Continuing its recent hot streak, Saturn’s handsome new Aura could successfully compete with the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry
AT A GLANCE:
2007 SATURN AURA XR
ON SALE: Fall
BASE PRICE: $24,595
POWERTRAIN: 3.6-liter, 252-hp, 251-lb-ft V6; fwd, six-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT: 3647 lbs
0 TO 60 MPH: 6.8 seconds (est.)
FUEL MILEAGE (EPA COMBINED/AW OBSERVED): 22.9/23.0 mpg
When founded as a subsidiary (not a division) of General Motors in 1985, Saturn’s aim was to match Honda and Toyota. From the time it started selling cars in 1990, it never measured up on the product side, though its fresh-approach dealer network captured a vital segment of buyers who had sworn off ever again stepping into a Chevy or any other GM store. Saturn engendered loyalty all out of proportion to the objective merit of its cars.
Now Saturn is in the midst of a product turnaround that promises to match or exceed the Cadillac revival for setting things right. This month it is rolling out the Vue Green Line hybrid; we’ll drive the Sky Red Line soon; the Outlook crossover is coming up; and the core product—a mainstream front-drive family sedan—finally merits comparison with the competition.
That’s right. Our experience with a prototype Aura sedan suggests if it’s not a bull’s-eye centered directly on the Honda
src="http://images.businessweek.com/autos/inline/saturn_inline.jpg" border="0" width="300" height="173" />
Accord and Toyota Camry, it is darned close. When we asked each of the first three passengers invited into the Aura what they thought the car was, they all said, “Acura?” They had, perhaps, misread the name embroidered on the floormats, but they also hadn’t seen anything that said, “Nope, not an Acura.” From the embossed “Moroccan brown” leather to the cast-skin dash top to the console-mounted shifter, most everything the eye sees and the finger touches appears up to snuff.
Though the design resembles the Opel Vectra, when we parked the Aura near a 2005 Accord sedan, the similarity to the Honda design approach was evident. Mind you, that means it isn’t quite as sporty-looking as the Aura concept car that toured the show circuit early this year—it lacks the concept’s oversize wheels, aggressive fender flares and side skirts. Perhaps we’ll find that mean stance in a Red Line version?
The Aura is a handsome car, clean with a bit of jewelry to declare this isn’t the plain-Jane basic transportation that was Saturn’s forte. But Aura really surpasses expectations inside the cabin. This was a worry. Built on the same platform as the Saab 9-3 and Pontiac G6, the Aura also shares underpinnings with the Chevy Malibu, a competent car that needed a hurry-up interior redo and could still stand upgrades.
“Our aim was to take everything we know about this architecture, keep everything that’s right, and learn from everything that’s not,” says Saturn general manager Jill Lajdziak. In large measure, it appears the design and engineering teams have made the right choices.
For instance, the Aura has hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering standard—in the Malibu you get electric-assist unless you opt for the SS. The difference in feel is significant. We’ll reserve judgment until we experience full production cars, but this Aura’s ride and handling would not disappoint an Accord owner. The Aura’s wheelbase is the longer 112-inch version used in Malibu Maxx, which pays benefits in rear-seat room and ride quality. Handling tilts toward the European approach, with the four-link rear suspension and front struts tuned more like a Saab (or Opel) than a Pontiac.
And it’s quiet, in part attributable to laminated front-door windows and laminated steel doors. The chassis is stiff, too, with 60 percent of the steel in Aura of the high-strength variety, and there is a magnesium cross-car beam at the dash.
Can GM manufacturing meet the quality goal? The Fairfax plant in Kansas City, Kansas, where Aura is being built, scores high on J.D. Power surveys of quality assembly, topping Toyota’s U.S. plants in that measure.
When Lajdziak pulled an early pre-production example off that line in May, she was disappointed by the armrest/console storage-bin assembly. Within hours, in conference with design, engineering and manufacturing departments, Saturn decided to redo the part. The original target date for introduction was late July, but that has slipped to fall, not just because of the console but because of a general philosophy this car has to be right from the outset.
The XE base model uses the 3.5-liter V6 with VVT and a four-speed automatic, similar to Malibu’s drivetrain but upgraded for 2007 to improve the sound quality and refinement of this advanced pushrod engine. All Auras have four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS and traction control, a full array of airbags (including head curtains front and rear, and front seat-mounted thorax side airbags), automatic climate control, power windows, and a center console with sliding tambour door over the cupholders and dual-bin storage. Base price is $20,595 including destination.
Options include a sunroof ($800) and four-panel panoramic roof ($1,500). Power-adjustable pedals are offered in the preferred package. At this writing, we haven’t met a base model, but on paper its 224-hp, 220-lb-ft V6 outmuscles the Accord four-cylinder LX, and the price is slightly below Honda’s.
The XR model we sampled was optioned up from a base of $24,595 to slightly more than $27,000, which includes 17-inch alloy wheels (vs. 16s on the XE), eight-way power driver seat, advanced audio, stability control, seat heaters, remote start, and a choice of aluminum or woodgrain interior trim. The latter is good enough that you have to ask if it’s wood (it’s not), but we prefer the brushed-aluminum look.
From the driver’s standpoint, the biggest upgrade to the XR is GM’s high-feature 3.6-liter overhead-cam aluminum-block V6 with VVT coupled to a six-speed automatic (the first front-drive application for this transmission). It makes a strong 252 hp and, more importantly, follows the Camry example with a displacement advantage over the Honda. This pays off with 251 lb-ft of torque at only 3200 rpm (vs. 211 at 5000 for the Accord’s 3.0-liter and 248 at 4200 for the Camry’s 3.5-liter).
Aura launches smartly from a stop with sharp upshifts from the new transmission that pleased our drivers who approached it as a sporty sedan, but annoyed those who sought the silky smoothness of Camry.
The sixth gear helps the XR post EPA fuel economy ratings of 20 city/28 highway (the XE matches Honda’s V6/five-speed automatic at 20/29 mpg, while Camry’s V6/six-speed automatic boasts 22/31 mpg). Next spring Saturn launches a four-cylinder hybrid Aura employing a drivetrain similar to that in the Vue Green Line, aiming to maximize fuel economy in a segment where Honda uses hybrid technology to boost V6 performance.
Advocates for Honda, Toyota or Saturn can all point to differences to justify their preferences, but the news here is GM finally has a car that merits comparison. We think Saturn may have a hit on its hands. How big a hit?
Lajdziak isn’t taking anything for granted. “I’m not calling volumes,” she says. “There are quite a few things Toyota does well, and not forecasting sales volume is one.”