PROS Fantastic blend of ride comfort and sporty handling, Great fuel economy
CONS Smallish rear seat, Awkward entry/exit
Despite having the freshest lineup in the General Motors stable and an award-winning dealer body, Saturn is still struggling for respect among today's car buyers. Perhaps that's because people still think of Saturn as a small-car company. That couldn't be further from the truth.
Today's Saturn does sell one small car, the Astra, but the rest of the lineup consists of top-notch products sized for American buyers. Vue is a compact SUV with midsize interior proportions. Outlook is one of the best seven-passenger crossovers on the market, and Aura was car of the year when it was introduced in 2007. Add to that the halo Saturn Sky convertible and you have a solid lineup of vehicles that makes sense for today's value-conscious shoppers.
Arguably, the Aura is the most important vehicle in the lineup. It's competing in the midsize market with big-time players like the Ford Fusion, Dodge Avenger, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Camry, and General Motor's own Chevrolet Malibu. Aura has the job of attracting mainstream buyers into the Saturn fold.
Aura was introduced in 2007 and replaced the L-Series in Saturn's lineup. The Aura shares chassis with the Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac G6. It comes in three trim levels, XE, XR, and Hybrid. All are front-drive. XE and XR come with a 169-hp 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine. Available on the XR is a 252-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6. Both of these engines mate to a six-speed automatic transmission.
The Aura Hybrid comes with a 164 horsepower four-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic. Like other hybrids, the Aura Hybrid uses an electric motor to assist in acceleration and charge the battery when coasting. The Aura Hybrid also automatically shuts off at stoplights to save fuel. However, the Aura Hybrid cannot run on electric power only.
2009 Saturn Aura XR
Base Price: $23,450
As-Tested Price: $25,915
Built in Kansas City, Kansas.
Advanced Audio Package
Engine: DOHC 2.4-liter I4
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive Wheels: front-wheel drive
Standard safety features on all models includes antilock four-wheel disc brakes, antiskid system, tire-pressure monitor, and dual-front, front-side, and curtain-side airbags. Park assist and rear-view monitor are not available.
The XE lists for $21,345 and includes air conditioning, tilt-telescope leather-wrapped steering wheel with radio controls, cruise control, OnStar assistance system with one year service, cloth upholstery, driver-seat power height adjustment, center console, split-folding rear seat, power mirrors, power windows, power door locks, keyless entry, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with digital-media player connection, satellite radio, illuminated visor mirrors, rear defogger, automatic headlights, theft-deterrent system, and 215/55R17 tires.
The $23,450 XR four-cylinder models add leather upholstery, heated front seats, eight-way power driver seat, Bluetooth cell-phone link, floormats, and alloy wheels. XR V6 lists for $25,945 and adds automatic climate control, heated power mirrors with driver-side automatic day/night, remote engine start, automatic day-night rearview mirror, compass, universal garage door opener, fog lights, and 225/50R18 tires.
Aura Hybrid costs $24,930 and adds to the XE model, automatic climate control and alloy wheels but deletes the leather-wrapped steering wheel w/radio controls. Major options include sunroof, six-disc CD changer, leather upholstery.
All models carry a $650 destination charge and are built in General Motor's plant in Kansas City, Kansas.
Get up and Go Aura's four-cylinder engine provides merely adequate acceleration and passing power. While the 168-horsepower engine isn't overwhelmed by the car's 3400-pound curb weight, it never feels sprightly. Saturn doesn't quote a 0-60 mph time, but it's likely about ten seconds. That's a tick or two behind four-cylinder Accord or Camry models.
The six-speed automatic transmission is a surprisingly smooth shifter. It mates well to the four-cylinder engine, giving good gear spacing to help acceleration. The transmission upshifts smoothly and downshifts promptly. Saturn also offers manual shifting though steering-wheel-mounted paddles for those so inclined.
The Aura XR four-cylinder is EPA rated at 22 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. Those are impressive numbers, import or domestic. In real-world driving, Aura owners are likely to average more than 25 mpg in daily commuting. Straight highway driving is likely to yield better than 30 mpg. Also easing the burden on the wallet is the fact that Saturn recommends regular-grade gasoline.
On the Road While the similar Chevy Malibu favors a soft, comfortable ride, Saturn engineers tuned the Aura's suspension for a firmer, Euro-flavored ride. That's not to say that the Aura is hard riding by any stretch of the imagination. It's quite the opposite: Composed and comfortable on rough roads.
Still, the Aura's suspension offers more body-motion control than your typical midsize sedan without imparting undue harshness to occupants. If you're familiar with the ride of the Honda Accord or Nissan Altima, then you'll be right at home with the Aura.
With the firmer suspension comes athletic moves. Aura's in its element carving up freeway on ramps or charging down a twisty mountain road. There's little front-drive push in tight corners and the Aura feels well-balanced and surefooted.
The quick steering has great road feel and offers plenty of feedback. Brakes have above-average stopping power, but are dulled by a mushy pedal that's hard to modulate in heavy braking.
One penalty of the firm suspension is a fair amount of road noise--especially on rough surfaces. It comes across as somewhat surprising because there is so little wind and engine noise. Clearly Saturn engineers focused on making the interior of the Aura as quiet as any car in the class, but perhaps a last-minute tire choice foiled those efforts.
NHTSA Crash-Test Results, 2009 Saturn Aura
|Front Impact, Driver ||5 Stars|
|Front Impact, Passenger ||5 Stars|
|Side Impact, Driver ||5 Stars|
|Side Impact, Rear Passenger ||5 Stars|
|Rollover Resistance ||4 Stars|
Behind the Wheel Front bucket seats offer ample head and leg room. Seats are firm and offer good support in aggressive driving. Standard tilt-telescope steering wheel and available power-adjustable pedals make it possible for drivers of any size to find a comfortable and safe driving position. Visibility is fine to the front and sides, but somewhat hindered to the rear by the high trunk. Park assist or a rear-view camera should be available.
Front doors are standard size, but the B-pillars seem to be moved forward. This makes getting in and out somewhat un-natural and can be awkward at times. Since the B-pillar plays an important part in side-impact crash safety, it's probably a good idea that it's moved in line with the driver and a trade off worth living with.
Rear-seat leg and head room aren't what one might expect in a midsize sedan. Head room is compromised by the housing for the optional standard-size sunroof and grows tight for anyone over six feet tall. Leg room is OK with the front seats about half way back. With the front seats all the way back, leg room shrinks to uncomfortable for anyone other than pre-teens.
Conventional dashboard design features large, easy-to-read gauges and sensibly sized and logically placed controls for climate system and radio. Steering-wheel-mounted buttons for the radio and cruise control are nice. Fit and finish are excellent, and materials perhaps a touch nicer than most other vehicles in this class.
Trunk space is average for a midsize car and features a lid with expensive-looking non-intrusive hinges. Standard split-folding rear seats add to cargo versatility. Interior storage, highlighted by small door map pockets, is perhaps a little less when compared to competitors.
Bottom Line Aura is a pleasant surprise from Saturn. It easily matches sporty midsize competitors like Nissan Altima and Honda Accord for road manners and refinement. In addition, you can choose between the powerful V6 or the fuel-frugal four-cylinder. However, rear-seat comfort disappoints and the me-too styling doesn't distinguish.
Still, Aura proves is that General Motors can build a world-class midsize sedan that doesn't feel like a typical American car. It has athletic road manners, sporty ride, great engine, and top-notch interior. In addition, Saturn dealerships offer consumers a customer-pleasing, no-haggle price strategy. Given the division's renewed positioning as General Motor's import fighter, the well-designed Aura should steer plenty of buyers Saturn's way.