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The power train differences extend to the transmission as well. Our XR had the more advanced six-speed automatic; the XE gets a four-speed. Paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel are standard on the XR, and are active when the shifter is put in Manual mode. During various driving exercises, the six-speed's shifts were very noticeable. It was fun to use in manual mode, although difficult to shift on tight curves when the paddles vertically align at 12 and 6, as opposed to their straight-line 9 and 3 positioning.
We did like the solid feel of this engine-transmission combination, even if it didn't shift as smoothly as some of the more refined six-, seven-, and eight-speeds we've driven. But it's not necessarily engineered well for the car, as we could get extensive front-wheel spin from a standing start. The car does have traction control, but it's not enough to keep the engine in line, as our various fast starts lit up a "Low Traction" message on the instrument cluster display.
For a roomy sedan, the Aura handles well, helped along by stabilizer bars in the front and rear. The car's heavy feel inspires confidence in corners, and the wheels didn't break loose when we pushed it a little. Over rough pavement, we felt the jolts but they were quickly damped out.
Odd switch mounting
Traction control is provided by GM's StabiliTrak system. We were surprised to find the off switch for traction control mounted on the front of the console hatch, where a stray elbow could disengage it. The Aura also has anti-lock brakes on its four disc brakes, and stability control comes as part of the StabiliTrak system.
Air bag coverage is nicely complete, with standard front, front side, and curtain air bags around the cabin. A tire pressure monitor is also standard. In NHTSA testing, the Aura does very well, scoring five stars for front and side impacts. It gets four stars for rollover, but we've yet to see a car score five stars in that category. GM offers three years or 36,000 miles of bumper-to-bumper warranty, five years or 100,000 miles for major components, and a generous five years or 100,000 miles of roadside assistance.
Our test car was the 2007 Saturn Aura XR, with a base price of $23,945. It came equipped with the Premium Trim package ($800), which added leather to the seats, the steering wheel and the shifter; the Enhanced Convenience package ($425), for power passenger seat and pedal adjustment; and a power sunroof ($800). Premium floor mats and Morocco brown leather added $100 each, plus a $650 destination charge brought the total cost up to $26,820, making for a moderately priced big sedan.
The 2007 Saturn Aura and Buick Lucerne compare well, but we would give the edge to the Lucerne for its exterior styling and its lack of faux-stitched-leather door panels. Sorry, but we have a hard time getting over that last detail. For the same price, though less engine power, the Toyota Camry Hybrid makes a pretty compelling choice. Buyers who want the efficiency of a hybrid--and can wait until next year--should look for the upcoming Saturn Aura Green Line Hybrid, which we saw at the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show.