After months of waiting for Saturn's new sport-utility vehicle, I was prepared to take delivery of an SUV that bespoke the automaker's signature economy and practicality.

What I got was a silver 2002 Saturn VUE with a sticker bottom line that read $25,765. Not exactly a bargain-basement price.

After carefully inspecting the badging and registration documents, I was satisfied that someone had not mistakenly sent over a Mercedes-Benz.

Yes, automakers always like to send auto reviewers the primo versions of their models just in case the critics come down with temporary amnesia or leave their professionalism in the glove box. But nearly 26K for a Saturn? What's this world coming to?

Actually, if you want the Rolls-Royce version of the VUE, the world is pretty OK. The tester was the all-wheel drive VUE with the enthusiastic 3-liter V-6. The maximum horsepower output for the power plant is 181, and the torque numbers are an even more impressive at 195 foot-pounds at 4,000 revolutions per minute.

Performance on the flat, up the hills and off the road (an admittedly mild venture) was excellent.

To fully understand the sticker price, it must be said that my VUE was definitely loaded up with goodies -- power sunroof, head curtain air bags, OnStar communications system, AM-FM/cassette/CD sound system. Those were among the options that added nearly $2,700 to the sticker total.

The VUE has not been marketed as an off-road warrior so much as an urban vehicle that can take the family and its belongings out into the country in comfort. The tested VUE was well-equipped for that duty, with plentiful cargo space (the folding rear seats are a snap), cupholders, 12-volt power outlets, storage bins and tie-down placements. As with the integrated roof rails, all those features were standard on the test SUV.

From the driver's seat, the ride was comfortable. Controls were easily read and operated. There was elbow room to spare, and even my long legs were not cramped under the steering wheel.

To be sure, there are some things Saturn needs to improve for 2003.

Putting the Saturn through some aggressive slalom moves prompted complaints of significant pounding from back seat passengers/volunteers -- particularly my spouse, who historically has endured the back-seat passenger role in my various car tests with a quiet dignity.

Steering was a little mushy, but in truth, that could have been a byproduct of the VUE's electric power steering. The feature is designed to step up when the driver is maneuvering in tight quarters at slow speeds. It backs off at higher speeds on the open road. Still, I would have liked a little more feel on the area interstates.

So is there room for the VUE in a jam-packed field of more than 50 SUV choices in America? Of course there is -- especially for those who like Saturn's customer-friendly approach to selling motor vehicles.

And Saturn correctly can claim that it's of fering the first continuously variable transmission -- with moving "chains" providing hundreds of gear ratios -- in an SUV. With a straight-up automatic and a manual gearbox also in the mix, Saturn VUE buyers actually need to spend more time pondering transmission choices than most consumers.

As for Saturn dealers, they are saying, "Our father, General Motors, what took you so long?"

For years, Saturn dealers did not have the option of offering SUV-loving American motorists a sport-ute with the Saturn name. Saturn tried to make up for that with a public-relations blitz dating back two years -- a Saturn SUV show car appeared at the International Auto Show-Sacramento in the fall of 2000 -- but industry analysts justly labeled Saturn's lack of product variety as harmful.

Now that the GM division has an SUV to point to, well, Saturn sellers and buyers must feel that things are looking up. For those who want some of that famous Saturn economy, be advised that a front-wheel drive version of the VUE with a 2.2-liter, in-line 4 engine (143 horsepower) starts at a very affordable $16,325.

Now, that's more like it. And, yes, that base model is bigger than the VUE seen motoring along at eye-level to rabbits in those strange Saturn television commercials.

Saturn VUE at a glance

Make/model: 2002 Saturn VUE AWD.

Vehicle type: Five-seat, four-door, all-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle.

Base price: $22,575 (as tested, $25,765).

Engine: 3-liter V-6 with 181 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 195 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.

EPA fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon city; 25 mpg highway.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic with overdrive.

Steering: Electric rack and pinion with power.

Brakes: Front discs, rear drum with power and anti-lock.

Suspension type: Four-wheel independent with coil springs and anti-roll bars; strut-type on front, trailing arm with lateral links on rear.

Cargo volume: 30.8 cubic feet.

Fuel tank: 15.5 gallons.

Curb weight: 3,491 pounds.

Front track: 61 inches.

Rear track: 61 inches.

Height: 66.5 inches.

Length: 181.3 inches.

Wheelbase: 106.6 inches.

Width: 71.5 inches.

Ground clearance: 8 inches

Tires: P235/65R16 all-season.

Maximum towing capacity: 2,500 pounds (with specific trailering package).

Final assembly site: Spring Hill, Tenn.