By on January 30, 2008

x08st_au001.jpgIn recent years, General Motors has had something of a change of heart regarding hybrids. In 2004, “Car Czar” Bob Lutz dismissed hybrid cars as “impractical” and “a fad.” By 2007, Saturn gained a Green Line off-shoot dedicated exclusively to selling such endeavors. While GM doesn’t separate out sales stats for Saturn’s sub-brand, suffice it to say sales suck. This bodes badly for Saturn’s newest green machine: the 2008 Aura Green Line. Does the hybrid version of last year’s North American Car of the Year deserve a chance?

Now that the hybrid Accord has evaporated, the Aura Green Line splashes into a shallow competitive pool. The Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry hybrids are its only direct rivals. Like its mid-sized adversaries, the hybridized Aura inherits a four-cylinder gas engine from its base-model stablemate. In the Aura’s case, it’s a 2.4-liter, 164 hp Ecotec. But from there, comparisons get trickier. The Aura relies upon GM’s crusty “high value strategy.” As a result, the Saturn’s hybrid system plays Encino Man to Toyota’s Einstein.

x08st_au010.jpgTo wit: the Green Line’s five horsepower electric motor is little more than an overgrown alternator, incapable of motivating the Aura on its own. It serves primarily to restart the gas engine after its stoplight shutoffs. An Olde Tyme four-speed automatic chews (slowly) on the resulting output. Want to monitor your fuel savings? Squint to spot an “eco” idiot light. The Green Line is based upon a flawed premise: that people buy hybrids primarily to pinch pennies.

Thus, Saturn’s mileage queen starts at a low, low MSRP of $22,695. For that price, you get the rudimentary hybrid system detailed above, plus automatic climate control, six airbags, an iPod jack and an EPA estimate of 24/32 MPG. Combined, that’s about two MPG more than a four-cylinder Camry or Altima—and six MPG less than either car’s hybrid variant.

x08st_au004.jpgYou also get three big, chrome-and-green “Hybrid” badges: one for the trunklid and for each front fender. One could argue that these gleaming proclamations of parsimony are misleading, given that the Green Line’s EPA Air Pollution Score is no better than the Aura XE’s. Never mind. Badges aside, the Aura’s styling is the equal of anything in the family-car class. It communicates a clean, crisp, and anonymous grace.

Until you step inside, that is. While the Aura’s low cowl and slim-fit interior dimensions contribute to a lean, airy driving environment, its interior furnishings aren’t exactly high-bred. A ribbon of padded polymer spans the dash top, with a pronounced “lip” dividing it from the rock-hard, rental-grade stuff around the gauges and center stack. Likewise, the Aura’s armrests and cloth seat cushions yield little to a firmly-placed finger. Heck, you don’t even get a spare tire in the trunk—just an air compressor and a bottle of sealant.

x08st_au006.jpgYes, this is a hair-shirt hybrid, nowhere more so than in its performance. The Aura’s hand-me-down Ecotec isn’t a bad egg: it idles smoothly and drones dispassionately in motion. But with only four Sequoia-tall gears over which to spread its 159 lb/ft of torque, rolling throttle response is often vacant and dilatory. Zero to sixty mph takes about ten seconds, roughly the same as a $20,950, 45 mpg Prius.

Ah, but the Aura’s handling is on a plane above the Prius’. While the Saturn’s chassis feels similarly sterile, with few life signs reaching the seat or pedals, it’s taut and tied-down in a most un-Toyota-like fashion. Its electric power steering, stiff and dull upon first acquaintance, proves an invaluable Interstate ally: it self-centers with a vengeance, locking onto the horizon like a remora on a manta ray. Guidance is decisive in the twisties, too, although the Green Line’s squeally Uniroyal tires call off the chase early.

Other Aura attractions include its plain and simple parts-bin switchgear, its large trunk (a few cubes bigger than a hybrid Camry’s or Altima’s) and Saturn’s haggle-free dealers soft sell. Plus, there’s that Kmart price.

