You gotta admire the chutzpah of an automaker that asks buyers to “rethink American” by pitting a German derived sedan against cars.com’s third “most American” automobile (Toyota Camry) and a sedan with 70 percent domestic content (Honda Accord). Although Saturn’s ads invites interested parties to a side-by-side-by-side comparison of all three “domestics”, like many intenders, I didn’t have time. So I decided to test the Saturn Aura XE and call it good. You know, if it was.
The Aura XE is certainly easy on the eyes, though you need the alloy wheel package to make its stand out from the Camcord. Given Saturn’s usual pug-fugly fare, the anodyne Aura is, relatively speaking, supermodel swank. Those Pokemon-adorable eyes, that misaligned chrome door trim… wait, what? Saturn is definitely raising its game, but I’d fire whoever did QA on the Monet-style exterior trim (it’s great from a distance, but don’t look too close).
Once inside, it’s immediately clear the look and feel of the Aura’s plastics won’t keep VW haptic hit squad up at night, but they’re definitely a cut above standard GM fare. As is the surprisingly hefty steering wheel and the sensible, ergonomically sound gauges and controls. The XE’s faux wood trim is cringe-worthy and the cloth seats seem carefully crafted to encourage a leather upgrade. Still, taken as a whole, the Aura’s cabin matches the transplants’ ability to raise unobjectionality to the next level (invisibility?).
The Aura driver can play with a large number of convenience options– eight-way adjustable power seat, tilt and telescopic steering wheel. Back seat passengers get plenty of room, but nary a floor vent or armrest to relieve the monotony.
Fire-up the Aura XE and the salesman fills your right ear with idle gossip. For less than a base Camcord, Saturn gives you a V6! Yes, well, the XE holsters a 224hp 3.5-liter six-pot mated to four-speed transmission. The base Camry and Accord may only have in-line fours, but they're damn good I4’s (158hp and 166hp respectively) connected to five-speed boxes that don’t hunt for gears like a pig looking for truffles in a French department store.
A few minutes on the road brings this fundamental deficiency to light; anytime you attempt to induce a downshift by mashing the throttle the pushrod V6 proves as responsive as David Hasselhoff on a drinking binge (and about as much fun). At least when the Aura XE’s tranny eventually decides to shift, it does so without appreciable lag.
The Aura’s engine whines increases with the rpm count, but there’s little of the finesse offered by its Japanese competition. As long as you don’t plan on any last-minute overtaking maneuvers or merging via short on-ramps, the Aura XE’s progress is pleasant enough.
Until you try to stop. The Aura’s brake pedal is stiffer than Detroit’s opposition to updated CAFE regulations and retard the car’s forward motion at roughly the same rate regardless of pedal pressure. It’s an entirely disconcerting binary proposition. The salesman was most enthusiastic about the Aura's standard electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD), but on a practical level, deacceleration was indistinguishable from standard fare.
Through the twisty bits, the Aura's front struts and independent rear suspension maintain their composure with admirable aplomb. The four-door feels solid and surprisingly toss-able, with no more body roll than many sport sedans. The steering meets the Goldilocks’ standard: responsive without being too heavy or too light. This excellent handling screams out for a decent transmission (please Sir, can I have a manual?).
I shudder to think what would happen to the Aura’s gas mileage with a more responsive throttle. The Aura XE may have lots more poke than the base Camry and Accord, but its EPA fuel economy clocks in at 20/30mpg. I’m thinking great landing, wrong airport. Anyone shopping for a sedan at this price point will probably consider the Camry (24/33) and Accord’s (24/34) fuel economy figures more important than their accelerative abilities.
After driving the Aura XE, I came away with new respect for the Saturn brand. If they’d somehow managed to offer the larger engined, six-speed Aura XR at the same price as the XE, they would have bested two of the most highly developed mid-size cars in the world, built by longstanding market leaders. But they didn’t.
What’s more, the new Accord’s coming out this fall, Honda’s clean diesels are on their way and Toyota isn’t exactly known for standing still on the automotive development front. And then there’s the automotive elephant in the room: the 234hp, five-speed Sonata. For a grand more, Hyundai gives you stability control, automatic climate control, alloy wheels and “America’s Best Warranty.”
While you’ve got to hand it to Saturn for building a credible contender in the most deadly automotive sector, it’s what they do next that will ultimately determine the model’s success or failure.