Saturn's best car ever This is the biggest Saturn sedan ever, and the best-looking, too. By John Pearley Huffman Date posted: 01-17-2007 252-horsepower V6 - Six-speed automatic - 18-inch wheels and tires Here is the 2007 Saturn Aura XR in all its galvanized-steel glory. This is the top-of-the-line version of the Aura, a significant step up in comfort and ability from the base Aura XE, and the best vehicle to ever bear the Saturn name. Beneath its steel skin, the 2007 Saturn Aura is for all intents and purposes Europe's Opel Vectra transplanted to GM's Fairfax assembly plant in Kansas City, Kansas. And the obvious question that arises from this leveraging of GM's global assets is, "What took 'em so long?" The Saturn Aura XE is a GM car that honestly gives the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord some competition. This is a car that has quality, not just durability. This is the message that the Aura's steel skin — a replacement for the poorly fitted plastic panels of past Saturns — sends to us. This is also the car that Saturn has been telling us that it could make ever since the franchise's inception in 1990. Quality. What a concept. External value The Aura XE is nicely sculptured and accented with just the right amount of chrome, and wears elegant 18-inch wheels. The basic structure of the Aura comes from the front-wheel-drive Epsilon platform upon which the Chevy Malibu, Pontiac G6 and Saab 9-3 are also built. The Aura's 112.3-inch wheelbase is the same as that of the stretched Malibu Maxx, and it is 3.0 inches longer than that of the Camry and 4.4 inches longer than that of the Accord sedan. The Aura measures 191.0 inches overall, some 1.8 inches shorter than the Camry and a tenth of an inch behind the Accord. Throw tautly tailored sheet metal over those proportions and tack on GM's best decorative detail (the Saturn badge in the chrome grille bar is gorgeous), and this is a car that looks more expensive than its $23,945 base price. It even looks more expensive than its $26,919 as-tested price. Internal fortitude Under that big plastic cover is the 3.6-liter V6 seen in the Cadillac CTS. As good as the Aura XR looks, the best part is the 24-valve DOHC 3.6-liter V6 under the hood. This all-aluminum V6 is thoroughly modern, and it produces 252 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 251 pound-feet of peak torque at 3,200 rpm. With the Accord's 3.0-liter V6 rated at 253 hp and the Camry's 3.5-liter V6 delivering 268 hp, the Aura V6's output might seem modest. But the Accord V6 only musters 232 lb-ft of peak torque and needs to rip to 5,000 rpm to do it, while the Camry's V6 also needs to spin hard to deliver 248 lb-ft at 4,700 rpm. In comparison, the Aura XE's V6 makes its power in the GM fashion, emphasizing a broad power band at quieter, friendlier engine speeds than its Japanese-branded competitors. And the GM V6 is smooth, quiet and efficient, just like its competition from Toyota and Honda. Oh yeah, it also runs on affordable regular-grade gasoline. Six speeds, no waiting Lifted straight from the Corvette, the shift paddles are a little small for upshifts and the action for downshifts a little counterintuitive. A six-speed automatic transaxle enhances the engine's sweetness. Codeveloped with Ford, the GM six-speed delivers an unobtrusive shift schedule, crisp gearchanges and quick reactions to throttle input. A relatively short ratio in 1st gear delivers strong acceleration, while the ratios for 3rd and 4th gear are spaced closely together to enhance midrange acceleration. At 70 mph, the Aura XR comfortably lopes along at only about 1,700 rpm in 6th gear, helping the engine sip fuel at an EPA highway-rated 28 mpg. As well as the Aura XE's six-speed shifts when the computer is doing the thinking, it also does great when you shift it manually. With shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel (both the paddles and the steering wheel are nearly identical to the Corvette's pieces), the Saturn six-speed will upshift and downshift with enthusiasm. You can rev the V6 right to 7,000 rpm, where the fuel delivery cuts off. Speed that's more than sensible The Aura XE's tires seem to fill the wheelwells, a satisfying style statement. The 2007 Saturn Aura XE is surprisingly quick, despite its 3,647 pounds. It reaches 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and then ingests the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds at 94.8 mph. As usual, manual shifting actually makes the Aura XE slower to 60 mph by 0.1 second, although it improves the