But here’s the catch: all of the above also applies to the base-model Aura XE. You wanna talk pinched pennies? That model slips out the door for a cool $19,745. And all you lose is automatic climate control, a couple of mpgs and the Green Line’s inability to breathe A/C into the cabin when you’re parked at a red light. That wheezing you hear is the wind going out of the Green Line’s sales sails.

x08st_au002.jpgIndeed, whether it’s a marketing gimmick or an earnest attempt at niche-carving, Saturn’s hybrid Aura demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of its audience. Again, hybrid buyers aren’t bargain-hunters. Demographically speaking, they’re loaded. They’re willing to pay a premium for an interesting, unusual vehicle that reflects their convictions.

GM may yet attain gas-electric enlightenment. It may even happen soon. One suspects, however, that the Aura Green Line won’t live long enough to witness it.

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40 Comments on “2008 Saturn Aura Green Line Review...”


  • avatar
    shaker

    B.A.H. Humbug!

    Proper application of a turbocharger and direct-injection to the “tired” Ecotec would probably yield the economy desired and better performance.

  • avatar
    hugh sutherland

    What a fad this all is, one step above fart-power, and cars made by little elves.Please if you must, drive this modest, with much to be modest about, little car, and stay in the inside lane.
    Me, I’d rather drive the utterly pointless, in real speed-limited life, Lexus ISF. As it is I just waft past the pious and righteous in my utterly guilt-free big, black Lexus LS 430.
    If you love to drive as much as I do, for the sensual pleasure , as much as simply to go somewhere else, would you doas I do?

  • avatar

    Has GM or Lutz ever publicly just admitted hey we were wrong on hybrids?

  • avatar
    Juniper

    Hugh

    No.

  • avatar

    This might not be the best implementation–I haven’t driven one myself–but I’m personally a big believer in simple hybrid systems like this one. The key thing is to be able to recoup and reuse a significant percentage of the energy normally lost through braking. I suspect that in the future a large percentage of regular cars will have such a system.

    So far over 140 AURA owners have signed up to participate in TrueDelta’s reliability research. If they sell enough GLs, it will be possible to track their repair rate separately, if this proves necessary. The regular AURA has been average in reliability.

    Always looking for more participants.

    http://www.truedelta.com/reliability.php

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    Now how would a diesel Aura do? Would the 1.9 diesel that all Epsilon cars use in Europe + a 50-state emission-control system really be more expensive than this half-assed attempt? I don’t know… but would it be more economical? Would it have more torque?

    @P.J.
    an iPod jack

    Does it really have an iPod jack, or just a generic aux input, elevated to iPod jack status ba marketing spinmeisters?

  • avatar
    Tiger Commanche

    In a couple of years the majority of this “green” nonsense will go the way of the Y2K hype. A Prius? That’s fine, because we understand its intentions, and there is definitely a market. But to call this Saturn a hybrid is like calling Jenna Jamison an actress.

  • avatar
    Steve_K

    I bet the people at GM working on these projects get picked on by the V8 people. It’s an obvious PR ploy; just an XE with more to go wrong.

  • avatar
    P.J. McCombs

    Mirko,

    It’s a generic auxiliary input, and Saturn’s PR materials describe it as such. I’ve just gotten into the lazy habit of calling all of them “iPod jacks.” Which, I guess, kind of makes me Apple’s tool.

  • avatar
    Buick61

    Perhaps it’s not GM’s/Saturn’s intention to court the “loaded” hybrid owners.

    Maybe there’s a new class of Hybrid owners emerging that are tired of sitting idled in traffic wasting $3/gallon gasoline. Perhaps they’d appreciate a car that realizes that gas wasted is also money wasted. Perhaps they just want an attractive, normal-looking sedan that can get them to and from work every day but can’t afford the $25,000 Camry Hybrid, or don’t live in a State where Nissan sells the Altima Hybrid.

