In 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.
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. 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.
You 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.
Yes, 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.
Indeed, 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.