There's something new in the air at Saturn, but can the Aura finally give General Motors' maverick brand the kick it has long and desperately needed?

Two decades ago, GM kicked off a frenzy when it announced plans to launch a new division. Politicians from across America made pilgrimages to Detroit, bearing state tax breaks and other incentives, hoping to attract to their states what was billed as a revolutionary new approach to car manufacturing. The hype was so heavy, it seemed as if Saturn cars would be capable of flying.

The reality was another matter entirely. The first Saturn products were, at best, middle-of-the-pack. And the assembly complex that settled into Spring Hill, Tenn., was never quite as good as its Japanese rivals. Still, Saturn did have a secret weapon. Its customer-focused, no-haggle sales system won countless fans among motorists wary of the traditionally confrontational new car buying process.

But that could only take the maker just so far, and in recent years, Saturn has begun to lose momentum. It simply didn't have the product to compete in an increasingly diverse market where the competition offered a seemingly endless menu of alternatives.

The Aura is part of a grand plan to transform Saturn with a veritable buffet of new products. There's the Vue, a crossover that will also offer Saturn's first optional hybrid powertrain. And the fun and affordable Sky roadster has provided a shiny halo for the brand.

Yet, arguably, the Aura could be Saturn's single most important new product in years. At first glance, you might dismiss it as just another midsize sedan. But with American buyers fed up with record fuel prices and growing bored with big trucks, the timing of the Aura might be close to perfect.

Newfound sophistication flew out to California to get some seat time in the new sedan and see if it lives up to its promise.

Indeed, our expectations were high. GM has been rolling out concept versions of the Aura for two years now, and the sophisticated styling, both inside and out, underscored just how important this product is for the carmaker. The show car's interior, in particular, was billed as a breakthrough for a company all too often satisfied with cheap and cheesy cabins.

On a cool but sunny morning, with a gentle breeze blowing in off the Santa Barbara coast, we got our first look at the production Saturn Aura. With only the most subtle tweaks, what we saw in concept form is what we'll get in production.

There's a sculptured look to the new sedan; it looks far more refined and elegant than the middling designs Saturn has traditionally settled for. But the overall shape is still familiar, starting with the chrome bar that hovers above the grille, with its inset Saturn logo.

The wheels have been pushed close to the corners, with the short overhangs giving the car a distinctly sporty look - an image further enhanced with the Aura's optional, 18-inch wheels and tires.

A broad-shouldered crease runs from headlights to jewel-like taillights, giving the car a sense of muscularity and movement.

Aura shares its "architecture" with several other General Motors products, including the Chevrolet Malibu. But what is more often called a platform was heavily influenced by GM's European arm, Opel, which uses the midsize architecture for its Vectra sedan.

The Opel influence is in keeping with the new direction Saturn is taking. At its outset, the division was intended to be an alternative to Japanese imports. More recently, it has shifted focus and will be the European-influenced division within GM's American portfolio. Considering the sporty and well-equipped products in the Opel portfolio, that's not a bad decision at all.

European makers spend a tremendous amount of energy getting their interiors right, and to a large degree, one can see that influence in Saturn's new offering. The Aura prototype boasted one of the best cabins we've ever seen from GM, at least in the U.S. The production version largely lives up to that promise.

It's all in the details, or almost all, anyway. Gaps are minimal and fits are precise. The sculptured doors flow smoothly into the instrument panel. Controls are well-placed and gauges are well executed and easy to read. The instrument cluster is drawn together by an interesting corrugated panel.

The cloth interior is well executed, as is the leather inserts offered on the up-level Aura XR. Were we to order this car for our own, we'd likely opt for the premium leather package. This Moroccan leather features the same crosshatched tan and black pattern that was the talk among the automotive media following the preview of the Aura prototype.

Seating is comfortable, yet supportive, as we discovered during a long day of driving. There's plenty of room in the rear, that spaciousness enhanced by carving extra knee room into the front seatbacks.

The "wood" on the dashboard and doors is not quite good enough, however. It's just a little too obviously plastic. And the fold-down door at the base of the center stack feels just fragile to the touch, something buyers may readily sense as they explore the interior.