    Perhaps not having to deal with a similarly priced Prius’ absurdly tempermental fuel tank bladder, dangerous traction control behavior, and liberal political baggage is an attractive prospect.

    Perhaps the Aura Green Line is the start of the next big thing in cars. For just a little extra money, we all can stop sitting in traffic choking on exhaust fumes.

    Didn’t Brock Yates just opine about the inescapability of traffic? In such a world, the BAS system would be a fine fit as standard equipment in all cars.

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    @Buick61:
    Didn’t Brock Yates just opine about the inescapability of traffic? In such a world, the BAS system would be a fine fit as standard equipment in all cars.

    BMW, in their infinite wisdom, started to equip all manual 4-cylinder models with a start/stop system and other very interesting stuff, like alternators that only engage when the car is decelerating, variable cooling and oil pumps, flaps in the grille that close when less cooling is needed… you name it, lots of small stuff.
    Three main differences to the Saturn:
    1. They don’t call it a hybrid
    2. It’s not an option, it’s standard equipment
    3. They can get a combined European rating of 46 mpg out of a 5-series, with 8-ist 0-60.

    I know what I would rather drive.

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    @Buick61
    Didn’t Brock Yates just opine about the inescapability of traffic? In such a world, the BAS system would be a fine fit as standard equipment in all cars.

    That’s why BMW has introduced it to all manual 4-cylinders last year.
    Just a bit differently:
    1) No hybrid badge
    2) it’s not an option, it’s standard eqipment
    3) They get a 46 mpg Euro rating out of a 5-series, with 8-ish 0-60 times.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    The A/C shuts off when the engine does?

    I was thinking that an inexpensive mild hybrid might have some potential but no A/C at a redlight is a killer.

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    @P.J.
    It’s a generic auxiliary input, and Saturn’s PR materials describe it as such. I’ve just gotten into the lazy habit of calling all of them “iPod jacks.” Which, I guess, kind of makes me Apple’s tool.

    More GM’s tool than Apple’s tool – thanks for the additional info.

  • avatar
    Buick61

    @Mirko:

    Good for BMW. But they don’t offer anything like that on their U.S. models so that really doesn’t help us.

    @KixStart

    You can disable the a/c-off feature by turning off the eco mode.

  • avatar
    P.J. McCombs

    Buick61,

    I hear you. I’d be much less inclined to pick on the Aura Green Line if it came across as an earnest, tightly-focused appeal to the sort of buyers you describe.

    Mind you, I’d still argue that it’s a poor business prospect, as sales of any midsize hybrid sedan remain slow. I suspect the hybrid market is still comprised mostly of “early adopters” who care relatively little about the dollars and sense of the vehicle; IMO, they’re looking to reduce their personal fuel consumption in a highly salient way (i.e. more than a 2 mpg increase), in a package that they feel represents the future of transportation (i.e. not an adapted high-volume family car).

    That’s just to clarify that I’m not exalting the marketability of the Camry or Altima hybrids, which I didn’t much mention in the review.

    Anyway, it seems to me that Saturn could have accomplished what you describe by fitting an auto-stop feature and CVT (didn’t Saturn have a 2.4/CVT in the Vue?) to the Aura XE, and come up with a better value equation. But they couldn’t have called it a “hybrid.” That’s what sours me on the Green Line. It seems like the answer to a marketer’s question: “what’s the bare minimum we’d have to do to get ‘Hybrid’ badges on this thing and play up the feel-good angle?”

    Just my two cents.

  • avatar
    Buick61

    PJ McCombs,

    I understand your viewpoint, but I don’t see any bad side to what GM did.

    Is the BAS system all that different than the system that was in the Accord? They called that a Hybrid even though the electric motor couldn’t move the car by itself.

    If it has an electric motor, batteries, and regenerative braking, then why shouldn’t it be called a Hybrid? A “hybrid” combines two types of motors, ICE and an electric motor. The Saturn Aura does that.

