Saturn Aura: GM aims high, scores big
New mid-sized sedan offers style and performance well above its cost.
By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer

PHOENIXVILLE, Penn. (CNNMoney.com) -- Long-suffering GM has recently seen some bright patches. It has had big hits with cars like the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars and the Chevrolet HHR economy wagon.

But those cars, particularly the HHR, have traded mostly on eye-catching looks rather than on genuine competitiveness.

2007_saturn_aura.03.jpg
Saturn Aura interior
The Aura's interior is available with optional two-tone leather. Overall, it's handsomely appointed and very functional.

Could you imagine what would happen if GM (Charts) combined that kind of design with a genuinely great product?

We're about to find out.

Stylish performance

The Saturn Aura has just begun arriving in dealerships, taking its place next to the Sky roadster. While the Sky, a sparkling, low-slung car, gets most of the attention, the Aura sedan is actually a far more impressive automobile in every respect.

With prices starting at just over $20,000, the Aura seems an almost unbelievable achievement, especially for a company struggling to contain costs. (My test car, the performance-tuned Aura XR, fairly loaded with options, cost about $27,000.)

From the outside, the Aura looks like a more-or-less standard GM sedan with added chrome jewelry. The corners are capped in intricate-looking head- and tail-lights. A big swath of chrome cuts across the grill with an extra-large Saturn logo in the middle.

It's in the view from the driver's seat that the Aura really stands out. My test car had the optional two-tone "Morocco Brown" leather. Dark and light leathers were mixed on the seats and, elsewhere in the car, deep brown and black colors were set off against one another. The wood trim along the dash and doors was, of course fake, but it looked deep, warm and authentic.

Numbers and letters on the dash glowed in amber, night and day. At night, amber lights shone gently from inside the front door handles and two tiny amber spotlights in the ceiling cast a glow over the area between the front seats. (The only downside to all this honey-colored loveliness was that the stereo display tended to wash out in bright sunlight.)

The Aura is about the same size as a Toyota (Charts) Camry or Honda (Charts) Accord, but it feels bigger inside from both the front and back seats.

It is also far more enjoyable to drive. The Aura's ride quality, performance and handling would seem to belong to a car costing at least $10,000 more. The Aura absorbs bumps like a sponge taking up spilled milk. At the same time, it holds the car's body under firm control in hard turns.

For those used to a typical low-priced sedan, the steering may feel a bit heavy, especially at low speeds. But it's drum-tight, giving instant response and an intimate, but pleasant, feel of the road. The brakes, likewise, are very effective but require a bit more muscle than you might be used to.

My test car had the 3.6-liter 257-horsepower V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission. Together, they provided ample acceleration and good passing ability.

My Aura XR test car also had steering wheel paddles for manual shifting. They were fun to play with, but a bit slow to respond. The six-speed automatic generally handled itself well even on twisty, hilly roads offering just occasional bumpy shifts. Fuel economy is in line with other midsized sedans.

Weak spots

Yes, you can pick out places where corners were cut and costs saved. There's a bit more noise over bumps than you'd find in those higher-priced cars the Aura so nicely imitates. The lower parts of the dashboard are made from old-fashioned hard plastic. In the doors, rubbery armrests have silly-looking, stamped-in stitching.

The steering wheel-mounted cruise control and stereo buttons are too small and nearly impossible to use while grasping the wheel.

If the Aura weren't so good otherwise, I'd wag my finger at those failings as unfortunate holdovers from GM's "bad old days." As it is, I'm willing to accept them as the price for getting a car that's otherwise so good for a price this low.

Reliability for the Aura isn't really predictable yet, since it's based on an all-new engineering platform. (Aspects of the Aura's engineering were taken from the Pontiac G6 and Saab 9-3, but various unique improvements were also made, according to GM.) Unlike GM's luxury Cadillac and Buick brands, Saturn has performed below the industry average in J.D. Power and Associate rankings of "Vehicle Dependability and "Initial Quality." As a new product, the Aura could go either way.

A hybrid version of the Aura will be available next year. It will be a "mild hybrid," meaning that the electric motor will not be able to drive the car by itself at any speed. One upside of that sort of system, besides reduced cost, will be a smaller battery pack. So, the Aura Green Line hybrid will have nearly the same trunk space as the non-hybrid version. That contrasts with the Toyota Camry Hybrid, in which batteries take up five cubic feet of trunk space.

Bottom line

Even with a few minor weak points, the Saturn Aura offers a truly impressive amount of style, performance and refinement for the money. If you're shopping for a midsized sedan, this car really has to be on your list.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.