Like Always, like never before
By Lou Ann Hammond, Mon, 28 Aug 2006 08:00:00 PDT
Like Always, like never before. It was a phrase that Jill A. Lajdziak, General Manager, Saturn division, used when we were discussing the history of Saturn and where Saturn was headed. Lajdziak believes that Saturn is staying true to the core roots that gave it a cult like status. "The honesty by which Saturn does business, our safety record and our commitment to the environment. Our spirit of innovation is what pulling us forward." Inspired by the Opel, Saturn is now bringing out their new Aura.
Saturn says their main competitors are the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and the Volkswagen Passat and Toyota Camry. There are a group of serious mid-size 4-door sedan contenders: Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Impala, Dodge Charger, Kia Amanti, Lincoln Zephyr, Ford Five Hundred, Hyundai Azera, Mazda6, Mitsubishi Galant, and the Subaru Legacy.
Two trim levels of the Aura will be available starting in late summer: the XE, starting at $20,595 and the XR, starting at $24,595. The XE carries the 3.5-liter V-6 Variable Valve Timing (VVT) 4-speed automatic hydra-matic that gets 224 horsepower at 5,800 rpm with 220 lb.-ft of torque starting at 4,000 rpm. The XR carries the 3.6-liter V-6 Variable Valve Timing (VVT) 4-speed automatic hydra-matic that gets 252 horsepower at 6,400 rpm with 251 lb.-ft of torque starting at 4,000 rpm. As we weaved through the backroads of Bodega Bay we noted the price of gas, $3.33-$3.43 for regular unleaded, the fuel the Aura slurps at 23mpg.
I drove an XR that was berry red with a black leather interior. The base price on the XR is $23,945 with a destination charge of $650. The interior was enhanced with the premium trim option that included leather seats, leather wrapped steering wheel and a leather shift knob for an extra $800. An enhanced convenience package that includes a 6-way power front passenger seat with power adjustable pedals was an extra $425. The premium floor mats ($100), power sunroof ($800) and XM radio ($199) brought the price of the car to $26,919.
I was surprised by the comfort of the Saturn Aura's interior. The seat goes back to the B-pillar and recline even further. This makes sense to me and I've asked engineers about this before. With all the people driving solo on the roads to work we know the one place to put most the emphasis is the drivers seat. The second, in my opinion, should be the front passenger. I have what I call "intimate seating" where I sit with my husband, one leg bent under the other with my left elbow on the center console. I like to feel comfortable in this space, but sometimes the passenger seat is too confining. Not in the Saturn Aura. Because the seat goes all the way back to the B-Pillar I have extra legroom. I also like the sweeping curve in the door where one rests their arm. I would have liked a little less plastic feel and a bottle holder in the door map holder.
A six-speaker radio system that includes an auxiliary input jack for portable audio players is standard. General Motors has an array of audio systems, all optional for installation. All the necessities that used to be luxury are in the Aura as standard: a keyless remote fob, ambient temperature reading and a split folding rear seat.
These were pre-production cars and wouldn't you know I got the one car that had extra noise. I was taught that you can tell the tightness, "the fit and finish", of a car by rolling up the window and trying to put your fingers between the rubber and glass. I know it was only mine because I went through all the other Auras when we got back and none of the other car doors were as lose.
According to Steve Mortes, Product Manager, "styling is the number one reason to purchase in this segment. We are setting the direction for future product." The styling was described as "technical and conveying a premium appearance" by Clay Dean, GM design director for small and midsize cars. Basically, the car looks fresh and has all the styling cues that are in its segment. The only good/bad question I had was on the rear trunk. There was a chrome band at the bottom of the trunk that outlined the trunk instead of melting into the rear. My colleague, Frank Washington, and I discussed whether we liked it or not. Frank said if they had put the chrome along the entire back it would have looked like a Chevrolet, so he liked the chrome just on the trunk. I said that putting the chrome at the bottom of the trunk made the rear look smaller, thus giving one the perception that the trunk was smaller.
Lajdziak said that "we aren't going to lose focus of who we are. Our no-haggle, no-hazzle customers like it and it will be in the expanded portfolio. We lost customers and market along the way, but we are shoring up that equation. People who are predisposed to Honda will look at us because of our European Opel design influence. Honda has always had simple options for their vehicles, we are following their model."
Lajdziak also talked about operating locations, "Springhill (TN) is not necessarily where Saturn will always make Saturns. Most people don't realize that Coors isn't made in Colorado, that it is just marketing. We will analyze what is best for the future of Saturn and produce Saturns there." Sounds like there is a move in the works, so don't be surprised if you hear an announcement soon. The Sky Aura is built in Kansas. The Sky Redline will be out soon, as well as the Outlook crossover and a Vue green line a 2.4-liter Ecotec-based hybrid, known as a mild hybrid, will go on sale later in the year. According to Automotive News, General Motors is expected to replace the Ion with an imported model, a rebadged Opel Astra. The 2008 Saturn Astra is expected to go on sale at the end of 2007.
Saturn is climbing back up. According to a 2005 J.D. Power and Associates studies the Customer Service Index (CSI) for Saturn was ranked 3rd, at 905, with the industry average being 871. The Sales Satisfaction Index in 2005 for Saturn was ranked 7th, at 871, with the industry average being 842. And they have new product coming out for the next two years.