10/10/06 — New life at Saturn

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New life at Saturn

Saturn Aura (2007)

Saturn started life more than 20 years ago as a small, unique car company that offered American drivers a choice.

It made vehicles at a new plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., designed to give buyers of small, fuel-efficient cars an alternative to the Japanese invasion. And for the most part those initial cars offered value with ding-resistant door panels and peppy fuel-efficient 4-cylinder engines.

Saturn Aura, 2007

In addition to affordable and entertaining products, Saturn afforded one of the best dealer experiences in the country. People were treated humanely. They were respected in the showroom. And a no-haggle price structure insured that your neighbor couldn’t brag that he got a $1,000 better deal.

The young housewife, who had no desire to bargain over price, could come away from the showroom with the best possible outcome.

So loyal were those early customers that they staged a couple of giant mid-summer “homecoming” events in Spring Hill.

What many people didn’t know at the time was that the little Tennessee automaker was a subsidiary of General Motors.

Saturn remained a unique brand for several years, well disguised as a stand-alone company, until the inevitable occurred. Saturn began to get sucked into the big GM machine and was eventually spit out as just another division with shared platforms and drivetrains.

In the mid-90s GM decided that Saturn needed more products to keep buyers coming back. This was a good decision on paper, but it was fumbled in the execution.

What Saturn got was a mediocre mid-sized L-Series sedan that never resonated with the car-buying public, and later a warmed-over General Motors minivan and a decent, but slow-selling compact crossover vehicle. And for the first time some of the vehicles were not built in Spring Hill.

But the biggest misstep came in 2002 when the original Saturn, the 12-year-old S-Series, was replaced with the 2003 Ion sedan and coupe. Build quality was horrendous and interior materials were inferior, especially that first year.

So what once was a viable alternative to the Japanese Toyota, Honda and Nissan products in the early and mid ’90s became simply a way to get into a new car on the cheap.

Today the Ion is a much better product, albeit with still some inferior materials, and worthy of consideration because of its improved build quality, low price and great dealer network. But the damage was done in 2003 and the Ion has never fully recovered.

It appeared to us a couple of years ago that Saturn was fumbling toward an early extinction, much like Oldsmobile, with warmed-over GM products.

But now something only slightly short of a miracle has occurred.

Saturn is being resurrected with a stable of new and desirable products. General Motors is breathing new life — indeed, new excitement — into the Saturn brand.

Three examples now in showrooms are the Sky roadster, a sexy open-air head turner that is sold out through April according to Saturn officials; perhaps the best mid-sized sedan in General Motors history, the Aura; and Saturn’s first hybrid sport utility.

Coming soon are a turbocharged version of the Sky that endows the roadster with under-6-second 0-to-60 performance, and a beautiful seven-passenger crossover vehicle — the Outlook — that comes with 270 horses and a 6-speed automatic transmission as standard equipment.

We drove the Vue hybrid, the turbocharged Sky and the Aura in the rolling hills of Virginia west of Washington, D.C. The Vue and the Sky are impressive, but we will save our comments on those vehicles for another day.

It’s the Aura, now in Saturn showrooms, that will have the widest appeal among shoppers because it’s designed to go head-to-head with the giants of the segment, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

And we were duly impressed, amazed may more accurately describe our reaction, to the new Saturn.

By the numbers, it is positioned to compete on even terms with the Accord, Camry and Nissan Altima.

Numbers that may impress include 112, 224, 252 and 251.

The Aura’s 112-inch wheelbase is three-to-four inches longer than the Camry and Accord resulting in a roomy interior with three-passenger comfort in the back seat.

Unlike its competitors, the Aura features a 224-horsepower V-6 as standard equipment in its base XE model starting at $20,595 including destination charge. The Camry and Accord base models are propelled by 4-cylinder engines generating 158 and 166 horsepower respectively.

The more upscale Aura XR model starting at $23,945 comes with a 3.6 -liter V-6 generating 252 horsepower and a prodigious 251 pound-feet of torque.

It is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted manually using steering-wheel mounted paddles.

These numbers translate into a performance-oriented sedan with a refined ride and outstanding handling and maneuverability courtesy of a well-tuned independent suspension.

The Aura is built in the award-winning Fairfax plant in Kansas City, Kan., on the so-called “Epsilon” platform that also underpins the Saab 9-3, Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac G6.

Aura’s handsome European looks come compliments of GM’s European subsidiary Opel from whom much of the styling cues were penned.

In addition to the modern powertrain, the XR comes with a stunning amount of standard equipment for 24 grand including 18-inch alloy wheels, 240-watt audio system with eight speakers and rear-seat controls, automatic climate control, remote vehicle start, a full compliment of power accessories and praiseworthy safety including antilock brakes, traction and stability control and full-length side curtain airbags.

There aren’t many options, but a panoramic sunroof, adjustable pedals and special Moroccan leather trim are worthy of consideration.

The most startling aspect of the new Aura is its interior.

Open the door and, Whoa Nelly!

This is not your typical General Motors 25 grand plastic-encrusted mid-sized sedan. The interior can be accurately described as refined with premium materials and tight tolerances throughout.

The gauge cluster uses LED-lit analog instruments, with amber lighting.

There was very little to criticize in the new Aura. One of the few quibbles we have is the continued use of a four-speed transmission in the base XE.

But add it up and the bottom line reads, job well done. Aura will give the ailing Saturn division a big shot in the arm. It’s a product that will attract people who have never set foot in a Saturn showroom.

And once in the showroom, these potential customers will find an attractive offering of new products in addition to the Aura.

Saturn, indeed, has been given a new lease on life.

Jim Meachen can be contacted at meachen@mac.com.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on October 10, 2006 10:48 AM