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SATURN: Faster and Better

Having been starved for good product for far too long, this division of General Motors is finally getting the kind of design and engineering that can make it a real contender, not the "coulda been" that has been its plight for the past several years.

There are two clichés that are appropriate of Saturn circa right now:

1. Good things come to those who wait
2. Practice makes perfect

Number-one relates to the current product initiative, which really started with the Sky, although some could argue that the Vue, introduced as a model year 2002, was really the first domestic small(ish) SUV that was ahead of its time (particularly if you take into account the fact that GM and Honda collaborated on a deal whereby the Vue is being fitted with 3.5 liter V6s sourced from Honda—an alliance, of sorts, way ahead of anything even proposed or thought about with Nissan, as the engine was first offered in the '04 model year). Still, overall, Saturn hasn't had a whole lot going for it, with the mainly forgotten L-Series (though in some ways, it was a harbinger of things to come when introduced in 2000), the Ion (saved from the axe recently by $3/gallon gas), and the Relay, vehicles that don't overwhelm in the design and/or engineering categories. But now not only is there the Sky roadster, but the Sky Red Line, a version of the base model that takes something that is already a grand execution of the Kappa platform (which is also used for the Pontiac Solstice) and, essentially via some rather impressive powertrain engineering, takes the car to a new level of performance, something that's not only been sorely lacking at Saturn for some time (some might argue since approximately Day One), but at GM as a whole (taking into account the number of nameplates it has in its portfolio and comparing it with those that make the market sit up and take notice in a positive way; there are, for example, the Chevy Corvette and the Cadillac XLR, but then the pickin's become rather slim).

What is the real factor of the Sky Red Line that makes a discernable difference? It's under the hood. It features a first for GM in North America: a direct-injection engine, a 2.0-liter turbocharged Ecotec. The engine is mated to either a Hydra-Matic 5L40 five-speed automatic or an Aisin AR5 five-speed manual. The importance of direct injection is that by injecting the fuel right into the combustion chamber, there is a more complete burn; one consequence is that it takes less fuel to get the same amount of horsepower achieved by a conventional port-injection system. As regards the horsepower, it provides 260 hp @ 5,300 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 rpm. This makes it GM's highest specific horsepower engine ever—2.1 hp/in.3 of displacement. A reason why direct injection isn't more widely deployed is because it is tricky. That is, they can be prone to timing issues (i.e., combusting when not wanted) and it is necessary to have a fuel system that can reliably and repeatably operate at high pressures. In the case of this engine, the pressure is as high as 2,250 psi.

The injectors are located below the intake ports in this engine, which makes it unlike other Ecotecs. Consequently, there is a modified A356 aluminum cylinder head deployed. The intake valves are stainless steel; the exhaust valves have sodium-filled stems for cooling (the sodium liquefies under operating temperatures and serves to conduct heat away from the valve face and guide and down to the stem). There is continuously variable valve timing; intake and exhaust timing are adjusted independently. The 319 aluminum Gen II engine block is common to other Ecotec engines, including a 2.4-liter version. The pistons are also aluminum. The crankshaft is drop-forged steel with induction heat-treated fillets and cross-drilled, chamfered oil passages. The twin-scroll turbocharger generates maximum boost of 20 psi. One advantage of using the direct-injection approach is that compared to port injection, the intake process is cooler, so the engine can operate at higher boost and compression (9.2:1) than is the case with conventional turbo-powered engines. Of course, there is an air-to-air intercooler to reduce the inlet air temperature.

Fully dressed, the engine comes in at just 305 lb.

And, of course, there are the external mods that are helpful in sending a message of serious motoring. Design cues include polished aluminum ends on the dual exhausts, 18-in. polished aluminum-alloy wheels, and a chrome bezel surrounding the functional brake cooling vents in the lower fascia area. Inside, there is a leather-wrapped steering wheel, seats and mats with Red Line embroidery, and stainless steel pedal covers.

The aforementioned L-Series was a car based on an Opel, the Vectra B, which thereby was an earlier rendition of what's occurring today, as Saturn openly embraces a European design approach, which is most obvious in the '07 Aura midsize sedan. This is as close to an approach to Euro-style (in this case a combination of sportiness and sophistication without Teutonic pretension) as GM has ever gotten in the U.S. market. As GM vice chairman of Product Development Bob Lutz has been saying for the past few years, Saturn has a dealership experience that's excellent and that it is time that there is product to match it. The Aura is arguably the vehicle that he's been talking about as a mid-size sedan with seating for five, it has far greater market potential than the two-seat Sky roadster.

The attention to detail is evident throughout the vehicle, from the clear housings for the halogen headlamps that flow into the quarter panels to the LED taillamps (evoking something of a "technical" appearance) at the rear. The use of chromed elements (a grille bar, window surround, bottom of decklid) is sufficiently restrained. There are standard 17-in. wheels and tires on the base XE model and 18-in. on the other trim, XR; in both cases (especially the latter), the wheel houses appear filled, not with the cave-like gaps that are common in many midsize sedans. On the inside of the Aura, there was a whole lot of attention paid to how each of the elements—from the IP to the center console to the door trim to the seats—harmonize and don't appear to be individual things that were sourced from various suppliers. There is a "Morocco Brown" interior option for the XR trim level, which is certainly distinctive, as in something that is an attractive yet uncommon look for vehicles. Yet while it is first-rate, it does reflect badly on some of the plastic wood trim on the IP, as it seems as though the wood grain is printed, not organic.

When asked about his biggest challenge as regards the Aura, Gary Kovacic, vehicle line director, Midsize Vehicle Line Team, answers that it was setting up the car to handle like a sport-sedan not like a run-of-the-mill midsize. And this is aided in that the car deploys the Epsilon platform that has been used by vehicles including the Opel Vectra, Saab 9-3, Malibu, Malibu Maxx, and Pontiac G6—in other words, they've had plenty of practice with the platform, and if it may not be the case that the Aura is "perfect," the practice has certainly moved them far along the learning curve. (Like the Malibus, incidentally, the Aura is built at the Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, KS.) What's key to note is that the experience with the previous models has paid off, and the body structure, deploying high-strength steel, a magnesium cross-car beam, reinforcements for the rockers, and the like contribute to a stiffness and solidity, key for a sport-like ride. This is accentuated by the deployment of MacPherson struts with aluminum L-shaped control arms and a direct-acting stabilizer bar in the front and a four-link independent suspension in the rear with either twin-tube gas shocks (XE) or monotube shocks (XR). The Ion has electric variable-assist rack-and-pinion steering. The Aura has hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering. When asked about it, Kovacic says that the superior on-center feel of the hydraulic system tipped the choice in its direction.

How serious are they about the Aura? Two things indicate that the adjective very can be used:

1. The XR model is equipped with the Hydra-Matic 6T70, which makes the Aura the first GM front-drive six-speed automatic transmission. Arguably, they weren't about to launch the six-speed in something that they didn't think would be a suitable platform. In addition to which, the forthcoming Aura Green Line will be the first GM hybrid passenger car (using a powertrain setup similar to the Saturn Vue Green Line).

2. The Aura XR is equipped with a 3.6-liter V6 with variable valve timing—the same engine that's available in the Cadillac CTS and SRX. Clearly, going to the Cadillac parts bin is a positive statement for the Aura.

Given the evidence of the Red Line and the Aura, it is evident that Saturn, to use a clichéd phrase, "has a bright future." Sometimes there's truth in the tried-and-true.