Saturn Aura vs. Tough and Tougher
Side-by-Side-by-Side: Rethink Bravery
By David Surace
Can Saturn’s wonder-kid Aura really stack up against JapanAmeriCo’s big hitters?
If you ever feel depressed about the automotive industry, you should stop watching the latest Chinese car failing its crash-test and immediately head to a Saturn retailer. Between the white-hot injection of great new product and the electric crackle of smart marketing, your local Saturn store is now (to borrow an internet cliché) so full of win.
For instance: Saturn’s sales folks have always patiently waited for you to come to them, but nowadays they lock eyes with you in a vortex of unnerving confidence. The aloof among you will remain unaffected by the no-haggle/no-hassle Kool-Aid that Saturn’s been serving for almost 20 years. You may, however, notice a certain “Car of the Year” trophy for a certain Aura, images of which plaster every available surface in the dealership. And if you dig a little, they’ll tell you about the kind of cars they’re accepting as trades these days: Japanese luxury-capsules from Lexus and Acura, steely German asphalt-flatteners from Mercedes and VW. This has apparently launched a feedback-loop of customer-ship; now customers come to see the treasure-trove of lightly-used luxury cars on Saturn lots, but end up happily departing with a new Saturn instead. The salesperson will say this with an entirely straight face.
If you really seek the cure for what ails you, just ask about the little white tent out front. Underneath sits three rows of parking spaces, occupied by one Toyota Camry LE V6, one Honda Accord SE V6, and one Saturn Aura XE. Fight!
No, really. It’s called the Side-by-Side-by-Side Test Drive, and you get to drive all three, right now, in whichever order you choose as long as the Aura is last, and even that point is negotiable.
It’s a suicide mission! Right?!?!?! Or is it?
The Saturn folks will take great pains to inform you that they did not stack the deck against their competitors’ cars by plumping the Aura up with more options (even if the dealership really wanted to); all three cars are evenly optioned and kept in the same condition (each one had its floor mats in the trunk, for instance). If you’re looking for a catch, here it is: Saturn gets control of the experience by bringing test-drivers into Saturn showrooms, thus exposing them to the feel-good vibrations therein.
There isn’t a lot of marketing schtick; you’re invited to look each horse in the mouth. Open and close the doors, look at the panel gaps, check the weld-seams. Option-for-option, the cars are outfitted in a dead heat. All have sunroofs, all have automatic transmissions, all have cloth interiors, and all have V6 engines displacing 3.0 to 3.5 liters. You get in your first choice; do an equally thorough inspection around the inside, pop in the key and, sales rep on-board, head for the hills. When you come back, rinse-and-repeat.
How do they compare? The drives tell the story:
The Accord is clearly the driver’s car of the group. 2007 marks the end of the Accord’s seventh-generation since its debut in 1976. The SE (or Special Edition) package has traditionally been offered as a high-value model representing each generation’s last year of production. The suspension setup is firm, the steering is lively and the throttle response is focused. Honda’s 3.0 liter SOHC V6 makes only 244 horses, but it’s still the class of the group, with fluid power delivery and a pleasant vibrato at every point in the powerband. The entire car is made solidly and precisely out of decent things, but neither the interior nor the exterior design will inspire you to sing arias to your Accord at midnight. The seats are Honda-stiff, the side bolsters will manhandle your love-handles, and the ride is definitely inspired by Honda’s racing program: your voice will quiver on anything but glass-smooth roads above 50mph.
The Camry, however, has a grand old time on the interstate. Just entering its seventh generation in ’07, its life’s mission is gulping down massive expanses of asphalt without a hiccup. It has a stately look about it too; that arching roofline brings to mind the new Mercedes S-Class. Everything else about the car brings to mind marshmallows: the seats, the ride, the handling, and the numb steering. It’s certainly comfy, but that’s also partly why the Camry is the biggest disappointment in this lineup; as soon as you get off the freeway, driving the car is a joyless trudge. The Stay-Puft suspension, which is poised and content at 70mph, gets upset when it meets cracked pavement at 45mph. Steering the car is like tilling a fishing boat. The 3.5 liter V6, rated at a group-high 268hp, felt completely hamstrung by a balky six-speed automatic transmission, which inexplicably could not find the right gear for go-fast mode. If it had any pleasant noises to make, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear them, even if you fiddle around in manual mode. The interior cleans up nicely with the so-so plastic bits it was given, and the center-stack does that cute-blue-glow-thing, but that’s the only trick in the bag.
