
Traction control is standard on the Aura XE, while the Aura XR is upgraded to Stabilitrack, GM's excellent electronic stability control system.
The 2007 Saturn Aura is a classy, mid-size family sedan that combines front-wheel-drive dynamics with contemporary styling, a decent interior and very good fuel economy. It is safe and easy to drive. For drivers on a budget, the XE model should be enough. Buyers looking for something more refined in the driving department, as well as more interior features will prefer the XR. Either way, the Aura's attractive price and good fuel economy make it a compelling choice for buyers looking at Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Steve Siler filed this report from Santa Barbara, California.