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So much for Saturn's Aura of invincibility

Saturn Aura Greenline

ted laturnus The Globe and Mail

During its brief existence, the Saturn Aura Greenline was the lowest-priced, mid-size hybrid sedan in Canada.

Sharing its drivetrain with the Vue Greenline SUV, it utilized a heavy-duty starter motor that shut the vehicle off at stoplights and restarted it when you took your foot off the brake. It also had a regenerative braking and battery charging arrangement that fed kinetic electricity back into the battery pack, and a gas-saving feature that shut the fuel off during deceleration.

It featured a nickel metal-hydride battery pack, and although there was an electrical power "boost" at take-off, the Aura Greenline did not run on pure battery power alone. It was, in GM's own words, a "mild" hybrid vehicle. This type of setup had its detractors, but if the goal of hybrid technology was to save gas and produce fewer emissions, it did qualify. The first year of the Aura - 2007 - won the North American Car of The Year award.

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Power was provided by GM's ubiquitous Ecotec four-cylinder engine, which, in this configuration, displaced 2.4 litres and developed 164 horsepower. It was joined at the hip to The General's equally ubiquitous four-speed Hydramatic automatic transmission. This made the Aura Greenline a less than lively automobile and it delivered rather sedate acceleration.

Fuel consumption was 8.5 litres/100 km in town and 6.2 on the highway. By way of comparison, a V-6-powered, non-hybrid Aura consumed 11.5 city/7.2 highway. So, a 25 per cent fuel economy improvement over its non-hybrid stablemate. Just out of interest, the same year of Honda Civic Hybrid delivered 4.7 city/4.3 highway.

The Aura Greenline also featured an energy-saving feature on the air conditioner, which had two settings. The "hybrid" mode limited the draw on the hybrid powertrain, but all accessories operated as usual when the vehicle was stopped and the engine shut down.

Looking beyond its hybrid technology, this was a thoughtfully designed, well-balanced and driveable sedan, thanks to its Opel origins.

It almost had an upscale feel to it, with a definite European flavour, even though it was manufactured in Kansas City. In terms of refinement, it was head and shoulders above the Ion sedan, for example, and came with things like air conditioning/climate control system, cruise control, heated outside mirrors, remote keyless entry, one-touch power windows and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS as standard equipment.

Alas, this was yet another Saturn product destined to be a footnote in automotive history. Despite its somewhat auspicious entry, it was gone after the 2009 model year.

Only one safety recall on file with Transport Canada and it mainly concerns the non-hybrid, 2009 model. Apparently, there can be issues with the transmission shift linkage, and it may not be in Park even though it looks like it is and the driver can take out the ignition key. This could, under some cases, lead to the vehicle rolling away on its own as well as preventing the driver from restarting it. This is a wide-ranging recall and affects a variety of GM products.

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The Aura - Greenline and otherwise - also has one of the longest lists of technical service bulletins this writer has ever seen. The 2007 model alone has 70, many of which concern the hybrid function, which can apparently just go away without warning. There are also myriad software and heating/cooling issues, including one rather disconcerting glitch that causes the engine to stall when the vehicle is stopped, and "chuggle" prior to stopping. There may also be problems with the engine oil plug not being fitted correctly and, as a result, coming loose, as well as unexplained drops in engine performance. Sounds like this particular GM product spent a lot of time in the shop.

Not too much info from Consumer Reports, although the 2009 model does get a better-than-average rating. Comments from owners include: "Looks nice. Dies on you," "Terrible transmission," and "Starter broken after three weeks."

Market research firm J.D. Power, meanwhile, gives the Aura an "average" grade for predicted reliability. However, this is based on all models, not just the hybrid.

From a base price of $27,000 and change in 2007, the Aura Greenline has dropped by more than half. Prices nowadays range from $10,000 to $16,000, depending on the year. Later models are a better bet in terms of reliability than those that were first out of the gate.

2007 Saturn Aura Greenline

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Original Base Price: $27,290; Black Book: $12,425; Red Book: $9,650

Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/Torque: 164 hp/159 lb-ft

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 8.5 city/6.2 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Toyota Camry Hybrid, Toyota Prius, Nissan Altima Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid

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