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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.
The Aura is the largest of all Saturn sedans, fitting in the mid-size category, where Saturn's last players, the L100 and L200 sedan and wagon, failed to make much of an imprint. The Aura is based on the same platform as the current Saab 9-3 and the Europe-only Opel Vectra, the latter with which it shares many of its styling cues.
In front, the Aura features a broad grille with a thick chrome insert flanked by almond-shaped, multi-element headlamp units. The nicely sculpted front bumper houses tiny fog lamps on the Aura XR. With big engines and front-wheel drive, the Aura has a requisitely long nose, but thanks to nice tapering of the bumpers, it doesn't look disproportionately front-heavy.
The bodysides are clean tastefully sculpted, with a healthy bit of chrome detailing on the door handles and window trim. The Aura rides on a long, 112-inch wheelbase, which contributes to an elegant, planted appearance. The rear door is particularly long, however, making it more difficult for your rear-seat passengers to climb in and out in tight parking lots.
All Auras XE models ride on 17-inch wheels; steel wheels with wheel covers are standard; attractive alloy wheels are optional. XR models ride on dressy 14-spoke, 18-inch machined-surface alloy wheels. A power moonroof is optional, and if that's not enough, a four-panel glass panoramic roof is also available, bringing the sun into both rows of seats. Both glass roofs come with sun shades. The sun shade for the panoramic roof is motorized.
The Aura's rear end is dominated by glitzy, high-mounted taillamps that mirror the headlamps' almond shape while incorporating two strips of fast-illuminating LED brake lights. The bumper is tall, which doesn't help loading cargo into the trunk in any way. The rear bumper has subtle cutouts to accommodate twin chrome exhaust tips.
The interior of the Saturn Aura is tasteful, if somewhat bland, with an assortment of materials of mixed quality. Control operation is straightforward and the ergonomic layout is ideal. Many secondary controls are shared with other models in the GM family, including the stereo, turn signal stalks and steering wheel.
Front seats offer reasonable support for most people, though we would like to see better lumbar support. We found the fabric upholstery to be of high quality. The quality of the optional leather on both the XE and XR seemed marginal, however, with the only exception being XR models equipped with the cool-looking Moroccan Brown interior featuring uniquely grained, embossed leather seating inserts. The available eight-way power adjustments for the driver made it easier to get comfortable than in the six-way manual seats. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, though it feels one size too large for this car. At least with leather-equipped cars, the steering wheel feels good in the hand thanks to soft leather wrapping, which is far preferable to the grainy urethane texture of the wheel of cloth-equipped Auras.
Ergonomics are quite good. The front-seat elbow rest cleverly extends into the B-pillar for an additional four centimeters of elbow room, to accommodate taller drivers who slide the seat rearward. The cover for the center console slides fore and aft for comfortable elbow resting on the inboard side. Outward vision through the windshield and side windows is good. The rear shelf, however, is quite high, blocking a fair amount of vision through the rearview mirror and increasing the size of the blind spots, especially for shorter drivers.
The deep-set, electroluminescent speedometer and tachometer are lovely, illuminated in a modern-looking amber shade. A trip computer/vehicle information display is nestled in the speedometer. However, the display is too small to show more than 16 characters at the same time. Therefore, only one aspect of the trip information (the trip odometer, standard odometer, fuel economy, the gear indicator for the manual mode for the XR's six-speed automatic, and so on) can be viewed at any given time. There has to be a way they could have gotten more information displayed at the same time.
Interior trim is mixed in quality but pleasingly designed, with padded materials covering the curvaceous dash top and door panels, but less impressive hard plastic most everywhere else. There are other materials as well, including generous swaths of silvery metallic or wood-grained plastic trim, made more attractive by chrome details in many well-placed locations. We would like to say that these materials are up to snuff compared with Toyota, Honda and even Hyundai, but in truth, they're not quite there. At least the panel fit is tight and among the best we've seen on an American product.
All controls, buttons and knobs feel upscale feel in their operation. Controls for the standard, six-speaker, AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo as well as the optional, 240-watt eight-speaker sound system with six-disc changer include presets that are not band-specific; in other words, AM, FM and optional XM stations can exist in the same bank of buttons; no need to change bands. This makes a big difference when jumping around to your favorite stations in everyday use; most systems require pushing two buttons to do this rather than one. Also on the premium audio system are separate rear-seat audio controls with two infrared headphones. Best of all, all Aura stereos come with auxiliary input jacks for iPods and other MP3 players.
The Aura does not offer an optional navigation system, but it does come with a year of OnStar services, which now offer clever turn-by-turn directions. This navigational feature, offered on any vehicle with OnStar 7.0 and later, delivers the guidance benefits of a conventional, map-based navigation system with voice commands, but instead of requiring the driver to input the desti
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.
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