Souped-up Saturn SUV aims for male audience

MILFORD--Before I sat down to write about the 2004 Saturn Vue Red Line sport utility vehicle, I did an informal online poll of my girlfriends to see if they even understood what "Red Line" meant.

One thought it had something to do with preventing people from buying houses in certain neighborhoods. Another thought it was a hospital crisis. One asked if it was a kind of navigation system.

Nobody guessed that it was a reference only automotive performance enthusiasts would readily understand. On a vehicle's tachometer, which counts the number of engine revolutions per minute, the "Red Line" marks the maximum speed at which the engine can safely be operated.

The combination of "Saturn" and "Red Line" is something of an automotive oxymoron.

Saturn has often been the brand of choice for soccer moms -- popular for its affordable prices, no-hassle sales experience, plastic exterior body panels that don't rust or ding, and sterling service reputation.

But now, Saturn -- like Volvo and other female-friendly brands -- wants to be something more.

It wants to jump on the performance bandwagon. It wants to offer products that appeal to men who lust after BMWs.

That's why we now have the Vue Red Line -- a souped-up Saturn with a lowered body, add-on plastic body parts to improve aerodynamics (called "ground effects"), a three-inch chrome exhaust tip, 18-inch wheels and tires that the company describes as "aggressive" and an optional "electric lime" paint job.

The Red Line package, which is on sale now, costs $1,995, giving my amply equipped five-passenger, all-wheel-drive Saturn Vue Red Line test vehicle a whopping $29,910 sticker price.

My immediate impression: The Vue Red Line is an uneven package that doesn't seem to justify the nearly $30,000 price tag.

What's under the hood -- a Honda engine -- is terrific.

But I wish Saturn would have lavished more time and money on the Vue Red Line's interior, which looked tacky and wasn't as user-friendly as I expected for the steep price.

My attitude is, why bother tuning the Vue, if you can't get the interior right? It's kind of like putting a ritzy Jacuzzi tub in a bathroom with cheap, gold-flecked Formica counters.

My test vehicle didn't even have lighted vanity mirrors. Shallow as it may seem, I will always pick lighted vanity mirrors over a chrome exhaust tip -- especially in a vehicle more suitable for the school carpool than the race track.

So what was Saturn thinking?

According to Jill Lajdziak, vice president of sales, service andmarketing for the General Motors Corp. unit, the brand is trying to broaden its appeal beyond me and my girlfriends.

"We have the toughest part of the formula figured out -- treating people right," she explained.

The Red Line is the firs t of a series of Red Line packages on Saturn models. Coming this summer is the Saturn Ion Red Line "quad coupe," a jazzed-up version of the entry-level four-door Ion that is supposed to appeal to young male buyers who like to customize their import cars.

My afternoon in the Vue Red Line began at GM's Proving Grounds here. I immediately drove the SUV to Livonia, where I picked up my mother.

Despite my grumblings, my mother -- the uber-nervous driver -- thought that the Red Line was fantastic, especially as it did battle with the semi-trucks and speeding drivers on Interstate 275.

Like my girlfriends, my mother may not understand what Red Line means, but she sure understands that a powerful engine is a kind of stealth safety feature that can keep you out of harm's way.

That's probably the best thing about the top-of-the-line Saturn SUV.

It's equipped with an impressive Honda powertrain: a 3.5-liter, 250-horsepower V-6 engine that's inked to a five-speed automatic transmission. It's essentially the same version of the engine that Honda installs in the Odyssey minivan and the Pilot SUV.

The Honda engine delivers 242 pounds-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. That's 69 more horsepower and 47 more pounds-feet of torque than you got from the 3.0-liter GM V-6 that the Honda engine replaces. The Honda engine also clocks a 0-to-60 time of approximately 7 seconds, Saturn says.

Gas mileage is surprisingly decent on this compact SUV that competes with the Jeep Liberty and Ford Escape. The Environmental Protection Agency says the Vue Red Line gets 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway.

The Honda powertrain is standard on the Red Line and optional on the more mundane Vue. The base Vue engine, a 2.2-liter four-cylinder that generates 143 horsepower, is not available on Red Line.

A front-wheel-drive Red Line may be a more reasonable alternative for many consumers, since it's priced at $24,975 including $575 destination.

Depending on your priorities, an even better choice may be to get the Honda powertrain in the ordinary Vue, which lists for $22,980 with the V-6 engine.

If you go that route, you'll also avoid the firmer, "sport-tuned" suspension and steering on the Red Line, which improves handling and is more fun for driving enthusiasts, but makes for a harsher ride for the rest of us.

As for the Vue Red Line's interior, I had a mixed reaction.

All 2004 Vues get new gauges. They are easy to read and dressed up with a pleasing faux chrome trim. The $695 leather seating package is worth the money because it lends a bit more sophistication to the cabin and it's soft and comfortable. XM satellite radio with 100 channels is a $325 option and well worth the price and $10 a month service fee.

Problems areas in the Vue cabin include a cruise control button that is awkwardly placed at the bottom of the steering wheel and side mirror controls that arelocated on the shift console. The center console seems somewhat flimsy.

I also found the driver's armrest to be too high and by the time I got the driver's seat properly adjusted, the center console was too far behind me to be of much use.

On the plus side, there's a standard rear-cargo organizer that is well designed, and the front passenger seat folds flat for better cargo management. The 70/30 split-folding rear seat folds down easily.

On the safety front, antilock brakes are standard on the Vue Red Line. The rear seat offers three sets of child-seat hooks, which means you can put a baby in the middle seat, which safety experts say is the safest location in a vehicle.

Side curtain head bags are $395. An optional "safe and sound" package bundles the OnStar emergency communications system, a CD and MP3 player and front and rear head curtain air bags for $880.

Even if I'm not crazy a bout the Red Line concept -- because of the high price and low-rent interior -- I have to praise Saturn for some of the best customer service in the business, a level that you usually see only at luxury dealerships.

The last time I was in a Saturn dealer, there were fresh flowers and a baby-changing station in the immaculate women's restroom. Most Saturn dealers wash your car after simple maintenance. Showrooms typically have fireplaces, a play area for kids and computer data ports for Internetaccess.

The Vue that I'm waiting for is the one with the hybrid powertrain -- a gasoline engine and dual electric motors -- that's due in 2005. Saturn says it is expected to deliver a combined 40 mpg in city and highway driving.

I suspect that particular Saturn will require no explanations to my girlfriends.