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Preview: 2007 Saturn Aura XR

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2007 Saturn Aura
By Carey Russ

I'm driving out of Temecula, California, toward San Diego on mountain roads that have been used for so many automotive introductions over the years that they are almost as familiar as home. And the car is perfect, at home in its natural habitat. The suspension is tight, but not overly-firm, for comfort and excellent control at a quick touring pace. The twincam alloy V6 revs freely, and makes abundant power and a pleasant exhaust note while transferring that power smoothly and seamlessly to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission with auxiliary manual control via steering wheel-mounted shift paddles. It's a thoroughly pleasant and enjoyable automobile, very quiet, with a class-leading degree of refinement and comfort.

The car is a mid-size sedan, and it feels very European. It also looks European, especially inside, with pleasantly conservative styling that should age well. Panel fit is very good, and materials are first-rate for its upscale middle-class market position.

I'm driving a 2007 Saturn Aura XR.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. A Saturn that feels like a sporty European sedan, in large part because it is closely related to a European sedan, the Opel Vectra. GM's Saturn division is undergoing yet another makeover, and this time it looks to be just what it, and GM in general, needs.

It's no secret that General Motors is in trouble, and is fighting to maintain market share. Corporate downsizing has already begun, and talk of very uncharacteristic solutions to its problems, including alliances with other manufacturers, has been bandied about. But there is really only one way for GM to regain its onetime glory.

Superior products. Which here means vehicles, especially cars, that aren't merely as good as the competition, but are notably better. "Good enough" is no longer good enough. GM needs cars that stand on their own merits, cars that will be attractive to buyers without marketing campaigns and rebates.

And the Saturn Aura is good news on that front, if my impressions from a day of driving are any indication. Not only does it compare favorably with the most popular Japanese-brand entries in the class, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, it bests them in its driving experience. There, it compares very favorably with the Volkswagen Passat.

Breeding shows. The Aura is built on the GM's "Epsilon" platform, like the Pontiac G6, Chevrolet Malibu, Saab 9-3, and Opel Vectra. With a 112.3-inch wheelbase and 190-inch overall length, it's longer, and also wider, than its European relatives, and equal to the G6 in size. But it shares no major exterior or interior styling with the G6 or Malibu, being much closer to the Opel, and, with the Sky roadster, exemplifying the new look at Saturn. LED taillights are a pleasant touch.

Although its suspension is of the same basic design as the Pontiac's or the Chevy's, with MacPherson struts with aluminum control arms in front and a four-link system at the rear, in the XR, at least, it is tuned very differently, in a very European manner. As I found during my drive, it works remarkably well, and not only gives the Aura a very different character from the other Epsilon platform cars available in the US, it gives it the road manners and feel of a car costing notably more.

Two trim levels are currently offered, XE and XR. Unusually for the mid-size, middle-class front-wheel drive category, both are V6-powered. A four-cylinder model, the Aura Green Line, will be available later in the model year. As is indicated by the name, it will be a hybrid, and will use a 2.4-liter Ecotec-based powertrain similar to that found in Saturn's Vue Green Line SUV.

I didn't get to sample the base-model XE. It sounds closer to the GM American-spec mainstream, with the latest iteration of GM's venerable iron-block, pushrod V6 engine, now with 3.5 liters of displacement and using variable valve timing to make 224 horsepower and 220 lb-ft of torque to drive the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission. It's suspension is tuned slightly differently than the XR's.

If that sounds too much like the same old same old, the XR is definitely not. Its engine is not much larger, at 3.6 liters, or more powerful, with 252 horsepower and 251 lb-ft of torque. But it is significantly more refined. It's a new and contemporary aluminum alloy unit with dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, and variable valve timing, and is remarkably smooth and quiet in operation, aided by the Aura's solid construction and good soundproofing. Even better, it's matched to a six-speed automatic transmission. Finally GM has a six-speed for its front-wheel drive cars!

And it's a good one. The Hydra-Matic 6T-70 transmission can be shifted manually by paddles mounted behind the steering wheel, and that ability led to a greater degree of enjoyment on the mountain roads. But it also worked commendably well in "D", even in the twisties, thanks to a good choice of gear ratios and good control logic and mechanisms, not to mention the engine's smooth and linear power delivery.

Safety starts with a robust protective structure, and the Aura's qualifies, with safety-cage construction with reinforced rocker sections and roof and door pillars. Dual front airbags are augmented by front seat-mounted side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags in both models. Both also feature four-wheel antilock disc brakes. XR models come with the StabiliTrak electronic stability control system, while XEs have traction control to better deal with slippery situations.

Pricing is competitive, with the Aura XE starting at $20,595 and the XR at $24,595. The Saturn Aura is available now.