Saturn was born “A different kind of company, a different kind of car.” Talk about post-modern irony; GM created the Saturn division to copy Japan’s products, management techniques and manufacturing dexterity. Needless to say, it worked. Friendly Saturn dealers created devoted customers with a “no dicker” sticker and a pretty good range of plastic-paneled cars (the S-Series). And then… nothing much. After leaving Saturn to twist in the wind, losing billions in the process, GM eventually spiked the brand’s independence. And now, finally, the Saturn Aura is here to revive GM’s "import fighter."
The Aura is an American-built Opel that looks like a Japanese copy of a German car. The model’s sheetmetal offers suitably clean/boring lines in a pronounced wedge shape, with complementary angles and purposeful curves. The blistered wheel arches and chunky front end are muscular by Camry standards– albeit with a thick chrome bar across the grill that would be right at home on Paul Wall's iced-out grin. Conforming to the current Japanese style, oversized headlights blight the Aura's sleek silhouette. Meanwhile, the Aura’s Audi-esque flowing C-pillar and side marker lights add a distinctly Teutonic touch; pronouncing the car’s German heritage louder than a computer generated Kraftwerk concert.
A tall posterior rounds out the Aura’s rear, offering an ideal blend of Pontiac understatement and Altezza attitude. The deck lid's chrome slab does more than get its spizzarkle on; it visually thins the booty. The Aura hosts a pair of upbeat exhaust pipes, making a statement of virility no previous Saturn dared proclaim. Topping the package are the most elegant logos adorning a modern vehicle; the Saturn's famous red-square has the depth of a trillion-cut ruby. At long last, badge engineering creates beauty where mediocrity is the norm.
The Aura's substantial door handles feel even better than they look; too bad the same isn't true for the interior. Spend a few minutes in the Aura’s drab and depressing monochromatic black interior cabin and it’s clear GM's strategically placed interior quality has claimed yet another victim. Yes, the dash positions quality polymers and glossy metal-effect goodies within poking distance. Yes, the panel gaps are razor-thin. But the one-piece door armrests not only punish one's elbow, the imitation stitching speaks volumes to this car's potential– before the heartless, merciless, ruthless beancounting bore fruit.
But wait, there’s less! The folding in-dash binnacle impresses Toyotaphiles initially, though its lack of carpeting and thin casting make it an instant rattletrap for coinage. The lighthearted rear cupholders don't fare better; fold them out of sight and note the Aura's appealing secondary audio controls for backseat drivers. The lack of a rear seat center armrest is the most glaring omission for a $27k family sedan.
But not all is lost. Trunk space is mid-pack, but the strut-assist decklid closes with minimal effort. The dash's center stack houses the most artistic frame for GM's corporate stereo to date, and puts out the highs and lows with, um, competence. But the positives pale in comparison to the tri-spoke perfection facing the driver: soft leather, intuitive buttonage, entertaining paddle shifters and yet another elegant interpretation of the Saturn logo. It comes as no surprise that said tiller is Corvette derived.
Turn the wheel and the sport-sedan theme continues. The Aura’s seats make a genuine effort at honest-to-God lateral support. Firm steering rewards in fast sweepers but doesn't punish in parking lots. A solid chassis with Tourismo-grade suspension dampening impresses on winding country roads and high speed cruising. Disc brakes bite hard but go down with smooth, linear travel. Even with 18-inch rims afoot, the Aura XR's ride is smooth and comfortable: there's no thumping or crashing on potholed roads.
The powertrain's refinement and performance-oriented tuning speak volumes about Saturn's interstellar rocket-sedan. The XR-grade Aura’s 3.6L V6 sets the tempo for variable-valve timing. Hit the gas and a flat powerband with strong mid-range torque pours on the power all the way to redline. Unlike many foreign competitors squeezing every last pony from torque-steer-happy six-pots, Saturn provides real-world performance pleasure over peak performance pride. Combined with a willing and well-trained six-speed automatic, at part throttle or full-tilt, the 252hp Aura never missed a beat. Saturn's multiple downshifts awe like a Vegas magic show, dumping reserves of torque faster than a one-arm bandit unloading a jackpot of quarters.
Unlike recent GM offerings, the Saturn Aura isn't an improvement over its hapless predecessor; it’s a competitive product. While the interior needs to benchmark the Accord's door skins more than Michael Jackson needs to refrain from plastic surgery, the Aura's driving dynamics outweigh its shit list. The world-class chassis and suspension tuning are proof positive that the Aura's design team did their homework. Like always? I don’t think so. Like never before? Definitely. Enough to rescue the Saturn brand? Like, maybe.