Saturn Astra XR
Named 2007 North American Car of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show, and a finalist in the Family Car category of the 2007 Canadian Car of the Year program, the new Saturn Aura is making a promising debut.
Part of General Motors "turnaround" strategy, the midsize, front-wheel drive Saturn Aura shares its Epsilon platform with the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx and Pontiac G6. The same platform is found on the European Opel Vectra and Saab 9-3 cars, where it distinguishes itself as stable, sharp handling and smooth riding.
My test car was the Aura XR (starting at $31,080, with an as-tested price of $34,450) which along with the $24,990 XE represents one of the two trim levels available to Aura buyers. The XR features a 3.6 litre V6 with dual overhead camshafts and variable valve timing (VVT) that makes 252 horsepower and 251 pounds feet of torque at 3,200 rpm. It's the same engine found in the Cadillac CTS. This engine is mated to GM's first application of a six-speed automatic transmission with front-wheel drive.
The XE also gets a V6, but this is an overhead valve engine (with VVT) making 224 hp and 220 lb.ft torque at 4,000 rpm. It uses a four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel for both engines is 87 octane, regular gasoline.
Exterior design for the Aura is attractive and understated, and features the new corporate front fascia. Unlike some Saturns of recent years, there are no quirky styling points, and this is an impressive looking car from front to rear. The XR comes with standard 18-inch wheels (17-inch standard on the XE) and a tasteful use of chrome trim for the door handles. Our test car was finished in Midnight Blue (which can look almost black in some conditions), one of the nine exterior colours available.
Inside, the Aura is roomy, smart and tailored. Seats are large and comfortable, with excellent legroom for rear seat passengers. The big, easy-to-read European-style gauges are LED-lit, with amber illumination. Directional LED lighting from the roof subtly illuminates the interior at night.
Cloth seating is standard, but leather is optional on both the XE and XR. A distinctive Morocco Brown leather is available only on the XR however, and this was fitted to my test car.
Other interior features include automatic climate control, centre console with sliding door and dual bin storage, a driver information centre, optional power adjustable pedals and eight-way power driver's/front passenger's seat, optional heated seats available in cloth (standard with leather), steering wheel audio controls, and an optional four-panel sliding panoramic roof.
A six-speaker audio system is standard and includes MP3 playback and an auxiliary input jack for portable audio players. Saturn's "Advanced Audio System" is also available, which includes eight speakers, a 240-watt amplifier and rear-seat controls with two wireless headphones. XM satellite radio is available in both the XE and XR, with three months free service before standard XM fees apply. OnStar "Turn-by-turn-navigation" is also available, which is a new service that allows consumers to talk to an advisor, who sends complete step-by-step directions to customers' vehicles through their OnStar system.
The 2007 Saturn Aura is well equipped with safety technology. Side curtain airbags are standard, as are seat-mounted thorax protection airbags (extra protection for the chest) and front safety belt pretensioners.
All Auras feature four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and the XR adds GM's StabiliTrak electronic stability control. The XE receives traction control, but not StabiliTrak. Remote vehicle start is available as part of a convenience package on the XE, and is standard on the XR.
The Saturn Aura has a very substantial feel to it. Doors close with a sturdy thunk, and interior components project quality (this is an all-steel Saturn, without the traditional plastic body panels). Personally, I didn't much care for the Morocco Brown leather, finding it too much of a tobacco colour, but others found it rich-looking. The alternative is black leather, or titanium cloth. A criticism is the use of cheap-looking plastics for the door panels, with fake stitching embossed into the armrests. I say either use real stitching on leather or leatherette, or lose the stitching altogether. It lets down an otherwise classy interior.
On the road, the Aura XR accelerates effortlessly, while emitting a sporty note through its dual exhausts. The engine is not as turbine smooth as those of its Asian competitors, but it has a certain lusty personality that can be equally appealing (it sounds like it means business when you want it to). There are paddle shifters if you feel like manually selecting the gears, and they work efficiently enough. Although the XR has a "sport tuned" chassis, highway cruising is relaxed and poised, the inherent stability of the platform ensuring that the car doesn't pitch or wander.
