Late in 2001, Saturn finally entered the sport utility vehicle arena with its Vue (pronounced view), which is compact in size and intended to be carlike in personality. The Vue earned its name partly because it was intended to provide a fresh perspective to the SUV market. One of the Vues special technological touches is a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is 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.
Front-wheel-drive (FWD) and all-wheel-drive (AWD) Vues are available, and they may be equipped with a four-cylinder or V-6 engine. Because sales did not begin until December 2001, changes to the Vue for the 2003 model year are modest. The V-6 version is now offered with FWD and AWD. Solar glass reduces ultraviolet penetration into the interior. The badges have a new 3-D look. The optional leather-upholstered front seats are heated.
Saturn claims that the small CVT unit, called VTi and offered only with the four-cylinder engine, delivers 8 percent better gas mileage than a four-speed-automatic transmission. 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, said CVT Chief Engineer Karl Janovits. The use of two software maps means the VTi-equipped Vue has no motorboat feel or rubber-band effect like CVTs of the past, added Calibration Manager Karla Berger. The CVT principle was used in the late 1950s and early 60s on the Dutch-built DAF. General Motors intends to make the CVT unit available in other models, starting with the 2003 Saturn Ion.
The Vues rivals include the Honda CR-V, Mazda Tribute and other small SUVs. 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. During the 2003 model year, a new Active Expression limited edition will arrive, and it will be equipped with AWD, Light Yellow paint, a gray interior and a selection of retailer-installed accessories.
Developers sought 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 and dent-resistant polymer bodyside panels that are similar to those used on Saturns passenger cars. Full-length frame rails and a steel safety cage form a single welded structure.
A horizontal bar sits between large rectangular headlights, and the Vue has large flares above each wheel. Car-height bumpers that will resist 5-mph impacts are installed. The Vue measures 181.3 inches long overall, 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; AWD models have aluminum wheels.
Saturn stylists made user-friendliness a prime focus for the interior. The Vue seats five occupants, and its step-in height is 2 to 3 inches lower than usual in order to 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.
The Vues cargo volume is 30.8 cubic feet with the backseat up and 63 cubic feet with the seat folded down. The rear cargo area includes tie-down points, hooks and a cargo organizer. The gauges reside on a sloped panel. GMs OnStar communication system is optional.
Under the Hood
Two engines are available in the Vue. The base power plant is a 2.2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder that produces 143 horsepower. A European-built Getrag 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. Its always in a state of compression and is made up of 500 stacked elements.
A 181-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 engine that teams with 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 are available. Antilock brakes are also 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 an automatic transmission, this new SUV is more capable and comfortable than expected. Its ride quality is close to flawless on smooth pavement. The Vues 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.
Its handling cant be called sporty, but it is precise enough to send the Vue exactly in the right direction. Front and side visibility are excellent due in part to a very low cowl. The driver benefits from typical Saturn gauges that are large, fully calibrated and 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. The front occupants enjoy plenty of headroom 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 multitronic transmission slots between the CVT unit that Honda introduced for its Civic a few years back and the CVT that Audi offers in its A4 and A6. Hondas initial attempt was innovative and effective but noisy (but the latest version is smooth and refined), while the 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, and that increases the drivers tendency to wait for a transmission shift to occur but that doesnt happen because the CVT has no gears. Regardless of the extra noise, a CVT-fitted Vue is curiously appealing, especially for drivers who appreciate imaginative technology.