During our drive, we also discovered an odd glitch in design: when you shift to manual mode, the display tells you what gear you're in - but you lose your odometer and tripometer, a strange and unacceptable inconvenience.

Nonetheless, the overall feel is very upscale, an extremely good execution that should worry import and domestic competitors alike. It suggests that no one should take Saturn lightly as it moves forward with its aggressive product plan.

European feel

Opel's influence extends to the ride and handling of the new Aura. There are some telltale details, such as hydraulic ride bushings, intended to provide crisp handling, while also isolating ride noise.

Even at 80, the Aura's cabin remained surprisingly quiet, by the way, revealing the extensive use of acoustic materials to seal off the interior, such as a laminated firewall and rear deck liner. The Aura also utilizes laminated front door glass, which helps isolate wind noise off the outside mirrors, among other things.

Saturn delivers a reasonably equipped package, even with the base model, including safety features such as anti-lock braking and traction control. StabiliTrak, GM's stability control, is standard on the up-level XR, but is not available on the base Aura.

Also on the safety front, the Aura gets dual front airbags, along with standard side and head curtain airbags. OnStar is another standard feature, with a year's free subscription.

The four-link independent rear suspension provided solid handling as we wound our way through the hills and dales surrounding Santa Barbara. There was a distinct improvement, nonetheless, with the XR model, which features monotube shocks and large stabilizer bars.

Even on tight, fast turns, the Aura delivers very little body roll. It is decidedly sportier in feel than the Toyota Camry, more along the lines of the Honda Accord and the new Nissan Altima.

We started the day with the XE, which comes equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6. With its Variable Valve Timing, the package generates a healthy 224 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque, and can launch from 0-60 in a more-than-acceptable 8.1 seconds. Mileage comes in at 20 city and 29 highway. It would be even better were GM to get away from the aging four-speed automatic this engine is paired with. It's not a bad transmission, just not what you'd call state-of-the-art.

To get the automaker's latest, a refined and smooth six-speed auto, you need to go with the up-market, 3.6-liter V-6. Also boasting variable valve timing as well as dual cam phasing, the aluminum alloy engine makes 252 hp and 250 lb-ft, and cuts 0-60 times down to about 7.0 seconds. It's significant to note, by the way, that this is GM's first use of the new six-speed in a U.S. passenger car.

At $20,595, the base Aura is a well-priced alternative to both domestic and import competitors. As the only GM brand to really attract Asian "intenders," Saturn could generate some real conquest business here. The XR adds another $4,000 to the price tag, and is expected to generate about 20 percent of overall Aura sales. There's a fair amount of content provided for the added cost.

By the way, max things out with every available option and that XR will come in around $27,800.

Keep an eye out for a third Aura to come in spring 2007: a hybrid sharing its gasoline-electric components with the new Vue Green Line. While Saturn officials wouldn't discuss price, we anticipate it will come in around $2,000 above the base sedan.

Our conclusion? Saturn has delivered the sort of car we've always been looking for from this promising GM brand. It's affordable, well-equipped and a lot of fun to drive. There are a few glitches, but nothing that would cause you to steer clear. For the first time since its debut, Saturn finally has product to be proud of, and the Aura seems certain to connect with buyers who are looking for alternatives to the imports.

View Saturn Aura Photos Here

2007 Saturn Aura:

Base price: $20,595 (XE); $24,595 (XR)

Engines: 3.5-liter V-6, 224 hp/221 lb-ft; 3.6-liter 252 hp/250 lb-ft

Transmission: Four-speed automatic or six-speed automatic (XR), front-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 190.9 x 70.3 x 57.6 in

Wheelbase: 112.3 in

Curb weight: 3647 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 20/29 mpg (XE); 20/28 mpg (XR)

Major standard features: Manual climate control; power windows, locks and mirrors; AM/FM/XM/CD player; keyless remote; cruise control; tilt/telescope steering wheel; 17-inch wheels

Safety features: Anti-lock braking; traction control; dual front, side and curtain airbags; daytime running lights

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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