Saturn Vue car reviews

Review Notes: Saturn Vue
Offspring of a Eurowagon and an SUV
Unusual features
Gas mileage, continuously variable automatic, V6 speed
Cruise control, Saturn, electric steering
Above Average In:
Power (V6), gas mileage, handling, dealer experience
Needs Work In:
Five-speed automatic, price

The latest SUV-that-drives-like-a-car comes from a moderately unlikely source, Saturn. The experimental auto company, formed by General Motors to show that even an American company could produce an excellent ownership experience, was ignored for years, as it shamed the rest of the giant corporation with its high customer loyalty and ability to sell, well, very overpriced economy cars to people who normally would go for imports or more expensive vehicles. Recently, though, GM rediscovered Saturn, giving it a larger sedan and wagon (based on an Opel), redesigning the core economy cars, and providing a new all-wheel-drive SUV based on that same Opel. GM has generally been careful to keep the Saturn image intact, so that the Saturn Vue looks like a Saturn, right down to the front clip and the plastic body panels. It's a tough trick to keep all your cars recognizable without making them identical or silly, but Saturn has managed it so far.

The Vue comes with a neat new continuously variable transmission (CVT) which avoids the off-putting feel of prior versions from Honda and others both through mechanical engineering and by having two programs, one for acceleration and one for cruising. The end result is rather good acceleration from the four cylinder engine coupled with high gas mileage. That's not the version we tested; our test vehicle was the V6, which comes with a five speed automatic and a rather steep price tag.

The V6 has plenty of power, and we enjoyed the whistling noise some part of the car made as we accelerated from a stop. Gas mileage is good for this type of vehicle, a minivan-like 19 city, 25 highway (EPA estimates), despite the quick V6; the four actually nears 30 mpg on the highway. However, the transmission, despite its plethora of speeds, tended to lurch into gear, and after hard acceleration would pause before upshifting. It also sometimes downshifted prematurely while coasting. Overall, we hope Saturn works on refining the five-speed automatic; at the moment, it's not ready for prime time, and not up to the standards of General Motors.

Another neat new use of technology is the electric steering assistance, which is bound to become more popular as a way to increase power and economy slightly. By removing the drag of the belt-drive power assist, electric steering gives the engine a slight decrease in load when not actually in use; it's also unlikely to suddenly disappear if a belt snaps (admittedly, a rare event nowadays).

The rest of the fancy technology is in the standard features (at least, on our AWD V6) - built in theft deterrent system, autodimming rear view mirror with built in compass and thermometer, filtered air conditioning, and the like. The engine itself is fully modern with twin cams and four valves per cylinder; we suspect it was borrowed from GM Europe (Opel/Vauxhall). There are quite a few standard features, including power locks and windows, air conditioning, and a rear wiper/washer, which is good because the base price on our test vehicle was $22,575. That's more than a Jeep Liberty, which feels more refined and can go off-road, and more than the Pontiac Aztec or most standard minivans. Base models start at a more reasonable $17,000, which is still minivan and Liberty territory; but in this area, the Vue also goes up against a number of less desirable mini-SUVs.

Handling is surprisingly good, especially for a relatively large vehicle, and the Vue seems very composed when thrown around sharp turns around the town or on the highway. The all wheel drive helps with squeal-free takeoffs, even under heavy throttle and around a turn. The Vue seems much more agile than most SUVs, even those based on cars.

The ride is comfortable if on the stiff side, with very good isolation of sudden, sharp shocks. Poor road surfaces are transmitted to the interior, but without too much discomfort. Some engine vibration seems to be present, and wind noise is notable at highway speeds. Overall, the balance between ride and handling is very good.

The interior is well-designed, functional and pleasant, with two-tone beige plastics and a black center console and instrument panel. An oversized speedometer and tachometer are flanked by good-sized fuel and heat gauges, making visibility good across the board. The cruise control is mounted on the steering wheel, lacking only a "cancel" button. We like the way the key goes into the instrument panel rather than the side of the steering wheel, so that you can always see what you're doing.

Controls are generally good, though the right hand stalk can be hard to get used to - it has one "mid-mount" knob for the rear wiper/washer, and one for the interval of the front wipers. There are three sets of labels on the stalk, making experimentation the best way to figure it out.

The center console contains not just the gearshift, but also the four power window controls. In the back, passengers have their own door-mounted controls, while in the front, the driver and passenger have similar buttons which operate the power locks. The power mirrors are also controlled from the center, rather than the door. The gearshift is interesting, because on the continuously variable transmission, it has Drive, Intermediate, and Low settings - these adjust the computer program used to determine what ratio the transmission will take. To save money the same shifter is used with the five-speed automatic, with I being roughy equivalent to an overdrive lockout, and L trying to keep the car in one of the two lowest gears.

The vent system is well designed, with three large rotary knobs and three buttons for easy and full control. The vent fan is quiet but powerful, and demisters seem well aimed. Just under the vents is an area for sunglasses and such, while above it is a rather good stereo system which looks totally different from other GM radios - and a bit taller. Sound directionality is aided by well-placed tweeters in front.

Between the front seats is a small but deep covered center console, along with two primitive and moderately shallow cupholders.

The front seats seem to have been lifted from a minivan, with their comfort, support, and fold-down armrests. Rear seats are more sedan-like, with a 20/30 split to increase cargo space. Lighting is good throughout the interior, with a clearly marked off/door/on switch on the dome light, and two front personal lights activated by a press.

The hatch area includes a standard, and unusually useful, organizer which unfolds from the otherwise-flat floor to quickly provide divided space for grocery bags or other objects. Depressions on either side are also useful for keeping things from flying around in back.

Overall, the Saturn Vue is a sizable step forward in small SUVs, outclassing competitors like the Subaru Forester and many small Japanese SUVs. However, those who really go off-road, or who want a more luxury feel, may wish to look at the Jeep Liberty, and those who want more space may wish to ride in GM's own minivans. It should be noted that few other cars come with the Saturn experience - that is, in general, friendly, competent dealers who don't treat customers like dirt. When you compare costs, consider the convenience of service and the fact that you're tied to a dealer for at least three years. That might be a good enough reason to pass up a CR-V and visit your local, non-patronizing Saturn dealer.