An attractive sport utility vehicle is just what the doctor ordered for Saturn, General Motors' highly regarded, but far-from-exciting, small-car division.

Saturn has been suffering from buyer-interest deficit disorder, and the compact VUE, with its muscular shape, roomy interior and moderate price, has brought a much-needed dose of attention to the Tennessee automaker.

Saturn's basic S-Series cars, which haven't changed much since they first came out with considerable fanfare as GM's homegrown import fighters, have faded from view while the Asian automakers cranked up their small-car offerings. And the capable but dull L-Series cars remain slow sellers.

Now the company best known for high-quality, affordable, small cars sold in consumer-friendly dealerships applies its virtues to an SUV. The most noticeable family trait is the polymer door skins and fenders that are rustproof and dent resistant.

VUE (which Saturn insists on capitalizing) lands in a crowded segment filled with many fine small SUVS, such as Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Toyota Highlander and Jeep Liberty. And let's not forget Hyundai's popular Santa Fe, VUE's most direct competitor in price and target market.

What VUE has going for it is Saturn's reputation for reliability and customer satisfaction, as well as decent driving characteristics and stable ride. With its rich red paint job, the test truck was appealing. From the front, it's instantly identifiable as a Saturn.

But there are some problems. VUE may have a nice highway ride and may corner better than most SUVs, but the steering is vague and numb. This is Saturn's first steering system that is powered electrically, which eliminates a hydraulic pump. It needs work.

Road feel is almost nil, and if a driver turns the wheel when starting out from a stop, such as pulling away from a parking space, there is a long moment of heaviness before the power kicks in.

The soft suspension is generally well-controlled, but a few pulls right to left on the steering wheel, such as you might experience in an avoidance maneuver, will set the body swinging unpleasantly.

The interior, though comfortable and functional, seems chintzy, with too much unadorned plastic and plain fabric. The cover over a center storage compartment was noticeably thin and flimsy. Even a nicely designed cargo framework that folds up from the floor of the rear bed seems brittle and ready to break.

Engine power from the upgraded 181-horse V-6 is strong, with just a bit of harshness under acceleration, but quiet and refined under way. In the test VUE, the five-speed transmission was lethargic, holding each gear too long and shifting sluggishly. At moderate acceleration, the shift from second to third lasted forever.

The heavy tailgate took a good slam to close.

Base engine for VUE is Saturn's double-overhead-cam four, which puts out 143 horsepower, and comes with a five-speed stickshift or a new continu ously variable transmission, which changes gear ratios without shifting as speed builds.

The V-6 comes only with automatic. Four-cylinder VUEs can be had with front-wheel or all-wheel drive, and the V-6 models come only in AWD.

Base price for a four-cylinder is around $17,000.

The test truck came well-equipped, including such standard features as power windows and mirrors, cruise control, power outlets in the cargo area, roof rails and 16-inch alloy wheels. The only options were a stereo upgrade at $220, floor mats, $70, and destination, $510.

Options not included on the test VUE were anti-lock brakes and side window curtains, two safety items that should be considered.

Despite its flaws and glitches, I found the VUE to have plenty of appeal. I liked the way it drove through traffic and thought it would be a good choice for a road trip.

With all-wheel-drive, VUE is ready for dirt-road meanderings or trips to snow country (if it ever snows again).