Compact SUVs are often the vehicle of choice for active young buyers who want four-door function without a dowdy sedan image. Saturn’s Vue joins some pretty heavy competition in the compact SUV segment, but it gives General Motors’ small car company a needed weapon in the battle for buyers.
I think of these small SUVs as tall station wagons with a rugged look. Their off-road capability is not really an issue for most drivers since they rarely see unpaved roads, much less dirt tracks. Their optional all-wheel-drive systems are a good hedge against bad weather, when they add safety and security in snow and ice, while the lack of a low-gear transfer case minimizes their off-road use.
Nicely styled and comfortably sized, the Vue uses Saturn’s popular polymer plastic body panels that are impervious to rust and parking lot dings. It comes in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and is offered with either the 143-horsepower, Ecotec 2.2-liter, four-cylinder or the 181-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6. Prices start at $16,900 for a front-wheel-drive four-cylinder and range to $23,150 for an all-wheel-drive V-6.
Our light-yellow test car was a new 2003 model called the Active Expression Vue. This special edition version had a gray interior, black exterior emblems and dealer-installed items such as the front grille guard, side step bars, black neoprene front seat covers, rubber floor mats and a rubber cargo liner. Its sticker price was $27,010.
Saturn’s first venture outside of the car realm is built on GM’s Theta architecture, a chassis structure that will also be the basis for the 2005 Chevrolet Equinox compact SUV. The Vue has a 106.6-inch wheelbase, which is nearly identical to the larger Saturn L-Series sedan. The tall SUV body has a carlike chassis platform, and that results in ride and handling that are much like that of a midsize sedan.
The 181-horsepower engine and automatic transmission in the all-wheel-drive test car had decent pep. For 2003, it is offered with front-wheel drive, whereas before the V-6 required all-wheel drive. The smaller, Ecotec four-cylinder comes with a five-speed manual or a CVT automatic transmission that Saturn calls the VTi. The VTi uses a pair of variable-diameter pulleys and a steel belt. There are no fixed gears as in a regular transmission, yet the CVT is so efficient it gets the same fuel economy as the manual.
Saturn’s all-wheel-drive system has a front transfer case and a driveshaft to the rear axle. When the system detects the front wheels slipping, it automatically shifts a portion of the drive to the back wheels. Honda, Subaru, Ford and Mazda all use similar systems. The beauty of such a system is a seamless transfer of torque from slipping wheels to those with more traction.
Inside, the layout of the Vue will look familiar to Saturn owners. To me, the plastic surfaces used throughout the interior tend to be hard and uninviting. Power window switches are located on the center console rather than the door panels, and the bottom seat cushions could use more length for better thigh support.
Hauling large items is relatively easy. Folding the 70/30 rear seat is a one-hand operation, as it should be. Small items that might slide around the rear cargo area can be placed in a fold-out plastic bin that resides under the cargo floor. While this bin is pretty light weight, it might be useful for holding small grocery sacks.
Front airbags are standard and side curtain, head-protection airbags are a $395 option that are certainly worth the price.
The Vue rides on a four-wheel independent suspension and has electric power steering. The steering was very light, at times almost too much so for my taste. Anti-lock brakes are a $600 option that I would like to see as standard on the topline model.
The base price of the test vehicle was $23,150. Options included OnStar, power sunroof, side curtain head-protection airbags, anti-lock brake and the Active Expression package. The sticker price was $27,010.
Three years or 36,000 miles.
Point: The Vue is a key offering for Saturn because SUVs are often the vehicle of choice for young buyers. The Vue has clean styling, polymer plastic body panels, two engine choices and optional all-wheel drive. Side curtain head-protection airbags are also available.
Counterpoint: Interior plastic surfaces are not especially inviting, the seats could use longer bottom cushions and the power window switches are mounted on the center console.
Engine: 3.0-liter, 181-hp V-6
Transmission: automatic All-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 106.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,491 lbs.
Base price: $23,150
As driven: $27,010
Mpg rating: 19 city, 25 hwy.