The last time I tested a Vue was back in 2002, when it was introduced as Saturn's first sport utility vehicle, and I found it pleasant but lackluster.

Vue remains Saturn's only SUV, and although essentially unchanged, it has been improved and upgraded enough to become a serious competitor among the growing ranks of compact SUV crossovers.

Saturn fixed the things I complained about in 2002, such as Vue's then-chintzy interior. For 2006, Vue gets a mild face lift and vastly improved interior trim, along with standard OnStar and other safety features. The Vue that I drove also had an optional 250-horsepower V-6, designed by Honda, that provides loads of seamless power.

With a base price slightly more than $21,000 for the upgraded V-6 model, or about $17,000 for the base model with a four-cylinder engine, Vue seems like a bargain compared with competitors from Ford, Honda, Toyota or even Hyundai.

Although I appreciated the improvements for 2006, the big news for Saturn Vue is what's coming later this year: a gas-electric hybrid.

A 2007 model, it will be General Motors' first real hybrid vehicle. GM folk note there already are semihybrid versions of its big pickups, but those function more as workplace generating stations than actual fuel-saving hybrids.

Called the Green Line (as opposed to the existing Red Line performance model) the hybrid Vue has the notable advantage of being only about $2,000 more costly than the standard gas-powered Vue, instead of the $3,000 to $5,000 extra charged by competitors.

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The lowdown

PERFORMANCE: The same powerful V-6 that hauls the performance Vue Red Line is now available for the standard Vue instead of an anemic 143-horsepower four. The 250-horse V-6 has such favorable tweaks as variable valve timing and sequential fuel injection. With a 0-60 time under eight seconds, the Vue V-6 is one of the fastest SUVs in the compact segment, while still scoring decent gas mileage. The engine is smooth and quiet, much better than the 200-horsepower V-6 that it replaces.

DRIVABILITY: The Vue V-6 has the standard soft characteristics of a family SUV. But the ride can still get harsh and noisy over rough pavement. Handling is pretty good, with some body sway, and the steering has better response and road feel than earlier versions. Based on a short-wheelbase version of Chevrolet Equinox/Pontiac Torrent, Vue feels more athletic than either sibling. The test Vue came with front-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive available.

Despite the stronger engine, the Vue V-6 still soldiers on with archaic drum brakes in the rear. Four-wheel discs should be standard.

STYLING: Saturn updated the look of Vue with a bigger, brighter grille and more prominent jeweled headlights up front and restyled taillights and bumper in back. Not a bad look, but the distinctive Saturn style has been lost for a more generic SUV design. INTERIOR: Considering the price tag, the Vue's new interior is downright plush, with attractive shapes, a quality feel and, in the test Vue, a splash of good-looking wood trim.

BOTTOM LINE: With its sharp new interior, strong V-6 engine and an affordable hybrid on the way, Vue takes its place among the top competitors and still undercuts them in price.

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RELATED

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door, compact sport utility, front-wheel drive.

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 250 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, 242 pound-feet torque at 4,500 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

Wheelbase: 106.6 inches.

Overall length: 181.3 inches.

Curb weight: 3,478 pounds.

EPA rating: 20 city, 28 highway.

Highs: Engine performance, attractive interior, value pricing.

Lows: Noisy ride, generic styling, rear drum brakes.

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PRICING

Base price: $21,390.

Price as tested: $26,200.

OPTIONS

* Power sunroof: $725.

* Leather seats, trim: $695.

* Upgraded audio with 6-CD changer and MP3 hookup: $650.

* Comfort package, with power driver seat and heated front seats: $595.

* Side curtain air bags: $395.

* XM satellite radio: $325.

* 17-inch alloy wheels: $300.

* Chrome package: $295.

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For more on the Saturn Vue, go to autos.azcentral.com.