2007 Saturn Aura Road Test
Saturn is in the process of reinventing itself with a host of surprising new products that are available now or will be in the near future.
The current star of this new renaissance has to be the 2007 Saturn Aura. This midsized, front-wheel drive sedan is designed to compete with the likes of Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, all powerhouses in this crowded market segment, and from what I could see on my first drive, this good looking sedan has the goods to give those stellar cars something to be concerned about.
Saturn is a relatively new company that started in 1985 as an experiment for General Motors. GM wanted to try out a new way to design, build and sell cars. With this new type of organization, all workers from management to the assembly line people have a stake in the company. In other words, everyone was a part owner and shared in the company's profits. Naturally, this gave workers the incentive to do the best job they knew how.
The first Saturn, a metallic red four door sedan, rolled off the assembly line in 1990. The design for this car started with a clean sheet of paper, meaning that it was engineered from the ground up to be a Saturn. The exterior of this car utilized plastic body panels that were resistant to corrosion and other damage and became one of the key selling points for the new product.
That compact sedan was unique in a number of ways, but the car was overshadowed by the new dealer network that was put in place to sell the car.
The dealership experience was unexpected by many people who dreaded the new car shopping process. First of all, potential customers could browse the showroom and not be hounded by sales people. Sure, they were there and were available to answer any questions, but there was no pressure on the customer to make a decision. This is because, unlike other salespeople, The Saturn sales force was paid by a fixed salary, not a commission based on how much they sold.
Another fact that was different was the no-haggle pricing policy. The price on the window sticker was the amount you paid. No dickering to get a better price. Because of this policy, the sticker price was set lower bringing it more in line with what a savvy customer was willing to pay.
Fast forward to 2006 and the new Saturn Aura that is the subject of this article.
The cars that were made available to the automotive journalists sat in the hotel driveway, glittering in the morning sun. These cars are a far cry from that original compact sedan that started things off for Saturn. This new Aura looked more like a Japanese or European car than anything that has ever come out of Detroit. Fit and finish looked to be world class and the interior was well trimmed out and impeccably dressed.
The first thing I did on seeing these cars was to knock on the fenders and doors. The dull sound of plastic panels that were the mainstay of Saturn all these years was gone. All the panels are now made of sheet metal, just like every other car. What gives?
Well, for one thing, those plastic panels would expand and contract depending on the outside temperature. Because of this, the gaps between the body panels had to be extra wide, which always gave the impression of a poorly assembled car.
These days, new processes used to protect the body from the elements make corrosion a thing of the past, while new paint methods make paint chipping less likely. Those old plastic panels also cost more to produce, so Saturn decided to drop the plastic panels from the Aura.
The Saturn Aura comes in two trim levels. The base model is the XE and has a starting price of $20,595. Not bad for a mid-sized sedan with a V6 and an automatic transmission as standard equipment. The XE sports 17 inch wheels, 4 wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control and a full complement of front side and head air bags.
The upscale model that I drove for this report was the Aura XR. This model starts at $24,595 and has a more powerful V6 engine with double overhead cams and 4 valves per cylinder. The Aura XR comes equipped with the first 6 speed automatic on a front-wheel drive GM car replacing the company's tried and true 4 speed automatic. This new six speed transmission is as smooth as any automatic I have experienced. The automatic in the XE is still the old 4 speed model, which has been a darn good gearbox in its own right, just not up to the smooth-shifting competition from abroad.
Sitting behind the wheel for the first time, I liked what I saw. Front seat comfort was very good and, looking over my shoulder, there was plenty of room in the rear seat area as well. I was able to find a comfortable driving position with the 8 way power seat and the tilt and telescoping steering column. The steering wheel had a nice grip and instruments were clear and legible with amber back-lighting both day and night.
Other standard niceties on the XR include: 18 inch polished aluminum wheels, an 8 way power driver's seat, heated front seats, stability control, automatic climate control and an in-dash 6 disc CD changer.
I only had a couple of hours behind the wheel on our preview drive, but I did get a chance, on a different day, to try an XR out on a race track and came away quite impressed with its sporty handling prowess.
Steering felt sharp and precise on the winding part of the course and had a beautifully weighted heft that made the car feel like a sports car. This car felt more like an upscale sports sedan costing twice the price.
The Aura exhibited almost none of the torque steer you would normally associate with a high performance front-wheel drive car. Our XR even had paddle shifters behind the steering wheel for manual control of the 6 speed automatic. Sports car indeed.
On public roads, the Aura was stable, smooth and quiet on most road surfaces. I detected little wind noise at any speeds I attained during highway driving. Acceleration felt powerful and smooth. Engine noise was well controlled at full throttle and the sounds the engine made were pleasant. This was a comfortable cruiser that I wouldn't mind taking on a cross-country trip. Heck, I wouldn't mind owning one.
Our test car was equipped with a few options which kicked up the price to $26,494. These options included a sunroof, leather seats XM radio and premium floor mats. A couple of things were missing from the list of features that I thought should have been there. For instance, the climate control was only single zone, while some of the competitors are using dual zone systems on their top models. Also, there was no rear seat center armrest. These are merely nit picks in an otherwise stellar car.
It appears that Saturn is moving more upscale, positioning itself in the General Motors hierarchy where Oldsmobile once stood. Yes, Saturn certainly appears to be on the move and has several new products in the hopper that should continue this momentum. If they continue to do things right, they may be the General's best shot at getting their once illustrious crown back