Saturn. Is there a car brand whose mission and purpose in life was initially so clear-cut and targeted, yet one whose mission and purpose went so far astray? Conceived as GM’s clean-sheet answer for consumers who were flocking in droves to subcompact and compact Japanese cars — cars near-universally regarded as superior — Saturn, in its early years, was massively successful. Branded as a “Different Type of Car Company”, Saturn was in many ways very different from other GM brands, gaining its own independent factory, line of cars, and dealership network, the latter implementing an innovative “no-haggle” pricing strategy.
Consumers loved it, often buying more than one car, and were genuinely passionate about their cars and the brand. Overall enthusiasm, morale, and loyalty was notably high among consumers and employees, and in its first decade, Saturn sold over 2 million of its initial S-Series line of compact cars. Saturn, however, could only get by on its plastic-bodied S-Series for so long.
By the turn of the new millennium, the novelty of Saturn in its early years had worn off. Despite two visual restylings, the basic S-Series and what it had to offer hadn’t changed much in the decade since it was introduced, and consumers were beginning to move on to cars that were larger and more expensive, or just simply different. Furthermore, in an era of cheap gas, SUV-mania, and ever-longer car loans, buyers weren’t flocking to affordable compacts as they had in the preceding two decades.
Saturn had to do something different once again, and that came in the form of the 2000-2005 L-Series, a highly unremarkable midsize sedan and wagon whose most notable quality just might be that it used the exact same alloy wheel design as the Saab 9-5 — an effort of corporate GM cost-saving, no doubt.
Sales and praise of the L-Series were nothing exceptional either, and this was much the same story for the oddball ION compact sedan and coupe that succeeded the S-Series. Saturn’s first SUV, the VUE, fared a bit better, though the Relay, Saturn’s first directly-rebadged vehicle and only minivan, one of four variants of the corporate GM U-body, was best left forgotten altogether. For all its promise of the 1990s, Saturn had quickly changed from an innovative builder of compact cars people were excited and passionate about to one of cheap, dull, and quite frankly, depressing vehicles.
Then, in an odd twist of fate, Saturn’s fortunes began changing for the better. While I won’t delve into how controversial GM’s decision to discontinue Oldsmobile — a brand with over 100 years of history and heritage — was, by the early-2000s General Motors simply had too many brands in its portfolio. One automaker cannot feasibly possess that amount of automobile brands and make cars that meaningfully differ enough from one another without directly competing with cars from corporate sibling brands and cannibalizing sales of each other. So, like it or not, Oldsmobile was the chosen one sent to the chopping block in 2004.
Although never explicitly stated, Saturn was more or less moved into the market position vacated by Olds, receiving an injection of new life and more appealing products in the process. The first of these new products was the Sky, a 2-seat roadster based on the Pontiac Solstice. Serving as Saturn’s halo car, the Sky shared its sheetmetal with the Opel GT, a trend that would soon continue with the second generation VUE and the Astra compact in 2008. Saturn’s first three-row crossover, the Outlook, also debuted as a 2007, but arguably the most important and promising addition to the Saturn lineup was the Aura — a vehicle that in many ways could have otherwise been the next generation of the Oldsmobile Intrigue.
Saturn’s first midsize sedan since the L-Series, the Aura (or AURA, as it was sometimes stylized in promotional literature) was the most serious attempt by any GM brand at creating a midsize sedan truly competitive with class benchmarks including the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, as well as European competitors such as the VW Passat. Based on the longer version of the Opel-engineered Epsilon platform, indeed the Aura carried a more cultured European accent than any previous Saturn or its Pontiac G6 and Chevrolet Malibu platform mates, especially in its high-end XR trim with 18-inch 14-spoke wheels, tasteful chrome accents, and available two-tone “Morocco” saddle-colored leather that complemented the vehicle’s already attractive styling and aggressive stance.
Truthfully, the Aura’s heavily Opel-influenced styling was more Rüsselsheim am Main than Springhill or Detroit, with its wide stance, short overhangs, deeply-flared fenders for all four wheel arches, rising beltline and gracefully arching roofline, and jewel-like LED tail lamps. Topped off by its attractive sheetmetal all-around, the Aura’s exterior exuded a high degree of quality, solidity and sophistication that was sorely lacking plastic-bodied Saturns of the past, but also from so many other midsize sedans with their, thin hollow-looking body panels.
Ride and handling also leaned more European, with a taut front strut and rear multilink suspension, thick front and rear stabilizer bars, and precisely-weighted steering. While not an all-out sports sedan, the Aura was praised for offering a firm yet comfortable ride, controlled road mannerisms, remarkably flat cornering, and overall enjoyable driving experience in a type of everyday athleticism associated with mainstream German cars.
