Saturn is finally entering the sport utility arena with the VUE (pronounced view), which is compact in size and intended to be carlike in personality. The VUE earned its name partly because it is intended to provide a fresh perspective to the sport utility market. One of the VUEs special technological touches is a continuously variable transmission (CVT), similar to the one thats been available on the Honda Civic for several years. It operates with no gears. Another innovation on the VUE is electronically assisted power steering.
Saturn claims that the small CVT unit, called VTi and offered only with four-cylinder engines, delivers higher gas mileage than a four-speed-automatic transmission; the CVTs gas mileage is 8 percent better. Tested to the same standards as a regular automatic, it also has fewer parts and uses special fluid. The VTi gives Saturn the ability to have a wide ratio spread in a small package, says CVT Chief Engineer Karl Janovits.
In addition, there is no disturbance in the acceleration as a result of having a shift, says Calibration Manager Karla Berger. The use of two software maps means the VTi-equipped VUE has no motorboat feel or rubber-band effect, like CVTs of the past, Berger adds. The CVT principle was used in the late 1950s and early 60s on the Dutch-built DAF, which was sold in the United States. General Motors expects to make CVT units available in other models, starting in 2003.
Front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive VUE versions are available. Rivals include the Honda CR-V, Mazda Tribute and other smaller SUVs. Production began in the fourth quarter of 2001, and the VUE began to reach Saturn dealerships by December 2001. The VUEs price starts as low as $16,835, which includes the destination charge.
One major design goal was to make the VUE instantly recognizable as a Saturn, yet give it a look and personality all its own. The VUE has space-frame construction, as well as dent-resistant polymer bodyside panels that are similar to those used on Saturn sedans, coupes and wagons. Full-length frame rails and a steel safety cage form a single welded structure.
A horizontal bar sits between big rectangular headlights, and the VUE gets large flares above each wheel. Car-height bumpers are installed, ready to resist 5-mph impacts. Measuring 181.3 inches long overall, the VUE rides a 106.6-inch wheelbase, spans 71.5 inches wide and stands 66.5 inches high with an 8-inch ground clearance. The spare tire fits inside beneath the load floor. The VUE has a fully independent suspension and 16-inch tires, and AWD models have aluminum wheels.
Saturn stylists have made user-friendliness a prime point for the interior, which seats five occupants. The VUEs step-in height is 2 to 3 inches lower than usual, which will ease entry and exit. The front-passenger seatback folds flat, and rear occupants have a 70/30-split, folding bench with a two-position recliner. Cargo volume is 30 cubic feet with the backseat upright and 63 cubic feet with the seat folded down; the rear cargo area includes tie-down points, hooks and a cargo organizer. Up front, gauges reside on a sloped panel. GMs OnStar communication system is optional.
At the Chicago Auto Show in February 2001, Saturn exhibited a pair of specially fitted VUEs to demonstrate that many owners are expected to customize their vehicles with add-on accessories.
Under the Hood
Two engines are available. The base power plant is a 2.2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder that produces 143 horsepower. A European-built five-speed-manual transmission is standard, and the optional unit is a VTi continuously variable transmission that has no conventional gearing. Instead, it operates with two variable-diameter pulleys and a special steel belt that are made up of 500 stacked elements and always in a state of compression.
A 181-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 engine that teams with only a five-speed-automatic transmission is optional. Available AWD can smoothly transfer up to 100 percent of the engines drive torque to the rear wheels if the front wheels begin to slip.
Curtain-type airbags that deploy in side-impact collisions and protect the heads of outboard occupants will be available, and antilock brakes are optional. Three sets of child-safety seat anchors are installed in the rear.
Saturn has done an admirable job of taking the typical boxy SUV profile and giving it a special sort of character. With a V-6 engine and automatic transmission, this new SUV is more capable and comfortable than expected, with ride quality thats close to flawless on smooth pavement. Acceleration falls short of phenomenal, but performance is reasonably eager for a vehicle in this class. Some engine blare turns up when the pedal is pushed hard, but its not objectionable.
Although its handling cant be called sporty, it is precise enough to send the VUE exactly in the right direction. Front and side visibility are excellent, helped by a very low cowl. The driver benefits from typical Saturn gauges big, fully calibrated and very easy to read.
Getting in and out of the VUE is exceptionally easy, thanks to the low step-in height. The seats may appear a little unconventional, but they are more comfortable and supportive than expected. Front occupants enjoy plenty of head- and legroom. While rear space is also ample, the rear seats are unpleasantly hard; the seatbacks are especially firm and feel almost like the unwanted center rear position in so many of todays vehicles.
In both subtlety and performance, the new multitronic transmission slots between the CVT unit that Honda introduced for its Civic a few years back, and the continuously variable transmission that Audi recently launched for use in its A4 and A6. Hondas initial attempt was innovative and effective but noisy, while the new CVT-equipped Audis are sophisticated, swift and quiet.
Acceleration with a CVT-equipped VUE is sufficiently eager, but it wont set any records. Engine noise while accelerating is abundant, which increases the drivers tendency to wait for a transmission shift to occur but this doesnt happen because the CVT unit has no gears. Regardless of the extra noise, a CVT-fitted VUE is curiously appealing, especially for drivers who appreciate imaginative technology.