    And the VUE’s CVT was recalled due to its propensity for total failure, and then it was abandoned. So. I’d rather the Aura use a 4-speed than a self-destructing CVT.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    @Buick61, OK. And then what’s the point of having the “hybrid” feature?

    This would also defeat the defroster mode in many circumstances, et.

    The more I think about this, the more pointless I guess it is – or the more overpriced it seems. It’s a $2K bump to shut the engine off at a stoplight sometimes? I guess there’s no regenerative braking, either?

    This might be inexpensive but it only serves to make the Prius look like a better value.

  • avatar

    They call these mild hybrids:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mild_hybrid

    And though undoubtedly some people want a classy ride that supposedly saves the environment, I suspect many people do buy hybrids to pinch pennies.

  • avatar
    50merc

    Seems like it would have been better for GM to target the taxicab market for this hybrid system. But then, a 1.4 liter gas engine (or even better, a diesel) in an HHR-like vehicle would probably best suit the stop-and-go market.

  • avatar
    P.J. McCombs

    Hm. Shows what I know about that CVT…

    The Aura Green Line isn’t a “bad” car, as none are anymore, but I don’t believe it will sell, and that is bad for GM. Moderate development costs that result in few sales and marginal brand perception, in the long run, will do less for GM than an expensive project that sparks healthy sales and positive brand perception (IMO).

    Honda’s Accord Hybrid was similarly a flop. But regarding Honda’s hybrid system, IIRC, the electric motors are considerably stronger than the Aura’s and do more to ease the gas engine’s workload. In the Civic Hybrid, that’s combined with a CVT to provide a statistically significant MPG improvement vs. the base model (40/45 vs. 25/36), despite the former’s inability to move on electric power only.

    The Green Line’s improvement over the base Aura is only 2 MPG (24/32 vs. 22/30), despite having the necessary components to qualify as a hybrid.

  • avatar
    BuckD

    I don’t get it. Why putz around with a hybrid that delivers so little above the base model in terms of mileage, but exacts such a premium in price and performance? It’s a car designed solely to assuage the driver’s guilt–actual gains in mileage are secondary to marketing.

    I’m all for greater mileage and lower CO2 output, but that thing is just a sham.

  • avatar
    P.J. McCombs

    For the sake of argument, I should point out that the Aura Green Line does have a regenerative braking system, and that unlike Toyota, GM hasn’t yet sold enough hybrids to max out its hybrid tax credits. That is, because of the one-time tax break, an Aura Green Line effectively comes with a $1,300 discount (and, thus, is priced closer to the Prius’ than its MSRP suggests).

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    To wit: the Green Line’s five horsepower electric motor is little more than an overgrown alternator, incapable of motivating the Aura on its own. It serves primarily to restart the gas engine after its stoplight shutoffs.

    In other words, this isn’t really a hybrid; it’s a gasser with a fancy starter. Not that this isn’t a good idea, but it hardly qualifies as a gas-electric hybrid powertrain. To wit: I could achieve the same effect in my non-hybrid accord if I turned off the engine at every stoplight and started it again when the light turned red. Hmmmm, maybe I should do this and plaster a hybrid sticker on the side of my car so I could drive in the HOV. I dub the technology: Gas-Human Hybrid.

  • avatar
    EJ_San_Fran

    I don’t get why GM is coming out with this half-baked hybrid.

    At best it makes them look like a bunch of retards next to the Prius.
    At worst it makes them look like a bunch of cynical greenwashers who display hollow hybrid badges.

    To make it even worse, GM is probably losing money on it all too.

  • avatar
    L47_V8

    P.J. McCombs :
    January 30th, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Buick61,

    I hear you. I’d be much less inclined to pick on the Aura Green Line if it came across as an earnest, tightly-focused appeal to the sort of buyers you describe.

