- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

When General Motors started Saturn in 1990, it was touted as “a new kind of company, a new kind of car.”

It was, too.

The Tennessee-built small cars came with plastic body panels to ward off dings. They were designed to compete with the imports, especially those from Japan. Saturn dealers were trained to treat customers with respect, and there was no dickering or confusion because the cars were sold at the sticker price.

The cars, for the most part, were unexceptional. But they were highly recommended for people who sought decent transportation, didn’t know much about cars and wanted to avoid a demeaning experience at a high-pressure dealership.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. GM shortchanged Saturn on new products, and sales slipped badly. In 2002, dealers sold 204,771 new Saturn cars. That dropped to 105,927 in 2005. The hard times spread to other General Motors divisions as well, and the company sent the venerable Oldsmobile brand to the graveyard.

But Saturn started a comeback in 2006 with the classy Sky sports car, the Outlook crossover utility vehicle and the 2007 Aura midsize sedan.

With these vehicles, Saturn has undergone a transformation to a more traditional car company, although the dedication to customer comfort remains. But as anyone in the vehicle business can testify, there’s no substitute for interesting and exciting products.

The Aura certainly qualifies. Without question, it is the best car ever to bear the Saturn name and is a credible competitor for the midsize sedan leaders: the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, as well as others like the Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac G6, Kia Optima, Mercury Milan, Chrysler Sebring, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda 6, Mitsubishi Galant and Volkswagen Passat.

An independent panel of automotive journalists voted the Aura “car of the year” at the 2007 North American International Automobile Show in Detroit.

Where most of the Aura’s competitors have four-cylinder engines in their base models, the Aura XE comes standard with a V-6. It is an older pushrod design that delivers 224 horsepower, which is more than what the competition offers. The XE has a base price of $20,995.

The test car, however, was the Aura XR, which has a modern 3.6-liter engine with twin overhead camshafts and a horsepower rating of 252. Its base price is $24,595, which includes side air bags, side-curtain air bags, antilock brakes, stability control, tire-pressure monitoring, remote locking, remote starting, automatic climate control, an audio system with six-disc CD changer, MP3 capability and an audio jack for IPods and other players, heated outside mirrors, fog lights and alloy wheels.

Options on the test car included leather upholstery, power-adjustable pedals, XM satellite radio, power passenger seat and a motorized sunroof, which brought the suggested sticker price up to $26,919. At that, it is fully competitive with anything comparable in the class.

Unexpectedly, the Aura XR comes across more as a sports sedan than a family car. It is stiffly sprung, with a feel akin to that of the more expensive Nissan Maxima or Acura TL. The result is a harsher ride than some customers might find comfortable.

But for anyone who enjoys precise handling, the Aura delivers tactile and pleasurable feedback. It turns in sharply and follows a line through corners with little fuss or body lean. In straight-line driving, the steering has a centered feel with little tendency to wander.

To enhance the sporting orientation, the XR’s six-speed automatic transmission features a manual-shift mode, controlled by race-car-inspired paddles on the steering wheel. Using the paddles, the driver can snap off rapid shifts under hard acceleration, boosting the Aura to 60 miles an hour in less than seven seconds.

Unfortunately, there is no manual control at the shift lever, so you’re stuck with the paddles. In full automatic mode, shifts sometimes are abrupt.

Inside, the thick front seats are contoured for comfort as well as lateral support for spirited driving. Out back, there is generous head and knee room for two passengers, enhanced by concave depressions in the front seat backs.

However, the rear passenger seated in the center gets no headrest and is forced to sit on a perch straddling a big hump in the floor. Access to the rear seat was difficult for some people because they were forced to step over a high sill. The Aura also lacked inside grab handles over the doors.

The trunk had a generous, well-finished 16 cubic feet of space as well as rear seat backs that fold down for carrying long items. However, the seat backs could only be released from inside and the trunk, which when unlocked with the remote control popped up only slightly. There’s no handle on the trunk lid, so you are forced to stick your fingers into a sometimes grimy slot to pull it up, and you have to place your hand somewhere on the trunk lid to close it.

An unusual and nifty feature on the test car consisted of wireless headsets that allowed rear passengers to listen to a different audio program than those up front.

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