On a recent trip to the Bay Area I walked up to the Avis counter and started my negotiation for my latest car to review. Since General Motors has dialed back significantly on their fleet sales Avis has become an absolute buffet of cars to explore. I was actually hoping for a two-door Pontiac 6 GTP but was offered up a Saturn Aura XE. I couldn’t resist.The Saturn Aura is a four door sedan and the model I had after exploring the GM website had only one option package providing steering wheel audio controls, heated side view mirrors and an eight way power driver seat. Otherwise the Aura was “stock” in every other way. Standard features included a six speaker AM/FM CD player, manual air conditioning, rear defroster, cruise control, 17” rims with Hankook touring tires, traction control, OnStar, trip computer, automatic headlamps and remote lock/unlock and trunk release with panic alarm.My initial drive was from the airport to San Mateo and then to Vacaville, California. I had ASSUMED the Aura came with a four-cylinder under the hood in the base configuration. I was immediately struck by the gas sipping quality of the Aura getting almost 40 MPG while cruising on the highway, but immediately became confused as the engine loafed along at 1,800 RPM at 65 MPH. If this was a 4-cylinder it has near ye old 258 horsepower 3.0 liter four Porsche 944 torque. Opening the hood up on my destination revealed the GM 3.5L V-6 under the hood. Holy unbelievable fuel economy Batman, this is one thrifty engine!The other thing I was struck by was how utterly smooth the transmission was on the Aura. The shifts were unperceivable and I had to watch the tachometer to confirm that it was a four-speed automatic. Even under wide open throttle the shifts were smooth and the engine while raspy was not harsh. Under certain circumstances the Aura did not downshift enough when looking for acceleration onto the interstate. I suspect that General Motors has programmed the transmission for fuel efficiency and smoothness at the expense of power off the line. Still the combination works and when I dropped the Saturn off with a combination of highway, rural mountain driving, severe Bay Area stop and go driving and some extended idling in 100 degree valley heat it cranked out 29.6 MPG average - VERY IMPRESSIVE!The biggest thing I was absolutely impressed with was the handling on the Aura. Close inspection of the wheels revealed meaty Hankook touring tires on the best looking steel rims I’ve ever seen. The rims didn’t even look steel with a hub cap over them, instead they were spoked and the cover very creatively created the appearance of a nice aluminum rim. Car designers could seriously learn a thing from this trick as a cost cutting measure that works. Unlike the Hyundai Sonata that I had where the tires would squeal in protest there was no finding the limits on the Saturn and the tires gripped in all cases. Driving back from Tahoe on US-50 through the twisting mountain passes the Aura experience absolutely no lean, no tire squeal, and no protest as it eagerly at up the asphalt. The German engineering in the suspension was obvious. The hydraulic steering, no fussy GM electric steering on the Aura was European firm and communicative. The four wheel disc brakes needed heavy pedal effort to depress but once I was use to them were very effective. They suffer from the GM issue of thin rotors, which under heavy use in the mountains around Tahoe and Reno started to warp and offer light vibration in protest.The controls were very well laid out but not without quirks. The switch gear was of much higher quality of GM products of just a couple of years ago with the power locks and windows switches of European or Japanese quality. However on several occasions I found that I turned on the windshield wipers by accident when inserting the key to start. The cruise control buttons and trip computer buttons were steering wheel mounted and easy to access. There were also steering wheel audio controls but one quirk was a lack of a, “source,” button. There was no way to rotate through AM/FM/CD without going to the tuner, which seemed odd to me. The stereo was absolutely, positively, OUTSTANDING for a base OEM stereo. I was completely stunned at the fidelity. The display was easy to read and buttons were large. I wished my rental had XM, an option on the Aura but not provided (rats). The FM tuner was strong and degraded gracefully as you drove out of range from the stations and the vast wasteland of terrestrial radio in the Bay Area.The biggest surprise in the Aura came at night driving back from Fairfield. I reached my hand over to get a drink from the large, well designed center console and discovered my arm had a faint orange glow to it. It was then I discovered the LED lighting strategically positioned in the Aura. There were located in the door pulls, the overhead console and it appeared in the center console. As my eyes adjusted further I discovered the cabin had a very faint glow to it, you wouldn’t know it was there unless you were fumbling for something in the dark and I found it a great feature. This was truly one of those, “wow, every car should have this,” moments and being LED based the little lights will probably last longer than the car.The interior was well laid out and surprisingly comfortable. The cloth wasn’t soft or of the highest quality but seemed very durable; my rental had 14,000 miles on it and showed no stains or wear, but still the vehicle is young. The rear seat was reported as comfortable and the front seats were supportive. The large rear head rests are probably good protection in a car accident but not great for rear visibility. Further I found that the large A pillars that sloped steeply blocked the view when looking to the left and the right. The Aura also had a larger than expected blind spot on the C pillar. The door line was shockingly high, reminding me almost of a Chrysler 300 and the greenhouse was narrow. The roof was high and the cabin, despite the narrow greenhouse did feel spacious. The trunk swallowed three large suitcases and my briefcase (long story).The paint was solid and smooth. Interior fit and finish was not as good as I expected, below the Hyundai I had and below other GM products I’ve sat in and driven. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t inferior but it was not Honda or Toyota good. I can absolutely understand why the Aura was the North American Car of the Year for 2007. For $21,000 – the sticker price of the car I had, this was a lot of vehicle for the money. It was solid in every way and I could debate the finer merits of 1/32” and 1/16” gaps in interior seams and a sea of gray plastic on a silver car; worthy complaints. Does it “beat” a Toyota Camry, as the magazine editors decided by naming it car of the year? In my opinion yes, and no; if you’re grading this on the driving experience, V-6 power with 4-cylinder fuel economy, and bang for the buck, this kicks the soft, squishy, numb Camry into the ground. If you’re going to grade this on fit and finish and interior material quality and refinement then no, the Aura has a long way to go. If these were siblings the Aura would be the rougher around the edges younger brother who always knows where the party is at compared to the glasses wearing, going to bed at 10 PM Chai tea drinking Camry.It is also worth noting that the upscale model I sat in with the Cadillac 3.6L V-6 under the hood had a vastly better interior (and $7,000 more on the sticker price). With General Motors rolling out a 300 horsepower version of the 3.6L VVT V-6 with direct injection, I’m going to guess it is only a matter of time before this engine appears in the Aura, Outlook, and other GM models, but now I’m speculating. Is it better than the previous generation Altima, which I can also compare it to? From a fit and finish stance on the inside, no. From a handling and driving experience, absolutely – and that dear reader is a complement when comparing base car to base car, and at the end of the day, this is a base car. Is this better than a base I-4 Ford Fusion (and yes it is a LOT more money) – oh Hell yes in many ways.I would put the Aura in the same class as the Hyundai Sonata – similar in experience to what the Japanese guys offer, maybe five years ago, with some truly model features and ideas tossed in for good measure. I found the ergonomics and handling on the Aura much better than the Hyundai, but I found the Hyundai had better grumpf (admittedly with a bigger and more horsepowered V-6).If someone were to tell me they were looking for a bread and butter family sedan I would say that the Saturn Aura, considering the dealer experience, the buying experience and warranty as a worthy car. I am truly surprised at how different the Aura was compared to the Pontiac and Chevrolet “triplets” that share the chassis. If I were to buy one personally, I would opt for the larger engine, 18” wheels, leather interior and other goodies, but that’s just me.
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