The Saturn Aura is an excellent choice among midsize sedans. It's modern and fresh, with European character and aesthetic flair. Taut and responsive, it drives like a European family sedan, perhaps because it rides on a German Opel platform. The cabin is tastefully done and laid out and all the controls work very well. A range of engines and drivetrains is available for fuel economy or performance.
For 2009, Aura emphasizes fuel efficiency. Both the base-level XE and leather-trimmed XR now come standard with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. This combination earns an EPA-rated 22/33 mpg, which Saturn says is the best mileage you can get in a mid-size car without buying a hybrid. Just as significantly, you no longer have to buy a V6 to get StabiliTrak electronic stability control, which is now standard on all Auras. Meanwhile, the XR is now better equipped than ever, adding not only leather but Bluetooth connectivity to its list of standard amenities.
If you do want more power, you can still order the XR with a 252-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 that returns a reasonable 26mpg on the highway. This is a smooth, sophisticated engine that makes the Aura a very enjoyable car to drive. Or for even more economy (26/34 mpg, city/highway), choose the Aura Hybrid, powered by a 164-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a 4 kW electric motor. For 2009, you can get the Hybrid with leather seats, too.
Underway, we found the Saturn Aura is quiet and handles well. Brakes, suspension and powertrain all work together to respond to the driver's wishes. Compared with the cars in its own price class, such as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion, the Aura is well equipped with safety and comfort features. No wonder a panel of 48 independent automotive journalists voted Aura North American Car of the Year when it was introduced in 2007. And it's only gotten better since then.
The Aura is the largest of all Saturn sedans. The Saturn Aura shares the same platform as the Saab 9-3 and the European-market Opel Vectra. The Aura shares styling cues with the Opel. The Saturn Aura is front-wheel drive and rides on a 112-inch wheelbase.
In front, the Aura features a broad grille with a thick chrome insert flanked by almond-shaped, multi-element headlamp units. The nicely sculpted front bumper houses tiny fog lamps on the XR V6. With big engines and front-wheel drive, the Aura has a requisitely long nose, but thanks to nice tapering of the bumpers, it doesn't look disproportionately front-heavy.
The body sides are clean and tastefully sculpted, with a healthy bit of chrome detailing on the window trim. The XR takes this a step further with bright door handles. The Aura rides on a long wheelbase, which contributes to an elegant, planted appearance. The rear door is particularly long, however, making it more difficult for your rear-seat passengers to climb in and out in tight parking lots. A power moonroof with sun shade is optional.
Auras XE models ride on 17-inch steel wheels with wheel covers. XR upgrades to 17-inch alloy rims and, for 2009, so does the Hybrid. XR V6 comes with 18-inch alloy wheels.
The rear end is dominated by glitzy, high-mounted tail lamps that mirror the almond shape of the headlamps and incorporate two strips of fast-illuminating LED brake lights. The bumper is tall. Savvy observers can spot a 2009 edition because the model name has moved out of the bright panel at the base of the trunk lid and onto the paintwork just above it. The bright panel itself is gone from the 2009 XR V6, for a cleaner look we like. We're less thrilled with the new HYBRID decals at the top of the Hybrid model's windshield and rear window. On the other hand, many are unaware Saturn offers hybrid models.
The interior of the Saturn Aura is tasteful with an assortment of materials. Control operation is straightforward and the ergonomic layout is ideal. Secondary controls are shared with other GM models.
The front seats offer reasonable support for most people, though we would like to see better lumbar support. We found the fabric upholstery to be of high quality. The quality of the XR's leather seemed marginal, however, with the only exception being the cool-looking Moroccan Brown option featuring uniquely grained, embossed leather seating inserts. The available eight-way power adjustments for the driver made it easier to get comfortable than in the standard seats. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, though it feels one size too large for this car. At least with leather-equipped cars, the steering wheel feels good in the hand thanks to soft leather wrapping, which is far preferable to the grainy urethane texture of the wheel you get in cloth-equipped Auras.
Ergonomics are quite good. The front-seat elbow rest cleverly extends into the B-pillar for an additional 1.6 inches of elbow room, to accommodate taller drivers who slide the seat rearward. The cover for the center console slides fore and aft for comfortable elbow resting on the inboard side. Outward vision through the windshield and side windows is good. The rear shelf, however, is quite high, blocking a fair amount of vision through the rearview mirror and increasing the size of the blind spots, especially for shorter drivers.
The deep-set, electroluminescent speedometer and tachometer are lovely, illuminated in a modern-looking amber shade. A trip computer/vehicle information display is nestled in the speedometer, and has a real-time fuel economy function. However, the display is too small to show more than 16 characters at the same time. Therefore, only one function (the trip odometer, standard odometer, fuel economy, the gear indicator for the manual mode for the six-speed automatic, and so on) can be viewed at any given time.
Interior trim is mixed in quality but pleasingly designed, with padded materials covering the curvaceous dash top and door panels, but less impressive hard plastic most everywhere else. There are other materials as well, including generous swaths of silvery metallic or wood-grained plastic trim, made more attractive by chrome details in many well-placed locations. We would like to say that these materials are up to snuff compared with Toyota, Honda and even Hyundai, but in truth, they're not quite there. However, the panel fit is tight and among the best we've seen on an American product.
All controls, buttons and knobs feel upscale in their operation. Controls for the standard, six-speaker, AM/FM/CD/MP3/XM stereo, as well as the optional, 240-watt eight-speaker sound system include presets that are not band-specific; in other words, AM, FM and XM stations can exist in the same bank of buttons; no need to change bands. This makes a big difference when jumping around to your favorite stations in everyday use. For example, it takes just one press of a button to jump from your favorite AM talk radio station to your favorite FM music station or to your favorite XM news station. The XM display itself has been upgraded for 2009, so it can now display the artist name and song title simultaneously. The premium audio system has separate controls for rear-seat passengers and a pair of wireless headphones. Auxiliary input jacks are provided for iPods and other MP3 players.
