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Aura of respectability: Saturn creates a solid move-up car

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Aura is the second of several new vehicles added to the Saturn lineup this year. First was the Sky roadster and high-performance Sky Red Line. The Outlook crossover SUV debuts in December, and next spring a new Vue and the Aura hybrid, which shares the powertrain of the Vue Green Line hybrid, are to roll off the line.

All are effective warriors from this "import-fighting" division that wants to reach consumers who would not have bought a GM vehicle.



Most importantly, Aura gives Saturn loyalists something they have clamored for: a solid move-up car. And this one has a steel body, not plastic panels.

The midsize, front-wheel-drive Aura is competent, without excuses, without gimmicks and with a promising European foundation. It brings a new level of driving experience to the brand.

But as good a "game-changing" vehicle for Saturn as it is, Aura is not a game-changing car for the segment, which is what would be required to elbow into the Camry-Accord-Altima club.

Aura will do well for Saturn because of its contemporary styling and features that convey an athletic, got-it-going-on image. And loyal buyers will be happy to return to Saturn dealers for the humane sales-and-service treatment.

Much is gained from using the corporate resources from GM's European brand, Opel. Aura is adapted from the Opel Vectra, built on the Epsilon "global platform" that is used for the Pontiac G6, the upcoming Chevy Malibu and a short-wheelbase version for the Saab 9-3.

Aura is sold in two trim levels with two V-6 engines and two automatic transmissions.

The XE has a starting price of $20,595 and comes with a 224-horsepower, overhead-valve 3.5-liter V-6 and four-speed automatic transmission. The XE is on the low end of pricing compared with the competition, which peaks at about $29,000 for the Passat.

Standard equipment is comparable with the competitors. Drivers will appreciate Aura's fast-lighting LED taillights, lighted gauges, tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel and nighttime ambient lighting from the overhead console and at the door handles.

The up-level XR model uses an aluminum, 252-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 with dual overhead camshafts and variable valve timing. It comes with a six-speed automatic with sport mode and steering wheel shifters and has a starting price of $24,595. With options, the XR test car was $26,919 (prices include the $650 destination charge).

Moving up to the XR model adds remote starting from the key fob, automatic air conditioning, power adjustable pedals, eight-way power adjustable driver seat, eight-speaker audio with six-disc CD and MP3 playback, 18-inch wheels and more chrome.

Most sedans in this segment offer a four-cylinder model. Saturn hit the same price point and boasts respectable fuel economy with a V-6. Sometimes there's no substitute for power, but the XE weighs 3,528 pounds, which is a couple of hundred pounds more than the prime competitors.

XE fuel economy is 20 mpg city and 30 highway. The XR is 20/28, and both engines use 87-octane fuel.

Hit the gas with the XR's meaty horsepower and merging with traffic happens quickly. The six-speed gearbox channels power smoothly and the manual mode fits the Euro attitude of the car. The system clicks off quick shifts at the steering wheel, but functions only when in sport mode. Some systems allow a quick, thumb-flick downshift when in drive, then return to automatic shifting.

The European influence of this car can be felt on the road and in the safety structure, which includes six air bags and options for adjustable pedals and electronic stability control. There is no Brake Assist, electronic brake force distribution or a center rear head restraint, which are popular features on the competition.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rates Aura a top five stars for front and side collisions and four stars for rollover potential, matching the Camry (details are available at safercar.gov).

The car rides firmly and comfortably at highway speeds. The cabin seems well sound-isolated: Noise and vibration are not transmitted through body attachments or the suspension. But more soundproofing at the firewall - between engine and cabin - would help make a quieter compartment.

The steering feels heavy at low speeds, which requires more effort when parking and navigating the mall. The large 40-foot turning circle doesn't help in tight spaces, either.

Sightlines for the driver are unobstructed and the front doors open wide but have a detent that stops at the right aperture to not gouge the garage wall or the car in the next stall.

The interior is Americanized with quality materials and construction that in most areas are as good or better than a Camry's. A concern might be flexing in the door-side armrest and grab handle, which may require attention before the warranty runs out.

The headliner and visors are made from attractive woven fabric, and the vanity mirrors are large, covered and lighted. The center armrest has two levels for storage and a covered cup holder "console" that includes slots for a phone and coins.

The back seat has good legroom at 37 1/2 inches, and the area has cup holders, reading lights, seat-back pockets and slim storage in the door panels. There is no center armrest and a tall exhaust tunnel gets in the way of the center seat's foot room.

Split-folding seat-backs expand trunk space, which is wide and deep, but access is narrow with a high lift-over for luggage. There also is substantial "basement" space under the floor with the temporary spare tire.

Saturn is moving out of a black hole with Aura, the new Skies, and a fresh Outlook. Now it's up to GM to keep the budgets flowing for Saturn to tell its story.

SPECS BOX

2007 Saturn Aura XR

Body style: Midsize, front-wheel-drive five-passenger sedan

Engine: Aluminum, DOHC 3.6-liter V-6 with variable valve timing

Horsepower: 252 at 6,400 rpm

Torque: 251 foot-pounds at 3,200 rpm

Transmission: six-speed automatic with sport mode and steering wheel shifters

EPA fuel economy estimates: 20 mpg city, 28 highway; 87 octane required

DIMENSIONS

Trunk space: 15.7 cubic feet

Front head/leg/shoulder room: 39.4/42.2/55.9 inches

Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 37.4/37.6/54 inches

Length/wheelbase: 190/112.3 inches

Curb weight: 3,647 pounds

FEATURES

Safety equipment includes: dual-stage front air bags with passenger sensing system, head curtain side-impact air bags, front seat-mounted side air bags, front safety belt pretensioners, traction control and electronic stability control system (XR only)

CHASSIS

Brakes: four-wheel discs with four-channel ABS (11.65-inch ventilated rotors front, 10.63-inch solid rear)

Steering: hydraulic rack-and-pinion, 40-foot turning circle

Suspension: front, MacPherson struts with aluminum control arms and stabilizer bar; rear, four-link independent with monotube shocks, dual-rate mini-block coil springs and stabilizer bar

Tires and wheels: P225/50R 18-inch touring blackwall (XE, P225/50R 17-inch)

PRICING

Base: $24,595, including $650 freight; price as tested, $26,919

The competition: Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Mazda6, Volkswagen Passat, Mitsubishi Galant, Hyundai Azera, Kia Amanti

Where assembled: Fairfax, Va.

PLUSES: Eye-opening styling and driving experience - for a Saturn. Accommodating features, attractive design and roomy interior and trunk.

MINUSES: Needs more soundproofing between engine and interior; 40-foot turning circle (maybe more with 18-inch wheels); cramped foot room in center back seat; heavy steering at low speed.

Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at mark.maynard@uniontrib.com.

© Copley News Service


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