established the Saturn division in 1990 in order to strike back
Japanese small cars. Unfortunately, that mission was never accomplished
because Saturn was not capable to build small cars as good as
the Japanese (now also Korean). To keep Saturn alive, GM tried to
broaden its range to include mid-size cars. As it said, there were no
reasons to skip America's best selling segment – the segment that sold
hundreds of thousands of Camry and Accord every year. In this way, the
mid-size Saturn L-series was born in year 2000. It was derived from the
contemporary Opel Vectra platform but completely localized to suit
American taste, claimed Saturn. Unfortunately again, the L-series was
another failure and eventually left the world quietly in 2004.
When Bob Lutz took over the responsibility of reforming Saturn, he
asked a logical question: why not simply rebadge Opel Vectra as a
Saturn? Look at the Vectra, it is a very good car – well built,
refined and drives better than any Saturn's own cars. Rebadging it to
Saturn will be better than spending hundreds of million dollars to
convert it into a degraded Saturn. Moreover, billions of dollars could
be saved in production through sharing components -
in contrast, the L-series had only 15% components shared with Vectra.
import buyers will love the European styling too. In this way, Lutz
decided to reposition Saturn from a Japanese small car-fighter to a
Euro-style domestic brand. The first act will be Saturn Aura.
Aura is engineered by Opel based on the new Epsilon II platform, which
will form the basis of the next generation Vectra. From its exterior
styling, you can see it has strong Opel flavour – sporty yet
restrained. The headlamps and taillights are particularly close to the
current Opel styling language. We expect the next Vectra will look much
the same as this one, albeit in short wheelbase form. Overall speaking,
the new design is handsome and will give Aura an upmarket appeal.
Inside, the simple dash layout is clear and all controls are initiative
to use. Plastic quality and fitting is million miles better
than any previous Saturns, though you won't say it is as good as
Toyota, especially regarding the fake wood on the console. However,
the cabin seems to be better built than Nissan Altima and Mitsubishi
Galant, so we are not going to criticize it this time. Space-wise,
there is little to complain or praise. Its passenger space is about the
same as competitors, no more and no less. The steering wheel and driver
seat have wide range of adjustment to enable a comfortable driving
American sedans have serious flaws in ergonomics, but the
German-engineered Aura has none of these problems.
given up plastic polymer body panels, the steel-bodied Aura lost dent
resistance but the sacrifice is worthwhile – the panel gaps are tight
fit and paint finish is excellent. The chassis has a long wheelbase
measuring 2852 mm, or the same as Pontiac G6 (which is derived from
Epsilon I platform). The whole car measures 4.85 meters, slightly
longer than Camry and Accord. Epsilon, no matter I or II, is a
sophisticated platform emphasizing rigidity and NVH suppression. It
employs a lot of high-strength steel, laminated glass and "quiet steel"
(steel laminated with sound-deadening foams). That's why the Aura is a
little heavy at 1650 kilograms. It rides on strut suspensions up front
and 4-link suspensions at the rear. The front suspensions employ
aluminum control arms to save unsprung weight.
The biggest departure from Opel Vectra is found under bonnet – it
employs two American V6s to satisfy the American's demand for big power
and torque. The entry level is GM's iron-block 3.5-liter push-rod V6,
recently equipped with variable valve phasing at its sole camshaft to
deliver 224 horsepower. Nevertheless, like many push-rod engines, it
sounds coarse at high rev, lacking the smoothness and eagerness of
twin-cam engines. Besides, the outdated 4-speed automatic transmission
it mated leaves a lot to be desired.
better choice is GM's all-aluminum 3.6-liter DOHC CVVT V6. On paper,
its 252hp / 251lbft output seems not much more than the push-rod V6,
but in terms of smoothness, rev happiness and sound quality it is in
another league. This engine mates with GM's new 6-speed automatic
transmission with paddle shift manual control thus provides smoother
gearshifts and faster response. Nevertheless, the car is still slower
and less frugal than Toyota Camry V6.
On the road, Saturn Aura impresses with Opel-style ride and handling.
The suspension setup is sportier than Pontiac G6, so body control is
good. At the same time, the ride is firm yet compliant. The cabin is
quiet. The rigid chassis, long wheelbase, NVH suppression and aluminum
suspension bits contribute a lot to the good handling and ride
compromise. The hydraulic power steering is linear, well weighted and
delivers good road feel, certainly much better than the electrical
system of Pontiac G6 and the one of Toyota Camry.
American sedans used to be rubbish in terms of driver appeal. Now with
the presence of Ford Fusion and Saturn Aura, we have to change our
view. However, one should remember the Ford was derived from a Mazda
platform and the Saturn was developed by Opel. Globalization helps
lifting American cars to world standard. Whether they can better the
Japanese rivals is yet to be seen. In the case of Saturn Aura, it lacks
the quality and attention to details of Camry. Its performance is
average. Its entry-level V6 is underwhelmed. That said, to those who
praise good handling and tasteful design, it is a good choice indeed.
a few days after posting this report, Aura won North America Car of the
Year award against Toyota Camry and Honda Fit. - 13 Jan 2007