At this point the salesperson, who spent the previous test drives chatting with you about football and the weather, now inconspicuously pulls out a notepad and asks what you liked and disliked about the competition.
Then you get to the Aura. GM lavished attention on the car in some areas, and went cheap in others. The trunk lid sits on hydraulic pistons–unlike the U-arms in most cars, these don’t bash your luggage. The top of the dash panel is made of… I guess we’ll call this substance flubber, the firm-but-squishy coating which deadens sound in various BMWs and Mercedes. Another noise-killer is the front windowpanes; the front doors get double-laminated side windows. Seriously, roll down the windows half-way and look. You’ll see two panes of glass. The rear windows, however, get a single pane. The steering wheel is a good hunk of material except for the silvery plastic bits at 9- and 3-o’clock which tend to bend under pressure. In fact, most of the hard plastic bits inside the cabin will bend after a little push. The biggest problem is the dashboard fit; things don’t line up where the dash meets the driver and passenger doors. The instrument cluster is a gorgeous and legible design with yellow and white LEDs that dramatically fade-in when you start the car, but then the speedometer needle twitches while the car is in park.
You’ll notice that these are detail-level complaints, and most focus on the interior. The exterior itself is a fine sight to behold even in its base trim level, with super tight shut-lines and generous but tasteful helpings of chrome (ok, sometimes chrome plastic) in the right places. The car has a stately street presence that would make any business glad to have one parked out front, let alone a Saturn store.
The engine that pulls the XE is GM’s stalwart 3.5 liter pushrod V6, making 224 horses, and the lowest figure in the group. Being a pushrod configuration instead of overhead-cam like the others, and without a variable valve timing or lift application like the others, it’s not going to offer the same kind of refinement as the others. But GM’s noise reduction regimen has done much to hide those issues; turning the key leads to a hushed and vibration-free start and almost silent idle. In fact, the engine’s unrefined nature is only revealed by a slight hissing and ticking sound at full throttle. But the power delivery is immediate, even (or perhaps especially) with the 4-speed automatic. The engine definitely plays nicely with fewer gears. If you get a chance to drive the XR (and you should), with its 252 hp, 3.6 liter “high-feature” DOHC V6 with the six-speed auto, you would still be hard-pressed to feel a difference in power delivery. It’s more likely that you would hear it.
The Aura steers and handles with a surprising level of heavy-handed seriousness, the kind that tells you that Saturn is done playing now. It’s certainly not unpleasant. The steering feels firm and confident, with almost zero wiggle room on-center, even if there’s not a lot of feedback from the front tires. Off-camber twisties and long sweepers are dispatched in business-like fashion, with very little body lean. On harshly paved surfaces the Aura will bounce its occupants, but it still tracks straight and true. High-speed stability is excellent, even though it’s still a two-handed kind of drive.
They’re not all positives, but these are the kinds of things that will surprise customers, who perhaps weren’t expecting an American family sedan to handle with such complexity and nuance.
In fact, the Camry ended up behaving like the traditional perception of an American family car, soft and imprecise. The Accord was probably the best drive, but its ride harshness and bland styling might not stand the test of time for some consumers.
Does that mean the Aura wins? It doesn’t, at least not every time. Saturn says that some 40% of people who do the Side-by-Side-by-Side go immediately back into the air conditioned offices and buy or lease an Aura. But of all new Saturn owners, the manufacturer says that 60% are conquest customers, people who previously had owned a non-GM vehicle.
So the happy pill has some side effects. But there’s no reason to be sad when you realize that the Side-by-Side-by-Side is neither clever ruse nor foolhardy bravado. It’s just Saturn playing its favorite game: trying to run rings around the import competition. With Saturn Aura sales but a mere fraction of the two Japanese market monsters, they have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, so why not? The good news for Saturn is that it seems to be working for them.
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