With a base price of $27,580, including a $715 destination charge, the 2005 Relay 3 that we tested is priced considerably higher than many of its better-designed, better-performing competitors. Just a few options pushed the sticker on our test vehicle to $29,295.
SHE: I taught school for 10 years and the phrase that kept coming to mind as I tested the Saturn Relay was the old euphemism, "social promotion." That's where you push the kid into the next grade level, even though he or she might not be quite ready for it. If I were to encourage consumers to buy the Relay, it would be the automotive equivalent of social promotion because I would be doing it just so that my hometown automaker, General Motors Corp., could keep up with the rest of the world.
HE: But isn't the real issue here whether GM actually is keeping up with the rest of the world? We put a lot of miles on the Relay, driving it under all kinds of conditions, including hauling loads of stuff from our old house to our new one. My impression of the Relay is that it is a very competent minivan - in a shark-infested sea of overachievers. And that makes the Relay and its sister models at Chevy, Pontiac and Buick no better than middle-of-the-road. That may be OK for some buyers, but it's not going to win GM lots of praise from the media or Wall Street.
SHE: Forget Wall Street. Anybody who's ever clipped a coupon can figure this thing out in about five minutes. A base Honda Odyssey will cost you about $25,710, and will give you superior safety protection for your kids, with standard front and rear head curtain air bags. Saturn gives parents a standard DVD entertainment system, but charges extra for side air bags - and you can't even get side curtains for middle- and rear-seat passengers.
HE: I didn't experience as visceral a reaction to the Relay as you did, but I still had some serious problems. Rear visibility is a huge issue with this van because the blind spot on the right side is so bad. Also, it's inexcusable that GM has had literally years to bring its minivans up to snuff, and yet the Relay and its siblings still have one of the weakest engines in the segment and are still using a less-efficient four-speed automatic transmission when many others have gone to five-speeds.
SHE: Independence is a big issue with women when it comes to minivans. We don't want to have to ask for help to take a seat out to haul cargo. But unlike the competition, including Chrysler, Honda and Toyota, the seat system in the Saturn is primitive. The third-row seats don't fold into the floor, like they do on the Odyssey and Sienna, and the second-row seats don't fold into the floor like they do on the Dodge and Chrysler minivans. I know, dear, that you struggled trying to remove the seats in the Saturn.
HE: You're absolutely correct. Although I have to admit that once I flipped the third-row seats flat and finally yanked the heavy bucket seats out of the second row, there was plenty of room to haul boxes, lamps and all your other accumulated household goods. You should give Saturn some credit for creating a nicer driving environment, too. The Relay we tested had some lovely touches, including some tasteful light-wood inserts and top-stitched leather. Still, the Saturn interior designers picked a hideous fabric for the seat inserts. It looked like something right out of the early Sixties.
SHE: The best thing about Saturn remains the pleasant dealership experience. And the fact that Saturn loyalists can finally buy a vehicle that seats seven people. If those two things are priorities, the Relay may actually work for you. As someone who is in and out of minivans all year, it doesn't work for me.
Anita and Paul Lienert are partners in Lienert & Lienert, a Detroit-based automotive information services company.