Where the Aura doesn't shine is at slower speeds. City driving and parking lot manoeuvres don't flatter this car, as the steering seems sluggish and heavy.
2007 Saturn Aura XR. Click image to enlarge
Likewise the brakes require much more effort than you may expect. I'm not advocating hair-trigger steering and over boosted brakes, but the Aura feels ponderous when it should be nimble and responsive.
However, this debut model is a fine effort from Saturn and GM. It looks good, is roomy, has a generous trunk, has good power, is comfortable and is well equipped. Rather than describing it as having European manners and style, I think it's more accurate to say the Saturn Aura represents a new and improved generation of North American motoring, at least as GM sees it. Look for a four-cylinder, hybrid Aura later in 2007.
Second Opinion: Lesley Wimbush
2007 Saturn Aura XR. Click image to enlarge
The Saturn Aura and I had a rather inauspicious beginning - the day before I was due to pick it up for a week's testing, there was a change in scheduling and it wasn't available 'til the end of the week. Somewhat mollified by GM's invitation to a cocktail soireé in Toronto's chi-chi Distillery district, I chatted with one of the GM reps who gestured towards a spotlit vehicle and said, tongue-in-cheek - "There's your press car."
Great. So, not only was I being stood up by a car, but one that appeared to be enjoying a busier social life than I currently was. Against a backdrop of sandblasted limestone in the restored Victorian Gooderham and Wort warehouse, the car's sleek, wedge shaped profile, edgy angles and bulging haunches strongly suggested some European influence. Which is hardly surprising, since the Aura is a North American-built version of Europe's Opel Vectra.
As it turned out, the Berry-Red party-goer wasn't my press car - mine came in Silver Pearl. Instead of Saturn's traditional plastic, the car's body is steel allowing for tighter panel gaps. I loved the multi-spoke, eighteen-inch alloy rims, which filled the muscular fenders nicely and would have looked at home on a Benz or BMW. Further accentuating its Teutonic styling are an Audi-like c-pillar and side markers, and carved posterior topped with a flat deck lid. All four corners have intricate, aftermarket-style lighting. The grille is a bright sweep of chrome, bearing an extra-large Saturn logo in the centre - and while the grille doesn't grin quite as widely as its red-hot stablemate, the Sky Redline, it sports a deservedly satisfied smile.
In the mid-eighties General Motors begat Saturn, which started producing cars in 1990 - and the brand quickly developed a cult following thanks to its durable, dent-resistant plastic parts, independent dealers and no-haggling policy. But the bloom faded in more recent years and Saturn is now hoping to bring customers back to the fold with the red-hot Sky roadster, the Aura and the Vue - a new SUV that's also available as a Hybrid.
The Aura succeeds the L-series, which, due to falling sales, was cancelled in its 2005 year. The newest Saturn isn't a reworking of its predecessor, but a brand new product on a new platform. The Aura takes the company huge strides forward in design, interior finish and driving performance that approaches that of the European and top Japanese imports.
The Aura's available in two configurations, beginning with the base model XE, powered by a 3.5 litre V6 offering variable valve timing and mated to a four speed automatic transmission
My tester for the week was the upscale model XR. Twin exhaust tips peeping demurely under the blunt posterior allude to enhanced performance. Under the hood (which by the way, is held up by gas struts rather than a flimsy rod) is a 3.6-litre DOHC V6 with 252 horsepower, and 251 lb. ft. of torque. Quiet, smooth and with broad power band delivering beautiful mid-range power, it runs on regular grade gas. It's matched to a new Hydra-Matic six-speed automatic transmission (co-developed with Ford) for front, and all wheel drive vehicles. This new transmission (which debuted with the Aura) joins the Hydra-Matic six-speed rear-wheel drive family of automatics (such as that in the previously tested Cadillac Escalade).
Now for my thoughts. This is great. GM is proving that Americans do want European styling. Saturn may just save GM. What do you think?