Sunday, December 10, 2006

2007 Saturn Aura

November 18, 2006
2007 Saturn Aura
Weekend Drive
New Saturn exudes a sophisticated Aura

Consider the beauty of the base hit. The pitch, the swing . . . there! . . . a skittering worm-burner between second and third, just beyond the shortstop's glove. Is there anything so majestically modest? No vainglorious windmilling for the fences. No manager's chicanery (the ignoble bunt or sac fly). The base hit is the game's fundamental increment.

Car companies are like baseball teams. They love home runs. They need base hits.

For most of Saturn's 16-year-career, it might as well have been swinging a canoe paddle. But things are definitely turning around at GM's Tennessee-based expansion team. In the space of a year, Saturn has connected twice: First with the Sky, a badge-job on the Pontiac Solstice roadster that handily outpoints the Pontiac in styling and interior elan. And now the Saturn Aura, a roundly agreeable, athletic midsize sedan that -- how to say? -- fills out its pinstripes nicely.

How's that for metaphor abuse?

It's not as if GM has reinvented the game. The Aura is a fairly programmatic GM product, a knitting together of many of its far-flung resources. It's just better knitting. The stamped-steel bones of the car are GM's German-engineered Epsilon platform -- a midsize, front-drive -- which sees service under the Pontiac G6, the Chevrolet Malibu/Maxx, Saab 9-3, and the Opel Vectra, built in Germany and England for European markets. The Aura's handsomely machined surfaces, harmonious lines and general conformation are owed to Opel's styling department, and the first impression when you see the car is that a German sedan has sneaked off the boat. Especially in XR trim -- with its turbine-like, 18-inch alloy wheels -- the Aura actually looks pretty posh and sophisticated, with subtle but vital metal highlights glowing around the windows and the grille, and haute-tech LED tail lamps. Amazing, considering this car replaces the L-series, whose styling was crueler than cosmetic animal testing.

What's different with the Aura is execution -- exkoosion, as my Little League baseball coach would say. For one thing, there isn't much evidence of cost-whittling in the Aura. Actually, the car puts up a fine argument on paper. The base model XE, powered by a 3.5-liter, 224-horsepower overhead-valve V6 with a four-speed automatic, retails for $20,595, and comes competitively equipped with front, side and air-curtain air bags, decent MP3-capable stereo and power accessories. The car runs on regular gas and returns 20/30 mpg, city/highway.

I do wish, however, that stability control were standard on all models. Ask what's the difference between a home run and a well-stroked double? Stuff like that.

Our tester was a generously up-fitted XR model (base price $24,595), with a better-breathing 3.6-liter, 252-hp, dual-cam V6 bolted to a state-of-the-art six-speed automatic transmission. This powertrain, with its steering-wheel paddle shifters, is the same unit as in the G6 GTP. Thus motivated, the Aura XR can put on some significant steam: 0-60 mph trips by in the mid-six seconds. And there's no brake-throttle trick to it, just stand on gas. Shod with the 50-series Pirellis, the front-drive XR can put down nearly as much torque as it can make without chattering the traction control. Green means go.

The low-speed punch is welcome, but it's the car's mid-throttle verve that makes it fun to drive -- and, God help me, it is fun to drive. There's plenty of torque in the lower registers of the tach (251 pound-feet at 3,200 rpm), accessible thanks to the paddle-shifted slushbox, which sews gears together with nary a seam. Because the transmission logic heavily favors higher gears in the interests of fuel economy, the paddle shifters are doubly helpful on curving uphill grades. On long stretches of highway, once the gearbox has settled into super-overdrive mode, the Aura XR cruises effortlessly at 130 kph (80 mph), which incidentally is the speed limit on most of the autobahn these days.

If I may address myself to the GM hive brain, I have a question: What took so long? Anyone who has ever rented a car in Europe knows that Opel (GM's European division) builds taut, serious cars with the everyday athleticism that European drivers expect (though, typically, with smaller engines). With the Aura, all those sensations are here: the heavy, positive feel in the steering, the augured-down suspension (struts in front, multi-links in the rear), the level cornering, the firm and supportive seats. This Euro-tactility extends down to the smallest things, such as the stiff, well-secured feel of the gearshift in the gate. As compared to the Saturn Vue, the gearshift for which feels like a wooden spoon rattling around in an empty bowl.

In any event, the Aura XR is tuned for sentient adults. The suspension is nicely stiff and recovers quickly from big hits from the pavement. The steering response is quick but the car has a good straight-ahead, on-center feel. The ride quality is particularly good for a 3,660-pound car on 50-series tires. It's only when the Saturn hits big, wheel-pumping ruts that a harsh shiver runs through the car, and that's because there's not quite enough isolating couplings and sub-framing between the road and the driver's central nervous system.

On anything like smooth roads, though, the Aura is a very quiet ride. The Opel-penned exterior geometry doesn't create any obvious sources of wind noise. Beyond that, Saturn has ponied up for sound-deadening double-laminate front glass, and otherwise stuffed the car with noise-damping materials. The company also uses a noise-abatement material called "Quiet Steel,' which is an excellent name for a porn actor.

The interior design isn't the most luscious. I'm content with the corporate-wide center console, the integrated panel of controls for the audio and climate systems that you see in so many GM products. It works but doesn't exactly ravish one's senses. Saturn also has made much of its high-end interior options, the Morocco Brown leather and the faux wood trim (our test car didn't have this trim). Sure, OK, why not?

There are grace notes: the warm pin-spot LED lighting, for instance. And still, there are reminders that there's work yet to be done in spring training: the harsh, clattering sound of the automatic door locks, for instance, or the strange black-corrugated plastic in the instrumental panel. Generally, the Aura doesn't have the cool and impeccable art direction of the relevant VW, Honda or Toyota.

You can't complain about price, however. The XR model includes 18-inch wheels, a year of OnStar service, and stability control, among other things. Our test car was decked out with leather trim, heated seats, sunroof and a six-disc CD/MP3 player, with 240 watts driving eight speakers and rear-seat audio with two sets of wireless headphones (for harried parents, the audio equivalent of Xanax). XM radio is an option, as is the aforementioned stability control, among other things. All out the door for $26,019.

And here's our baseball metaphor payoff: It's not that the Aura is the new Sultan of Swat. It's that, at last, Saturn's in the same league as Honda, Toyota, Mazda and VW.

Finally, we've got a game.

© Copyright 2006 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


Post a Comment

<< Home