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2007 Saturn Aura XR

And Then There Were Two

    It’s hard to believe but there are now two good-looking Saturns on the road. The first was the Sky, which debuted last year to a collective, “That’s a Saturn?” by the automotive press. The suits promised there would be more to come from the reinvigorated brand. Apparently the GM guys just dropped off the “more to come” part because the type of descriptive words that keep coming to mind for the car I’m looking at include handsome, European, taut, expensive looking and refined. Excuse me if I am a little excited, but these are not words I’ve been able to use lately when talking about GM cars—let alone the Playskool-cars-for-grownups Saturn brand. But there it is, the midsize Saturn Aura and its tasteful chrome trim sparkling like jewelry on the Midnight Blue steel body. The days of the function-before-form Saturns are over. From now on, Saturns are going to be stylish.
     We had high hopes the thinly disguised concept of the Aura would carry over into production 100% unchanged. That car looked aggressive from any angle while the production car can only claim thumbs up for three out of its four sides. Our beef lies with whoever neutered the aggressive lower front bumper of the Aura concept on the way to production. Thanks to them the car looks more like a contemporary family sedan than the sexy sport sedan we were hoping for. We’ll keep our fingers crossed Saturn is holding back for a Red Line version. In spite of our quibbles with the mundane front end we really like the Aura from every other angle. A long 112.3-inch wheelbase makes for nice proportions, standard 18-inch ultra-bright aluminum wheels provide a strong stance and tasteful chrome trim around the greenhouse and on the rear decklid add considerable polish to an already clean design. Add in dual exhaust tips and stylish LED taillamps and the Aura should have a shelf life rivaling canned corn.
     Holding the slick new body together is the same platform the Malibu Maxx and Pontiac G6 have used successfully for the past few years. The already mentioned long-wheelbase makes for decent room in the back seat and a surprisingly large—almost 16 cubic feet—trunk despite an overall length of 190 inches. Honda Accord stretches another 1.1 inches but has 0.8 inches less rear legroom. GM tuned the strut front and four-link rear suspension for a comfortable but composed ride, and although it doesn’t handle Michigan’s frost heaves like a Buick, it doesn’t wallow like one either. Add in the relatively quick—2.8 turns lock-to-lock—steering that actually has some heft to it and the Aura begins to look like the best driving front-drive car GM has. And that’s because it is. It rides better than its G6 cousin and it has a better engine, too.
     Uplevel XR Auras like ours feature GM’s new high-feature 3.6-liter V6. The aluminum engine supplies 252 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque with the help of variable valve timing and a 7,000-rpm redline. The engine pulls strong in everyday driving thanks to a torque peak at a very usable 3,200 rpm. You’ll have to excuse me again because this is the first time in a long time I won’t have to chide GM for being a generation behind in the transmission department and I’m in danger of uncontrollable clapping. Thanks to a new 6-speed automatic the Aura will find itself debuting at the front of the class in this department instead of the middle. As for the gearbox itself, only on one or two occasions did we notice a clunky downshift. The rest of the week we enjoyed the fine automatic mode and occasionally running through the well-spaced ratios with the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The wheel and the paddles are lifted directly from the Corvette parts bin and I’m not the only editor who feels the wheel itself is too big.
     While they’re at it we have another suggestion for Saturn’s interior people: improve the quality of the door panels and for Pete’s sake lose the molded stitching. You’re not convincing anyone those cheap plastic armrests are leather wrapped. Fortunately, the rest of the cabin is suitably stylish and constructed of acceptable materials. Aura’s instrument cluster is a focal point with three recessed cylinders ringed in chrome. The corporate radio and straightforward single-zone automatic climate controls are easy to reach on the center stack. We’re sure some people won’t be happy that a dual-zone system is unavailable. The sliding plastic lid that covers the cup holders looks far from glamorous and we don’t really see the point in covering them anyway; the cupholders in GM’s new crossovers aren’t covered and thanks to a few chrome rings look better for it. Our car had optional Morocco brown leather seats that carried over from the concept car and look great. Better yet, the front seats fit my 6-foot frame well and offered more aggressive bolstering than you’d expect from car like this. Another nice bonus is the standard rear seat audio controls and two wireless headphones in all XR models—something not usually found in this class of vehicle.
     After a week with the Aura we were pleasantly surprised. Between the strong engine, new transmission, stylish body and well-equipped interior the newest Saturn started to look like a good value for it’s as-tested price of $26,919. At the very least, anyone shopping in this segment should give it a serious look. For the first time in, er, ever, Saturn should be taken seriously.

The Good:
Handsome sedan body, 252 hp with 28 mpg, 6-speed auto, standard wireless headphones for rear seat passengers who don’t share the driver’s taste in music.
The Bad:
Some interior plastics scream cheap, no dual-zone climate control.
The Verdict:
A solid success for GM and another contender in the ongoing bout for midsize sedan supremacy.
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