Saturn Aura vs. Tough and Tougher

Side-by-Side-by-Side: Rethink Bravery

By David Surace

08.14.2007

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.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant.net – All Rights Reserved

Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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11 Comments

  1. A Saturn Aura better than a Camry? C’mon, you’re the one drinking the GM Kool-Aid. I admit it’s a good effort, but in the end it still falls short. No one makes a better car than Toyota except Lexus, which (surprise) is owned by Toyota. The best quality, period. Keep trying, Detroit.

  2. No one makes a better car than Toyota except Lexus, which (surprise) is owned by Toyota.

    Except, according to JD Powers, Buick. Buick is tied with Lexus for #1 in quality. Last I looked, Buick was a GM car.

  3. The Honda has a 3.0 liter single overhead cam v6.

  4. I have a 2007 Accord & my boyfriend has been looking at getting an Aura as his next car. I am going to pass this article along to him, as you made some very interesting points. I think that GM has come a long way with the Saturn line. Great review.

  5. I cheer for the underdog or little guy and the underdog/little guy is Saturn now. (Yeah I know it’s part of the big GM empire but Toyota and Honda don’t have the “little guy” image anymore…)

    And besides, the Aura have a more youthful image compared to the Camry when lots of buyers are 50 years old and older…..

  6. anonymous, thank you for pointing out the Accord’s correct displacement and valvetrain. I have edited the article to note that the Accord has a SOHC 3.0 liter V6. I know it’s a sweet engine – I own a 2004 Accord EX V6. We apologize to our readers for the error.

  7. Double apologies on my part as well. I coulda swore I read it on the corporate website as three-and-a-half.

    And at any rate the Accord’s engine is so ridiculously well-heeled, it feels like there’s an extra half-liter of displacement hiding in there anyway. 🙂

    Truthiness: I’m actually a pretty big Lexus and Scion fan, but for some reason the current-gen Corolla, Camry, Avalon and Tundra completely strike out with me.

    The sole exception to that is the Camry Hybrid. Its technological transparency and seamless power delivery (the polar opposite of the soggy six-speed & V6) go a long way toward making the wet-noodle handling issue a little less bothersome.

  8. Great review. I agree. The Aura is a well built car that really will give the imports a run for their money.

    Here are the issues that I and I think most people have.
    1- Will this be a ‘one hit wonder?’ nobody wants to drive a car that was good one year. Saturn needs to maintain and improve on the consistency.

    2- Turning radius. Is it me or do all American cars have a terrible turning radius, Aura included.

    3- See #1

    I’ll consider this car..I really will.

  9. I’m a case study in point as I drove all three cars before I bought the Saturn Aura XE. I drove them at their respective dealerships, though. I thought the Saturn was the best choice and I put my money where my feelings were regarding the cars. Still love the Saturn 6 months later.

  10. I know that this is an old subject, but I would like to bring my points up.

    I, personally, do not care for the Saturn Aura. It may be a good driving car, but it bothers me at how derivative its look is. I mean, LOOK AT IT. There are numerous design cues, inside and out, and tell me that Saturn was INSPIRED by the Honda Accord. Compare the front grill and its details, such as the headlight lenses. Compare the rear end, including the brake light lenses. Compare the interior, all the way down to the central knob for the radio. RIP OFF!

    What in the world happened to GM cars that looked good? WHAT HAPPENED to cars like the previous generation Impala, previous generation Grand Prix, the discontinued Buick Regal? What happened to those cars? THOSE were cars that looked GOOD. What did GM do? They redesigned the successors almost as bad as Ford did with the 1996 Taurus. From a car with great, albeit dated lines, to a car that could really only be appreciated by a marshmallow! GM FAILED to design successor cars that were truly successors, and that’s hugely disappointing. But, hey, there are still plenty of used, good condition 2003 Grand Prix GTs that I can get my hands on.

    As for the choice in an Aura, Accord, or a Camry. I’d zip right on over to the FORD dealer and buy myself a Fusion. For looks, Ford got it right while GM, Honda, and Toyota got it WRONG for the 2007 model year, and that ought to shut the people who’d read my reply and say “import lover” up quite a bit!

    But, I will say this much for Honda. What is GM going to do when the 2008 Accord comes out? They likely won’t waste the money in getting 2008 Accords to compare against the Aura nor would they be stupid enough to compare a previous generation model Accord in light of the 2008 model. And, it would be too soon for Saturn to take the Aura back to the drawing board.

    And, the Fusion still looks better than the 2008 Accord.

  11. reinhart: That’s something I wrestled with when I wrote the piece–whether or not to bring up the Fusion/Milan, or the Mazda6, and what about the Altima, and why not the Avenger/Stratus and the Passat, and the Galant and the Legacy… oh and-and-and the Optima/Sonata?

    The fact is, there’s a LOT of good cars in the midsize FWD segment, and buyers looking for a new sedan should honestly have every last one of them on their list. Especially the Fusion/Milan. And ESPECIALLY-especially, the Optima/Sonata.

    But back to your point: Saturn’s decision not to “invite” the domestic competition on the lot does appear at first blush that GM was afraid of *too* fair a fight. My impression is that the Camry and Accord make such a good comparison to the Aura because each car pushes very different buttons in people.

    RE: the Aura front-end, it’s funny you mention that because it’s been more than one stoplight that my eyes have crossed trying to identify Accords v. Auras. The daytime running lights sit in a very similar location on each car, and of course the grille-slot shares a similar shape.

    So they absolutely do share a certain visage, but that fascia you so eloquently claim as stolen property actually comes courtesy of Adam Opel AG, whose design department in Germany probably had no bloody idea what the USDM Accord even looked like at the time they started putting it on cars (see also: Astra, Corsa, Meriva, Vectra).

    But you know what’s weird? Being an entirely American car which isn’t at all sold in Europe, the Aura is actually a transitional vehicle. It sits on the stretched Epsilon platform that undercarries the Pontiac G6 and Chevy Malibu Maxx, but the cues it’s really stolen are from the Opels across the pond–a bridge between the Polymer-Era Saturn and the new, Opelized Saturn of the future.

    That’s why I’m frankly amazed that the Aura turned out so well.

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