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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By David Thomas
December 5, 2008
Editor's note: This review was written in May 2007 about the 2008 Saturn Vue. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2009, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Saturn has always been GM's "different" brand. You know, the one that had hard-to-dent plastic body panels and a no-haggle pricing policy. Today, that different little brand no longer has plastic body panels, but it still has one of the highest customer-satisfaction ratings when it comes to the car-buying process. It just hasn't had many models that people wanted to buy.
That started to change last year when Saturn introduced three attractive new models: the Sky, the Outlook and the Aura, but those were in segments Saturn loyalists weren't used to. The Vue, though, is a familiar name that has been a big seller for the brand as one of the least-expensive SUVs on the market. It's completely changed for 2008, and this version will be the model that revolutionizes the brand, ridding it of the old, domestic-bashing stereotypes. The new Vue is stylish, it has fantastic road presence and its interior is arguably the best in the segment. Yes, this Saturn is truly different. Exterior You wouldn't believe how many test cars we get here at Cars.com that are either silver or gray. Those may be the most-purchased colors, but they don't make a car stand out, especially to jaded automotive journalists. The Deep Blue of the Saturn Vue XR I tested, however, made the stylish SUV look classier than any silver model, that's for sure.
Regardless of the color, the Vue is one of the most aggressively styled SUVs on the road, looking neither too masculine (Dodge Nitro), too boxy (Hummer H3) nor too odd (Honda CR-V). Every marketer will tell you that car shoppers are so accustomed to cars being relatively equal as modes of transport that their styling makes a significant difference in the buying decision. The Vue's looks should seal the deal.
The large chrome grille and teardrop-shaped headlights are probably the most masculine attributes, while the downward-sloping roof, ending in a radically angled rear hatch, exudes European design. The only angle that isn't a sure winner is the rear, but it gets a pass because the rest of the Vue is so over-the-top.
The Vue comes in base XE and upper-level XR trims. The XR trim level you see in these images features chrome door handles, chrome-tipped dual exhaust and 17-inch alloy wheels. The XE comes with body-colored door handles and side mirrors and 16-inch alloy wheels, as well as accent-colored lower body panels. Interior There's a lot to cover with the new Vue's interior. Because the Vue is an American version of a car designed for a global market, there are a few eccentricities, but it has been altered for domestic tastes.
The first thing I noticed was the rather large steering wheel and its brushed-nickel insert at the bottom. This feature was mostly praised by the staff, with the exception of one lone detractor. Personally, I thought the metal on the wheel and interior door handles was a very elegant touch, and just the right amount as to not overwhelm the cabin. I wasn't a fan of the fake wood trim on the tan dash, but neither am I fond of the plastic made to look like carbon fiber that replaces the wood trim in the Vue's other interior choice, gray.
Every other type of material in the cabin is clearly a step up from current GM products, even other new releases. Not only does it best other domestics, like the Ford Escape, it's also superior to top imports like the Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Santa Fe and Honda CR-V.
But (there's always a "but" when a review is this glowing), my test model had leather — the color is "Cashmere Leather," which confused my common sense meter — and not the base XE or XR's standard cloth. I was able to sit in a cloth XR, and while all the other pieces of the cabin were the same as the leather model, the cloth door inserts and seats were a noticeable step down. That step down in interior opulence is more significant than the leather's $1,075 option price. That's right, if you can afford one option I'm recommending leather here — that's how much it alters the overall feel.
The seats were supportive and straddled the line between cushy and firm. I could never decide if they were too soft or too solid, but, as Goldilocks would say, they weren't just right, either. There was plenty of headroom and legroom up front and in the backseat. The rear seats also recline. Rear passengers are treated to an upscale cupholder that exemplifies how superior even the most minute interior features are in the Vue. Usually such a feature is flimsy; in the Vue it's a solid tray that glides out of the center console.
The test car also had GM's upgraded navigation system ($2,145) and sound system ($325), but I've been pleased with the stock stereo in other new GM products.
There were a few interior oddities I still can't wrap my head around. The center console that runs between the front seats, which contains two cupholders and a storage area, was extremely low to the car floor, meaning you have to reach down a bit to grab a drink. My wife, at 5 foot 6 inches, complained mildly about this, but I too had noticed it because it's not the norm in most of today's cars and SUVs. There's also a small slot to the left of the steering wheel that's designed for European tollway cards, which are basically the size and shape of a credit card. For American drivers, a paper toll ticket or parking-garage ticket could also fit in here, or perhaps a Starbucks card, but I wouldn't advise anyone putting their credit card that close to the front window.
The parking brake lever is a trapezoidal contraption that reminded me of a piece off the Millennium Falcon; geeks will immediately think of "Star Wars" when they see it. It worked flawlessly, though, so I don't think anyone can complain about its nontraditional shape. If you start driving with your parking brake on, the Vue beeps at you. Now that's brilliant. Performance There are three engine choices for the Vue, including the base 2.4-liter four-cylinder in the front-wheel-drive XE, a 3.5-liter V-6 in the all-wheel-drive XE, and a 3.6-liter V-6 in both front- and all-wheel-drive XRs. I tested the 3.6-liter in a front-wheel-drive XR.
