Introduced one year ago, the Saturn Aura was, and is, widely regarded as the best thing to happen to the Saturn brand since its inception. This midsize sedan took North American Car of the Year honors and has proven to be a modest sales success thus far. It's not hard to see why the Aura has found favor with both consumers and members of the automotive press: It offers all the room, comfort and performance of other General Motors family sedans, but does it with more panache.
As is the case with most GM products, the Aura's mechanical underpinnings are shared within the family. It utilizes a stretched version of the Epsilon platform employed for the Pontiac G6 and the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu. Like those cars, the Aura is front-wheel drive and features a fully independent suspension with struts in front and multiple links in back. Compared to its cousins, though, the 2008 Saturn Aura has sportier chassis tuning. Ride comfort is still among its strengths, but should you find yourself on a back road, Saturn's midsize sedan might surprise you with its agility.
For 2008, Saturn is offering three different engine options on the Aura. An entry-level four-cylinder with 169 horsepower is new this year, and it joins a pair of V6s -- a 224-hp 3.5-liter and a 252-hp 3.6-liter. In our editors' views, either of the V6s offers a better compromise between performance and economy: The 3.5-liter is almost as fuel-efficient as many four-cylinders on the highway, while the 3.6 is as smooth and refined as most import-brand six-cylinders. The bigger V6 is also the only one of the Aura's engines that can be had with a six-speed automatic transmission. An Aura Green Line hybrid model is also available, however, it provides very little fuel economy advantage over the base four-cylinder engine.
Inside, the Aura has a sharper, more contemporary design than many GM sedans. Materials quality is still hit-or-miss, but the accommodations are spacious and quiet whether you're seated in the front or back. Overall, the 2008 Saturn Aura is an appealing middle-of-the-road choice in the midsize family sedan segment. However, it faces stiff competition from the more refined Toyota Camry, the more athletic Nissan Altima and the redesigned Honda Accord, which is apt to be a jack of all trades. Buyers shopping in this class would be wise to try all four sedans before making a decision.
A midsize family sedan, the 2008 Saturn Aura comes in two trim levels -- XE and XR. The base XE comes with 17-inch wheels, air-conditioning, full power accessories, a trip computer and a CD stereo with satellite radio and an auxiliary audio jack. The XR is more of a luxury sport sedan, as it includes 18-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, a power driver seat, heated front seats, remote vehicle start, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an upgraded stereo with an in-dash CD changer, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and rear-seat audio controls. Notable options include a power front passenger seat, power-adjustable pedals, a sunroof and wood-grain interior trim. Regular leather upholstery is optional on the XE, while Aura XR buyers can opt for two-tone "Moroccan" leather.
Even by the generous standards of the midsize sedan class, the Aura treats rear passengers to a lavish amount of space -- but they must go without a center armrest. It's similarly roomy up front, although it's hard to get in and out of the cockpit gracefully in spite of the wide door openings. The shape of the dash and B-pillar obstructs ingress, and it's a little difficult to wriggle behind the steering wheel, particularly if you're taller or large-framed. The design is attractive, though, and a pleasing mix of simulated wood and metallic accents gives the cabin an upscale ambience, while acoustic glass for the windshield and front windows contributes to the serenity. There's too much rough plastic, fake stitching and rubbery vinyl trim for a car in this price range, but opting for the Moroccan leather in the XR helps camouflage these missteps. Trunk capacity measures just under 15 cubic feet.
Three drivetrain options are available on the front-wheel-drive Saturn Aura. Standard on the Aura XE is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine rated for 160 hp and 169 pound-feet of torque. A four-speed automatic transmission is standard. Fuel economy for the base XE is 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway.
Optional on the XE is a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 219 hp and 219 lb-ft of torque. It, too, is coupled to a four-speed automatic. The upscale Saturn Aura XR comes with a 3.6-liter DOHC V6 that sends its 252 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque through a six-speed automatic that can be shifted manually via paddles behind the steering wheel. In performance testing, the Aura XR went from zero to 60 mph in a very quick 6.4 seconds. Mileage ratings remain impressive on the V6-equipped XE, which has figures of 18/29, while the XR has 17/26 estimates.
We'd steer most 2008 Saturn Aura buyers to one of the V6s, as acceleration is sluggish on the four-cylinder model. The 3.5-liter in the XE isn't as refined as we'd like, but it provides capable response in traffic and above-average fuel economy. Performance is much smoother and swifter with the 3.6-liter, and for consumers who aren't counting every mpg, it's the more satisfying choice.
Overall, the Aura's European handling is capable and confident. Minimal body roll and a smooth, hushed highway ride make the Aura a great long-distance companion. However, the steering is devoid of feel, hurting the car's sporting credentials, while a lack of assist at low speeds can make parking maneuvers labor-intensive.
Standard safety features for the 2008 Saturn Aura include antilock disc brakes, traction control and the OnStar emergency communications system. Front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags are also included in every Aura. Stability control is standard on all V6 models. In frontal- and side-impact crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Aura earned a perfect five stars across the board.
A four-cylinder version of the XE slots into the 2008 Saturn Aura lineup as the entry-level model. Stability control becomes standard on V6-equipped XE models. All Saturn Auras come with satellite radio this year, and the trip computer gains an instant fuel economy meter. The Convenience Package now includes an auto-dimming rearview mirror.