    Mind you, I’d still argue that it’s a poor business prospect, as sales of any midsize hybrid sedan remain slow. I suspect the hybrid market is still comprised mostly of “early adopters” who care relatively little about the dollars and sense of the vehicle; IMO, they’re looking to reduce their personal fuel consumption in a highly salient way (i.e. more than a 2 mpg increase), in a package that they feel represents the future of transportation (i.e. not an adapted high-volume family car).

    That’s just to clarify that I’m not exalting the marketability of the Camry or Altima hybrids, which I didn’t much mention in the review.

    Anyway, it seems to me that Saturn could have accomplished what you describe by fitting an auto-stop feature and CVT (didn’t Saturn have a 2.4/CVT in the Vue?) to the Aura XE, and come up with a better value equation. But they couldn’t have called it a “hybrid.” That’s what sours me on the Green Line. It seems like the answer to a marketer’s question: “what’s the bare minimum we’d have to do to get ‘Hybrid’ badges on this thing and play up the feel-good angle?”

    Just my two cents.

    I understand what you’re getting at (i.e. Prius buyers really get off on the unmistakeable aesthetics of their cars), but doesn’t the “niche product” Prius absolutely murder the entire Aura line in sales, including all variants?

    Not much of a successful mainstream family sedan, in my opinion.

  • avatar

    L47_V8
    but doesn’t the “niche product” Prius absolutely murder the entire Aura line in sales, including all variants?

    The Prius is murdering more than the Aura.

  • avatar
    bleach

    So PJ,

    From what I’m reading, is there a noticeable pause before you can leave a stoplight? For example, green light, let off brake and hit accelerator, pause for engine start, and then move forward?

    Without an electric motor capable of movement, I’m having a hard time imagining all the stop/starts making for a smooth drive.

  • avatar
    red dawg

    The Saturn Aura Hybrid is a good idea, as is the Vue hybrid. Problem is, the Saturn brand should be and probably will be dead in a few years. GM can use the Aura and Vue as test beds for this technology and when the brand does die( i say in the next 3-5 years, if not sooner), it should be perfected enough to go on a more mainstream vehicle with sales numbers to justify the additional cost and expense and then GM can put this hybrid system in a sedan or SUV from Chevy, Pontiac or Buick (which ever of those last two brands survives, one needs to go now) and get the system to more consumers. At least a brand that sells BETTER than Saturn does. The Saturn brand isn’t the great success GM thought and hoped it would be. Saturn is a division that GM should never have started !!!!! Saturn’s original purpose was to beat the Japanese at the economical small car game and “The Great Japanese Fighting Brand” from GM has truly FAILED at that game. Now they sell rebadged Opels !!!!!!!! I guess it wasn’t the Japanese at all that GM was worried about as it looks more and more like the Germans were the bigger threat, especially when you remember that 4 of the 6 Saturn models are either rebadged Opels or heavily based on an Opel with Saturn sheet metal to cover the German bones of the vehicle. Does GM REALLY think it few remaining customers are THAT stupid???? I guess the answer is YES !!!!!!!

  • avatar
    Adamatari

    Wait!

    This is MORE than the Prius? Who are they fooling? Even if it’s the same or slightly less, you can get a Prius instead for about the same money?

    Is this supposed to be a bad joke? Oh, wait, it probably is, so that Wagoner and Lutz can say, “see, we tried, it failed.” How dumb are these people?

    This alone shows every reason that GM must change radically or die. They aren’t making the vehicles necessary for the future (even if gasoline continues to power autos for another 50 years, it’s not going to be getting any cheaper with India and China around). Heck, they aren’t even making the vehicles for today.

    I don’t know why this even gets 2 stars. It’s a horrible failure, proof of the cluelessness of it’s manufacturer.

  • avatar
    P.J. McCombs

    bleach,

    From a stop, the gas engine restarts (quickly) when you release the brake. It was always ticking over by the time my toe reached the throttle.

