Given what we knew Saturn to be up until that point, the Aura (and the Outlook and Sky) took the division and stood it on its head. Here was a real car with, y'know, sheetmetal. And that sheetmetal was formed in such a manner to actually be pleasing to the eye. A look inside revealed an interior that had obviously been designed by people who like cars, and more importantly, like sitting in them. The icing on the cake came in the form of the optional 252-horsepower 3.6L V6 mated to a new 6-speed automatic. Clearly, Saturn was no longer what we had previously understood it to be.
Read the full review after the jump.
The Aura's overall styling is attractive without being ostentatious. Up front, the oversized wraparound headlamp assemblies dominate the car's face. Each one houses a pair of projectors as well as the turn signals in an "eyebrow" that sits above them. An Opel-style grille spans the distance between the headlights and reinforces the new corporate look that appeared first on the Sky. The lower front fascia contains a large center opening which is flanked by smaller ones that also house the car's foglamps.
Walk to the side, and you'll find that the new sedan cuts a nice profile. Chrome trim accents the glass in the car's rounded greenhouse, and it's also used on the door handles and the rub strip running along the body. Modest fender bulges add some visual muscle and are ably filled by fourteen-spoke 18" wheels wrapped in 50-series rubber, which really do look terrific. The now ubiquitous GM badge takes up residence in its spot aft of the front wheel well, and the shark-like "dorsal fin" antenna for the satellite radio is centrally-mounted on the roof's leading edge. (This would later become a car wash casualty. It was, however, soon recovered and put back in place.)
The car's rump is no less pleasing than the rest of the package. Metallic accents segment the LED taillamp assemblies, lending some added flair. The chrome strip running the width of the trunklid is home to all the badging, with "Aura XR" on the left and '3.6" on the right. The square Saturn badge sits on the upper portion, directly in the middle. Finally, a pair of exhaust tips peek out from below the bumper cover.
GM has made great strides with its interiors of late. The Aura is the latest example of the company's drive towards cabins that are both visually appealing and not challenging for the driver to use. Our tester's interior, like the exterior finish, was black. Simulated wood trim strips ran the width of the dashboard, down the center stack, and onto the center console. All four door panels also got a dose of the imitation tree, and overall, the effect is pleasing to the eye.
The center stack is refreshingly uncluttered, featuring the corporate audio system, HVAC controls, and a small storage unit where the ashtray would have been. Our XR was essentially loaded (the only thing missing was the panoramic sunroof), so we had the premium sound system (CD Changer, XM, MP3 compatibility) and climate control. The audio system, with its big round volume dial and smaller tuning dial, is a snap to acquaint yourself with and equally easy to use. The presets let you mix and match bands (AM/FM/XM) to create truly convenient and/or themed groups of stations. If you want to use your MP3 player, an auxiliary jack is included.
The climate control system's two major input devices are easy-to-use dials as well, and like the radio, the system is very straightforward. The storage unit right beneath the HVAC controls is home to a power outlet and a small cubby deep enough to store a pair of glasses. The center console houses the car's shifter, cupholders, and a spacious storage bin whose lid is also the center armrest, which slides forward and was comfortable to use.
Backseat passengers ride in comfort, with a reasonable amount of legroom and their own stereo controls with wireless headphones. The magazine pockets for the back seats use a cargo netting type of material.
The entire cabin experience is pleasant overall, but there are areas that could be improved. The woodgrain, while it looks nice enough, sounds hollow in spots when you tap it. We worry about squeaks or rattles in the future. The center storage bin's hinge felt very flimsy, and its plastic latch sounded brittle and junky (appallingly so, actually). We questioned how well it'd hold up to daily use/punishment.
The trunk was spacious, and could be made even more so by flipping down the back seats. It swallowed up a rather imposing double stroller with ease, much to our surprise. A pair of cargo nets on either side of the trunk keeps groceries and small packages in check.
When you settle into the driver's seat, you're faced with GM's three-spoke corporate steering wheel, which in this application is equipped with integrated shift paddles. With GM's setup, both paddles have identical functions. On either one, you press the "+" button that peeks over the lateral spoke to shift up. To downshift, you pull back on either paddle in the standard manner. The main gauge cluster is clean and simple: tach, speedo, fuel gauge, and temp. A multifunction display at the bottom of the speedometer shows your odometer reading, fuel consumption, and other standard trip information. The gauges themselves feature white numerals and yellow increment markers. The needles are white, and are mounted in the middle of carbon-fiber-look circles.
Twist the ignition key and the backlit gauges do a left-to-right sweep as the 3.6L purrs to life and settles into a quiet idle. Head onto the road and the V6 exposes its delicious nature with swift acceleration that's accompanied by a satisfying techno-mechanical growl from its engine compartment. We distinctly remember thinking that the sound was not unlike what one would expect to hear emanating from a foreign car. The logo on the steering wheel reminds you that yes, it's really a Saturn.
The Aura accelerates as if it wants to get away from Saturn's old image as quickly as possible. It is plenty quick, and whether you're letting the Hydra-Matic 6T70 pick the gears or you're tapping through changes with the paddles yourself, it's very satisfying. Other cars may have more power, but the truth is that the 3.6 delivers what it has with aplomb. On the highway, it's all too easy to quietly stray into Expensive Ticket Territory, because the 3.6 wants to run, and the car's good manners and solid road feel encourage you to keep giving it a little more.
Duck off an exit ramp and you'll be happy to learn that the Aura is as comfortable on the curvy stuff as it is the interstate. Handling was completely predictable thanks to a chassis tuned to provide a nice balance between comfort and sport. If thinks threaten to get out of hand for any reason, the Standard StabiliTrak is on hand to help get the situation back in check.
The automaker has an ad out that shows people looking at the new Saturn lineup, doing double-takes, and saying, "That's a Saturn?" It's a great spot because it's completely accurate. When we had the Aura, it got noticed, and people spoke up. At work, at the car wash, at the drive-thru – it made no difference. The conversation was fundamentally the same:
"That's a Saturn?"
"Yeah. The new one. It's called the Aura."
"Man. That's actually nice. I didn't know they had something like this."
Those words should be music to Saturn's (and GM's) ears, because it means that the automaker's gotten something right. Before you can fully shed your old image, you need to do something to break it. With the stylish Aura, Saturn is doing exactly that. It's changing people's expectations and raising their level of interest. This is a good car, and the best part of it all is that we're just in round one. If the General addresses the issues and continues to improve upon this great starting point, it won't have to worry about bringing the new, improved Saturn to the people. The people will simply come to them.
Our tester stickered at $26,919 including destination charge, and we'd have no problem recommending it to a friend shopping for something in this class. Heck, if we were the ones doing the buying, it'd make our short list of candidates right now, too.
All photos Copyright ©2006 Alex Nunez / Weblogs, Inc.