The XR's 257-horsepower V-6 is matched to a six-speed automatic transmission and is rated, according to new, stricter 2008 EPA guidelines, at 16/23 mpg city/highway for the front-wheel-drive version I tested. That's just slightly below most of the Vue's competition if you adjust their 2007 mileage numbers to account for the EPA's 2008 standards. The only V-6 model in the class with significantly better mileage is the Toyota RAV4.
2008 Saturn Vue 3.6-liter V-6
2008 Ford Escape 3.0-liter V-6
2007 Hyundai Santa Fe* 3.3-liter V-6
2007 Toyota RAV4* 3.5-liter V-6
Source: Manufacturer *Beginning with 2008-model-year vehicles, the EPA is using a new, more representative test to estimate gas mileage. The figures are lower than they would be using the 2007 method. The 2007 models have been adjusted using the EPA's new guidelines. All numbers are for FWD models.
While mileage suffers, performance excels in most areas important to everyday driving and comfort. There was ample acceleration (it manages zero to 60 in an impressive 6.7 seconds), nimble handling and smooth gear shifts, and the Vue does all this with an absolutely silent cabin. There's almost no engine noise and very little wind or road noise on even the most abrasive highway lanes.
Do the Vue's sporty nature and quiet road manners detract from the ride? Nope. It mutes bumps and potholes with ease, yet still gives the driver a good feel for the road. That is a tough combination to pull off in any segment, and it's one of the Vue's best attributes.
V-6 versions come with conventional hydraulic power steering, which should eradicate complaints about the previous generation's electric power assist — an unsatisfying and widely criticized feature that remains in the four-cylinder 2008 Vue, including the hybrid Green Line version.
Cars.com senior editor Joe Wiesenfelder found that our XR V-6 didn't snap back to center very well after turns, and it had dramatic torque steer. Many front-drive cars with any torque to speak of exhibit this, but nowadays most of them keep the vehicle going straight despite some wobble in the steering wheel, sometimes through the use of traction control. Under hard acceleration, our Vue's steering consistently jerked to the side and stayed off-center, inducing a sustained turn. We'll keep an open mind because this was an early production model. If you experience this — or don't — drop us an email.
The Vue is relatively heavy for its class, weighing in at 4,076 pounds. That weight makes for a reassuring feeling on the road, but it also contributes to body lean in tight cornering, like on highway offramps. This body lean isn't as bad as most modern full-size SUVs, and there's never a feeling that the car will tip over, but most of the Vue's compact SUV competition has almost neutralized this always-uneasy attribute.
The hybrid Vue Green Line will be on the market in late summer, with a high-performance model called the Red Line to follow in the fall. Cargo All SUVs, even the stylish ones, need to offer some cargo versatility. The Vue doesn't have the largest cargo area — 29.2 cubic feet with the rear seats up, versus 29.3, 35.7 and 36.4 cubic feet in the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, respectively. What the Vue lacks in space, though, it makes up for in ease of use.
The rear seats fold flat with a single pull of a latch on top of the seat backs. This automatically lowers the seat cushion a few inches as the seat back folds down, creating a truly flat floor.
Folded flat, the cargo area expands to 56.4 cubic feet, which is certainly big enough for most cargo hauling. There isn't much height to the space, though, which means it lags the competition significantly if you're looking at bare cargo-volume numbers. In real life, however, I loaded the Vue up at the grocery store, with golf clubs and luggage for a weekend getaway, and with a dog — not all at the same time — and it handled each with ease.
The best feature of the cargo area is a rail system that uses easily movable clasps that can be arranged in various configurations. A tent-pole-like cargo net can then divide the space using the clasps. When not in use, it can be easily folded in half and stored in a compartment beneath the cargo floor. This is one of the best features I've seen in an SUV; it does its job well, and creates no headaches for the user. The only drawback is that when the clasps are secured to the lower tracks, you can't raise the floor, so anything you might have stored underneath is stuck there.
Saturn says the European version of the Vue has a cottage industry of aftermarket supplies for this system, but I'd like to see Saturn make its own, especially some pet-friendly versions. Safety One factor that may keep some Saturn owners from rushing to the new Vue is its higher price. Well, not only is the '08 Vue completely new in style and performance, it also features a slew of standard safety features that were not available on its predecessor, and safety features cost manufacturers money.
There are six standard airbags, including front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags, and side curtain airbags in both rows that have sensors that deploy them during a rollover. Stability control, traction control and four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard, as are collapsing brake and gas pedals that protect a driver's legs in a collision. There is also a provision in the stability system to prevent trailers from dangerous swaying. All of these features are standard on all models.
As of publication, the Vue has not yet been crash tested. Saturn Vue in the Market This might sound odd after such a positive review, but the new Saturn Vue does have some obstacles to overcome. The price of entry is reasonable for the base XE, but it's quite easy to load up an XR to the $30,000 mark and beyond. The seemingly poor mileage in a slumping economy, complete with gas-price hysteria on the nightly news, might also turn this attractive SUV into a lame duck — especially because it will be competing with cars not yet advertising the new, lower 2008 EPA figures. Plus, this new Saturn might just be too "different" for past owners. The company will have to do some innovative marketing to combat these deceptive numbers and woo new or returning shoppers.
The good news is that the 2008 Vue matches or bests the competition on almost every front. If a perception problem is the SUV's biggest problem, Saturn should be quite pleased.