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On the road, the Saturn Aura behaves like a European family sedan. It has a taut feel with good steering quality and an overall impression that the brakes, suspension and powertrain are in agreement with each other. This is not surprising, given the car's structural roots, which are shared with the fine-driving Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra.
The new standard engine for 2008 is a 2.4-liter four, essentially the same 16-valve, dual-overhead-cam (DOHC) Ecotec unit that GM uses in the Chevrolet Cobalt and Malibu, albeit with detail differences.
Another version of this 2.4-liter engine powers the new Aura Green Line hybrid, where it is rated 164 horsepower at 6400 rpm, and 159 pound-feet of torque at 5000. In the hybrid it is coupled with a 4kW (about 5.4 horsepower) electric motor and a conventional four-speed automatic transmission. Saturn emphasizes the low initial cost of this setup, noting that, like other hybrids, the Green Line saves fuel by shutting off its engine while idling and during deceleration, and by using regenerative braking to recharge the 10kW nickel-metal hydride battery.
Note the Aura Green Line's gasoline engine is much more powerful in proportion to its electric motor than that in the Toyota Prius (76 horsepower gasoline, 67 horsepower electric) or Honda Civic Hybrid (110 horsepower gas, 20 horsepower electric). The Green Line's electric motor also develops significantly less torque for low-speed acceleration (44 pound-feet, against 76 for the Civic and a whopping 295 for the Prius). This suggests its gasoline engine might have to cut in sooner. That said, with 159 pound-feet of torque available from its gas engine alone, the Green Line should be able it uphold its honor in any traffic situation.
The optional 3.5-liter V6 for the XE is being phased out. It's rated at 219 horsepower for 2008. We found the 3.5-liter could be a touch smoother and quieter under full-throttle, but it delivers strong acceleration performance. Even better, the engine quiets back down to near silence as soon as cruising speeds are attained. The 3.5-liter comes with a four-speed automatic.
The XR's 252-hp 3.6-liter V6 is considerably stronger and more relaxed in character, thanks to more sophisticated engineering: a higher compression ratio, dual overhead camshafts, and four valves per cylinder. The 3.6-liter comes with a six-speed automatic featuring Tap-Shift paddles on the steering wheel to make manual shifting faster and more convenient.
Fuel economy for the 2008 Aura XR is an EPA-rated 17/26 mpg City/Highway.
The fully independent suspension on the Aura splits the difference between ride quality and handling, both of which are quite good. While handling feels much like that of the Saab 9-3 with which the Aura shares its architecture, the ride quality is more like that of a Toyota Camry, known for its smoothness. Furthermore, thanks to the use of sound-deadening materials everywhere from the firewall to the side glass and wheelwells, the Aura's interior is near-silent even at speeds over 75 mph.
In the V6 models we've driven, the variable-ratio power steering has been well weighted at highway speeds, offering plenty of road feel; while with just 2.8 turns lock-to-lock, it's plenty helpful in low-speed parking-lot maneuvers. Offsetting that, however, is a particularly wide 40.4-foot turning circle. The four-cylinder models come with a different power steering system with electromagnetic rather than hydraulic assist.
All Aura models feature four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. We found they felt good and worked well in normal driving. All Auras come with traction control, and the hybrid and V6 models come with StabiliTrak, GM's excellent electronic stability control system.