Sunday, October 26, 2008

Saturn Aura

When reviewing a car, one of the most important things is to figure out exactly what it is. What is this car? Why is this car? Who is this car for? Or, as the French would say, what is this machine's raison d'être - its reason for being?

This question is especially important when reviewing a non-enthusiast machine, because most people who write car reviews are enthusiasts. They care about things like grip, and horsepower, and gear ratios. They want to know how fast the car can lap the N├╝rburgring, and whether they can achieve tire-smoking launches designed to overawe all comers at the stoplight drag races. They need a car to perform. Full stop.

But most people are not enthusiasts. They care about things like trunk capacity, and legroom, and cupholders. They want to know how fast the car can dive into a parking space, and whether they can schlep the kids safely to school and themselves to work. They need a car to perform all the tasks of day-to-day life, and do it reliably while not burning too much gas. They don't need an automotive adrenaline rush. They just need a car.

Thus, the Saturn Aura.

Saturn's flagship sedan, the Aura is a family car residing in the class formerly known as mid-size. It is, along with its competitors the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, a large four-door sedan suitable for carrying kids, groceries, and grandparents. Trading in the SUV and its fuel bill but still need the space? The Aura might just be your car.

The Aura is built on GM's Epsilon platform, which underpins the Pontiac G6, Chevy Malibu, Saab 9-3, and (in Europe) the Opel Vectra. But if you've rented a G6 and its sea of black plastic, fear not: Saturn has a much better Aura, with softer hues and better materials. It's a much more pleasant place to spend your rush hour. The exterior styling, too, is subtle and restrained; it's attractive without being flashy.

When it comes to the cut and thrust of city driving, the Aura can run with the best of them. My 2008 XE was equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6, rated at 219 hp and 219 lb-ft of torque, and a four-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels; it was plenty punchy both off the line and in traffic. Need to make a quick pass so you can get to your exit? The Aura doesn't even breathe hard. While that combination is no longer available, its replacement - a 3.6-liter V-6 making 252 hp and 251 lb-ft and mated to a six-speed automatic, complete with paddle shifters - is even more potent. Alternately, you can choose a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine yielding 169 hp and 160 lb-ft of torque. It comes with the same six-speed automatic, and four-cylinder versions gets better mileage - 22 mpg city, 33 mpg highway, as against 17/26 in V-6 Auras. There's also a hybrid, the Green Line, rated at 26/34. It's probably not worth the $1480 premium over a comparable XR-4 model, but your mileage may vary. But don't get lost in the details: whatever powertrain you choose, you'll never want for real-world drivability.

The one negative to the Aura in the city: it's a big car, and a generation of drivers reared on the visibility that comes with an SUV may find parking one of the newer, bigger mid-size cars a challenge. Then again, it might feel small to an ex-SUV driver. The steering is a bit heavy too, which doesn't help. But it's not bad - it's just an inevitable consequence of a big car with the engine mounted over the driving wheels. On the whole, the Aura's road manners are eminently competent.

That might be the best way to sum up the Saturn Aura: eminently competent. It's not a car that screams "drive me!" It's not a car that's going to provide that adrenaline rush, although you might provide your own in city traffic. What it is is a transportation appliance. Enthusiasts shopping this segment should look elsewhere (may I suggest a Mazda6?) But if you just need a car to get you from Point A to Point B comfortably and reliably, if you just need a car that helps you do the things that you do, every day, the Saturn Aura is a solid choice. Enthusiasts may not understand, but the Aura is drama-free - and that's a good thing.