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The gasoline version of the 2007 Saturn Aura impressed automotive journalists so much that the car won this year's title of North American Car of the Year. Now it's going green. Making use of the same Belt Alternator System hybrid-lite technology that we first saw in the Vue Green Line last year, the 2007 Aura Green Line is the second hybrid from Saturn, which promotes it as the cheapest hybrid car on the market. In keeping with this mission, there are precious few frills on the Aura Green Line: a basic, easy-to-use stereo and an off-board navigation service constitute the sum of its gadgetry. While its hybrid drive train may not be as sophisticated as that of other manufacturers, the Saturn Aura Green Line does succeed in its mission of delivering significantly improved gas mileage over its award-winning gasoline counterpart.
Test the tech: OnStar off-base
One of the few digital highlights of our 2007 Saturn Aura Green Line was GM's OnStar telematics system, which on our test vehicle included the Connections and Directions turn-by-turn navigation service. Unlike LCD-based systems, OnStar's in-car navigation delivers automated voice-guided directions and text-based information to the car's in-dash display. We resolved to test OnStar to the point of breaking by requesting directions and then willfully disobeying its guidance. To set one's destination via OnStar, the driver has to press the blue OnStar button, which connects to a real, live OnStar representative (GM recently announced a partnership with MapQuest to enable drivers to send routes directly from a computer to the car, cutting out this step, but we like the human touch).
Being immediately connected to the OnStar rep, we told her that we needed to get to Tehama Street, a small, back alley near CNET's headquarters in San Francisco. This is where the first of our journey's problems began. According to the nice lady, OnStar was experiencing technical difficulties due to a disruption to its cellular network coverage. As such, the system was unable to send out the text data that we would need for our journey. (Interestingly, we experienced a similar outage the last time that we tried to use the service in our review of the 2007 Chevy HHR in June).
The OnStar rep told us that this kind of outage happened from time to time, and that there was a workaround: she would read out a list of the turn-by-turn directions, which we could record and play back to ourselves throughout the journey. We could activate playback by pressing the phone button and saying "Adviser playback." This would then give us the option of hearing the list of directions either from the start or from our last position. It sounded like a reasonable alternative--unless we took a wrong turn, in which case all subsequent directions would be wrong, and we would have to start the process over again by calling in to OnStar for new directions.
Steeled with optimism, we resolved to give it a go. Starting out from St Joseph's Drive (see map) we were told by the recorded voice to "continue north to Geary Boulevard and turn right." We pulled off, drove north on St Joseph's, came to a T-junction, and turned right at what we thought must be Geary Boulevard. Alas, it was not. We had found ourselves on O'Farrell Street, and with no means of recalculating the route, we were left to our own devices to find our way to the destination. Rather than call back, we opened the glove box and pulled out a map.
In the cabin
The interior of the 2007 Saturn Aura hybrid is fitting for a car that promotes itself as "the lowest priced hybrid on the market." In contrast to other hybrids, the Aura's cabin is conspicuously low tech with very few obvious gadgets to play with. Interior materials are plain but tasteful: beneath the black plastic cowl, the Aura features a strip of metallic, matte plastic trim, which brings some welcome brightness to the dash. As we found in the gasoline-only Aura, fit and finish are less pleasing to the eye, and the misalignment between the door panels and the dash sill in our test car was particularly noticeable.
As we have observed in the past, there is more to GM's factory-installed stereos than meets the eye. We found the same with the Aura Hybrid. While the car's standard (and only available) stereo looks like it might struggle to read compact discs, it is in fact a surprisingly sophisticated digital audio player with the ability to play and index MP3 and WMA discs. Despite its simple dot-matrix display, the Aura's stereo shows full ID3 tag information for folder, artist, and song title with more than 20 characters visible at one time. Moreover, when playing compressed-audio-format discs, a soft button enables drivers to index all the songs on a disc by sorting the ID3 tag information into an alphabetized list for albums and artists. With the five-minute sort process complete, drivers have a very intuitive and easy-to-use means of navigating dozens of songs on their homemade discs.