quarter-mile trap speed to 95.0 mph. GM's traction control permits just the right amount of wheelspin for a quick getaway. This performance lets the Aura XR easily outrun all but the Toyota Camry that we tested in last year's comparison test of V6-powered 2006 family sedans. It's even slightly quicker than the new 270-hp 2007 Nissan Altima SE 3.5. The Camry XLE V6 matches the Aura XR's 0-60-mph time and clips it in the quarter with a 14.6-second performance at 97.3 mph. So for bracket racing, pick the fire-breathing Camry. But otherwise the Aura XR earns praise for its midrange power, while the Camry XLE delivers better EPA mileage numbers. This isn't a case of GM surpassing low expectations. It's about GM producing a truly world-class drivetrain. Inner peace The Aura XE's interior looks clean, although the monochromatic treatment makes it seem bland. The interior of the Aura XE is an astonishing leap forward compared to previous efforts from Saturn. But it's only barely competitive with its competition. The attractive dash groups the primary instruments in three chrome-encircled tunnels under a single cowl. GM's latest-specification radio features XM Satellite Radio, a six-disc CD changer and an iPod-friendly auxiliary input jack. The overall cockpit detailing is subdued, and there are lots of simulated (even plausible) brushed aluminum and not a square-inch of phony wood. The only thing that seems out of place is the traction control button, which is located behind the shift lever on the center console, a place where our test drivers frequently overlooked it. The seats are supportive and the optional leather seating surfaces are supple. There's plenty of legroom and two midsize adults and a small kid can sit in back without much complaint. But there's too much rough-textured, black plastic trim. There are also a few ergonomic shortcomings. Though the doors open wide, the dash obstructs ingress and it's a little difficult to wriggle behind the steering wheel. And if you're tall, the front seat has to go back far enough so it's behind the B-pillar, and it's impossible to get into the driver seat without bruising your thigh on the pillar's plastic trim. The Aura XE's interior has an attractive presentation, yet the materials still lack the refinement of the Japanese-label competition. Even so, the full complement of features and a full allotment of airbags (all standard equipment) help the Aura XE measure up to the competition. Grip and grin Shift the central gear lever a notch below "D," manual mode is selected. Despite its European heritage, there's not much spirit in the Aura XR's chassis. MacPherson struts support the front, while a four-link independent suspension does its job at the rear. The P225/50R18 tires are tuned for a quiet ride in all seasons, although they're up to a fair amount of cornering load. If you push this front-wheel-drive car too hard in the corners, as expected the front tires lose their grip. But the GM stability system is excellent, although it predictably intervenes fairly quickly. The rack-and-pinion steering offers some good feedback from the road, but it's communicating in whispers. Compared to its mass-market competition, the Saturn Aura XE delivers excellent body control while you're motoring down the turnpike, and this sense of control is the best evidence of the XE's personality. This car combines structural integrity with an even-tempered performance profile. The Aura feels deliberate through the steering wheel like a Camry, rather than light like an Accord or tough like an Altima. It's a solid, well-rounded piece that keeps pace with the class standards, but doesn't run forward of them. Good enough? All GM cars should present as tastefully as the chrome-trimmed Aura XE. The 2007 Saturn Aura XE has to face off against stiff competition from every quarter, and you can make a compelling case for all of them, from the Ford Fusion to the Hyundai Sonata. The Saturn Aura XE steps away from the crowd because it aspires to be more than a faultless appliance. It combines some brilliant engineering with an engaging personality. And then there's that great-looking skin made of galvanized steel. This is the car that Saturn has always needed to make it as a big-time franchise. Vehicle Tested: 2007 Saturn Aura XR MSRP of Test Vehicle: $26,919 What Works: Excellent drivetrain, solid chassis, looks more expensive than it is. What Needs Work: Cheap interior materials, shallow trunk, some flawed ergonomics. Bottom Line: This is the all-steel car Saturn should have been building all along.