A GPS navigation system is not available for the Aura, but the latest version of OnStar (version 7.0) includes turn-by-turn directions. This navigational feature delivers the guidance benefits of a conventional, map-based navigation system with voice commands. But instead of having to input destination information on a touch screen, which can be dangerous while in motion, the driver presses the OnStar button, and an OnStar adviser comes online to assist in finding the destination. After talking to you, the OnStar adviser uploads the route back to the OnStar unit in the car, hangs up and the system takes over. In addition to voice directions, the system displays written directions on the radio faceplate display. Downsides are the lack of a visual map, and the requirement that the vehicle be in range of cell phone service to input destinations, though we've rarely had trouble reaching OnStar. Advantages include the reduction in component complexity, the convenience and safety of hands-free operation, and cost: Map-based systems are often priced close to $2,000. OnStar comes standard on the Aura.
The standard air conditioning and up-level automatic climate control systems are single-zone only. Also, there are no rear-seat air conditioning ducts, an omission in this class of car. At least the optional remote engine starter can help get a head start on heating or cooling the vehicle before the occupants get inside.
Rear-seat occupants enjoy good comfort and generous accommodations, provided there are no more than two of them. Three across is a squeeze due to the relative narrowness of the cabin. Outboard headrests are height-adjustable into the tall, nicely contoured seatback. Legroom is increased by scalloped front seat backs. There's no fold-down armrest for back-seat passengers, however.
Interior storage space is unremarkable. The glove box is modest and the door pockets are too shallow to be truly useful, but the two-tiered center console can hold several CDs and other items. One 12-volt power point is mounted alongside the fold-out ashtray, with another one located in the center console. In front of that are two cupholders, a change holder and a cell phone cubby, all of which can be shrouded by a roll-top cover.
Trunk space is good at 14.9 cubic feet, and the cargo floor is wide and flat. The Aura has a bit more trunk capacity than the Honda Accord, about the same as the Toyota Camry, and less than the all-new Mazda 6. The Hybrid loses some trunk space to its battery and offers only 13.1 cubic feet, which is less than in a 2009 Prius. Lift-over height is high on all Aura models. The accessory trunk mat is reversible, carpeted on one side but covered in a rubbery material on the other side to use for muddy items.
On the road, the Saturn Aura behaves like a European family sedan. It has a taut feel with good steering quality and an overall impression that the brakes, suspension and powertrain are in agreement with each other. This is not surprising, given the car's structural roots, which are shared with the fine-driving Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra.
The standard engine is a 2.4-liter four, essentially the same 16-valve, dual-overhead-cam (DOHC) Ecotec unit that GM uses in the Chevrolet Cobalt and Malibu, albeit with detail differences.
Another version of this 2.4-liter engine powers the Aura Hybrid, where it is rated 164 horsepower at 6400 rpm, and 159 pound-feet of torque at 5000. In the hybrid it is coupled with a 4kW (about 5.4 horsepower) electric motor and a conventional four-speed automatic transmission. Saturn emphasizes the low initial cost of this setup, noting that, like other hybrids, the Aura saves fuel by shutting off its engine while idling and during deceleration, and by using regenerative braking to recharge the 10kW nickel-metal hydride battery.
Note the Aura Hybrid's gasoline engine is much more powerful in proportion to its electric motor than that in the 2009 Toyota Prius (76 horsepower gasoline, 67 horsepower electric) or Honda Civic Hybrid (110 horsepower gas, 20 horsepower electric). The Aura Hybrid's electric motor also develops significantly less torque for low-speed acceleration (44 pound-feet, against 76 for the Civic and a whopping 295 for the Prius). This suggests that the Aura Hybrid will depend more on its gasoline engine and less on its electric motor than the hybrid imports. That said, with 159 pound-feet of torque available from its gas engine alone, the Green Line should be able it uphold its honor in any traffic situation.
The XR V6's 252-hp, 3.6-liter V6 is strong and relaxed in character, thanks to its sophisticated engineering, with four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing. Like the four-cylinder models (except the Hybrid), the 3.6-liter comes with a six-speed automatic featuring Tap-Shift paddles on the steering wheel to make manual shifting faster and more convenient. Fuel economy with the V6 is an EPA-rated 17/26 mpg City/Highway.
The fully independent suspension on the Aura splits the difference between ride quality and handling, both of which are quite good. While handling feels much like that of the Saab 9-3 with which the Aura shares its architecture, the ride quality is more like that of a Toyota Camry, known for its smoothness. Furthermore, thanks to the use of sound-deadening materials everywhere from the firewall to the side glass and wheelwells, the Aura's interior is near-silent even at speeds over 75 mph.
The hydraulic variable-ratio power steering is well weighted at highway speeds, offering plenty of road feel; while with just 2.8 turns lock-to-lock, it's plenty helpful in low-speed parking-lot maneuvers. Offsetting that, however, is a particularly wide 40.4-foot turning circle. The Hybrid features its own, unique electronic power steering system.
All Aura models feature four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. We found they felt good and worked well in normal driving. All Auras come with traction control, and, for 2009, StabiliTrak as well, GM's excellent electronic stability control system.
The 2009 Saturn Aura is a classy, mid-size family sedan that compares well to the best cars in the class, namely the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Aura combines European driving dynamics with contemporary styling and a nice interior. It's easy to drive and safe. The Aura XR V6 is smooth and powerful, while the four-cylinder XE and XR get an EPA-rated 22/33 mpg. The Aura Hybrid is rated at 26/34 mpg yet delivers strong, responsive performance.