Actual power numbers were nothing to balk at either, and the Aura was notable for eschewing the typical family sedan engine lineup of base 4-cylinder and optional V6, instead offering a pair of V6s at the time of its launch. Entry-level Aura XEs featured a 3.5-litre version of GM’s LZ4 OHV V6 producing 219 horsepower and 219 lb-ft torque and mated to a 4-speed automatic. The upscale Aura XR featured the 3.6-litre LY7 DOHC V6 producing an impressive 252 horsepower and 251 lb-ft torque, and mated to a new 6-speed automatic featuring manual shift mode controlled by then-novel for the class paddle shifters.
Late into its inaugural year, the Aura Green Line mild hybrid debuted, featuring the 2.4-liter LAT I4 (164 hp; 159 lb-ft) mated to a belt alternator starter and 4-speed auto, achieving EPA fuel economy ratings of 26/34/29. Beginning in 2008, a 2.4-liter LE5 I4 (169 hp; 160 lb-ft) mated to a 4-speed auto was added to the XE for buyers wanting better fuel economy but not the price premium of the Green Line. 2009 saw this engine gain a 6-speed automatic and availability extend to the top-line XR, and become the sole engine offering for the XE.
Performance aside, what was most impressive about the Aura was its ongoing sense of high quality and high value for the money. Undercutting comparable models from competitors by thousands, even the “base” XE model was noteworthy for its generous level of standard equipment that included 4-wheel disc antilock brakes, traction control, dual side front and side curtain airbags, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power windows/locks/mirrors, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, and 17-inch steel wheels. Available XE options included 8-way power drivers seat, 6-way powered passengers seat, heated cloth front seats, moonroof, remote start, and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The upscale XR added standard features including Stabilitrak electronic stability control, automatic climate control, heated front seats, 8-way power driver’s seat, steering wheel audio controls, in-dash 6-disc CD changer, universal garage door opener, remote start engine, and 18-inch alloy wheels. Most XRs came equipped with optional leather, faux woodgrain trim, and moonroof, while notable Aura options for its class included power-adjustable pedals and a panoramic moonroof. Unlike most competitors, in-dash navigation was never offered.
Possessing all of these positive virtues, one might say that the Aura sounded too good to be true. Well, in at least one area it was.
Physically speaking, the Aura’s one major shortcoming lay in the execution of its interior. Now don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that Aura’s interior was necessarily subpar for its class, as it was in fact better than a lot of competitors, chiefly other GMs. Furthermore, the Aura boasted an interior light years ahead of anything Saturn ever offered. Yet for a car exuding such a high quality and overall no-expense spared aura — for lack of a better term — the Aura’s interior didn’t live up to the high standards set by the rest of the car, with numerous areas of cost-cutting very evident.
While the Aura may have dazzled the press with its available two-tone Morocco brown leather, behind it lay an interior of questionable fit and finish, with lots of hard plastic surfaces all-over, substantial panel gaps, and flimsy-feeling switchgear and trim pieces. When compared to cars like the Accord, Camry, and Passat, the Aura’s interior simply didn’t measure up. To the typical midsize sedan buyer, however, this one major shortcoming was likely not a deal breaker as once again, the Aura had a great amount to offer for thousands less than these and other competitors.
Sales-wise, the Aura performed quite well in its short lifetime, selling a respectable 161,129 units in its barely three years on the market, even if a handful of them probably were to rental fleets, in typical GM fashion.
The ultimate crux in the Aura’s level of success, however, was the very fate of Saturn. In December 2008, during U.S. Congressional hearings as part of its plea for $12 Billion in federal loans and a further $6 Billion in line of credit, GM made clear its intent of ridding itself of the Saturn brand by any means. As a result, Saturn sales tanked. During the first quarter of 2009, Saturn sales plummeted 59 percent, aided by some 45 of Saturn’s 420 dealerships in the U.S. closing up shop. After the potential sale of Saturn to Penske Auto Group fell through, GM formally announced on September 3o, 2009 that it would be discontinuing the Saturn brand and closing all of its remaining dealers by October 31, 2010.
Saturn’s untimely demise, just as things were beginning to look as promising as ever since the brand’s initial debut, was unfortunate, especially for cars like the Aura. While the Aura’s strides were sadly in vain, there’s no denying the Aura was a car that challenged people’s conceptions of Saturn, and a car that proved GM could build an appealing and mostly impressive midsize sedan.
Berry Red 2007 AURA XE photographed in Bridgewater, Massachusetts – November 2019
Black Onyx 2007 AURA XE photographed in Denver, Colorado – September 2019