    Adamatari,

    The Green Line’s base MSRP (including destination) is $22,790, to the Prius’ $21,610. But the Prius no longer qualifies its buyer for a $1,300 tax break; the Saturn does. So, effectively, the Green Line undercuts the Prius by $120 (which the Prius driver, in turn, will quickly make up in gas savings).

    Anyway, regarding stars, the first is for being a generally competent package with no horrendous flaws (a given nowadays); I added a second for its pleasant steering and nicely-tuned chassis.

  • avatar
    Adamatari

    Well, I can’t fault you on that. The Prius’s biggest weak point is that it’s deadly boring to drive and does not reward any tomfoolery/fun.

    Still, for a car that’s supposed to target the eco-concious (or at least the cheap), the Aura “green line” sure has missed it’s mark.

  • avatar
    shaker

    CR’s testing shows that the Prius runs the “avoidance maneuver” at 50.5 MPH vs. 51 MPH for the V6 Aura. Hardly a noticeable difference in handling, maybe the “boredom” comes from the drone of the Prius’ CVT as opposed to the thrilling sound of the Aura GL’s automatic… |-)

  • avatar
    mart_o_rama

    Hybrids used to be electrical vehicules with a small ICE to assist on acceleration or other small task (like A/C). I find it funny that nowadays Hybrids are basically ICE vehicules with a little electric motor to assist on secondary tasks.

    I like the auto-off concept, but it should be standard on all vehicule, not a supposedly eco-specific feature.

  • avatar
    NN

    it’s interesting how much the name has an effect on people’s impressions of the vehicle. If it wasn’t called a Hybrid and didn’t have those shameless badges, and the stop-start BAS system was available as just an option (or standard on all Aura’s), it would probably be hailed as an incredibly smart innovation that is finally making it’s way into the US market, and should be applied to all vehicles. It is a cheap fix that gives a 10% gas savings…and is based on good sense, that we shouldn’t be burning gasoline at stoplights. If every car had this…100 million cars x 12k miles a year at 20mpg x 10% (I know, this is rough math)= 6 billion gallons of gas saved each year. I’d call that a good thing.

    Then again, if they didn’t call it a “Hybrid”, then maybe they couldn’t get the tax credit. Either way, GM has ruined a great idea by being shameless in it’s execution.

    I took a look at the Edmunds consumer reviews of the 07 Vue Green Line and read horrible things about the reliability of the system. That is my biggest fear with this vehicle…so you save 10% on gas, it only costs you $1000 more than the regular, so it’s a good deal, right…until it needs expensive repairs. That’s probably why GM is so slow to push these on the market, and so slow to bring the new Vue Hybrid.

  • avatar
    jazbo123

    Neither the EPA city or highway tests probably take full advantage of this type of hybrid.

    I’d be interested in seeing the “ultra stop and go” mileage improvement, such as Manhattan taxi service. I suspect that the efficiency delta there could be quite impressive.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    CR’s testing shows that the Prius runs the “avoidance maneuver” at 50.5 MPH vs. 51 MPH for the V6 Aura. Hardly a noticeable difference in handling, maybe the “boredom” comes from the drone of the Prius’ CVT as opposed to the thrilling sound of the Aura GL’s automatic… |-)

    The Nissan Versa ran that course at 52 mph, but I don’t think we’d consider that car to be lively behind the wheel either.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Remind me again why the governmint is giving a $1300 tax credit for this?

  • avatar

    Nice review. Sad how low Saturn has fallen since they sold nearly 300,000 copies of their original model (“the practical person’s sporty car”) in ’94 or ’95. Sad that GM is going for the badges with this car, seemingly without pursuing anything of substance. That says it all.

  • avatar
    jthorner

    Saturn has been a huge waste of GM’s resources from the day they spent the first dollar on it. It is amazing that Oldsmobile was shut down when for many years it sold top selling models while Saturn has NEVER made a profit for GM and has instead been a loss-maker grabbing resources from the traditional brands.

    Someone should write a book about CEO’s Pet Projects and how they get to ignore all the usual rules inside a company and often lead to disaster.


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