The Saturn Vue is still peaking.
Introduced in calendar 2001, the only sport-utility vehicle at Saturn was setting another annual sales record in calendar 2005. In fact, the Vue was on track to outsell several notable competitors this year, including the Toyota RAV4, Nissan Xterra, Honda Element and Mazda Tribute.
How can the neither wimpy nor brutish Vue SUV—which emanates from a decidedly non-truckish car brand like Saturn—keep improving its sales and getting them near the 100,000-per-year mark?
It's the package. With a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price of less than $17,500 for a base, two-wheel-drive Vue with manual transmission and less than $19,000 for a base, two-wheel-drive Vue with an automatic, this is a conveniently-sized, five-passenger SUV that's affordable—especially when Saturn's parent company General Motors Corp. piles on discounts as it did during 2005.
Indeed, the Saturn Vue is GM's SUV with the lowest MSRP—a point that no doubt contributed to those higher 2005 sales. Even the much-maligned Pontiac Aztek, which wrapped up its final model year in 2005, had a higher MSRP.
The Vue also is nice-looking—in contrast to the Aztek—without being brash or bland. Its styling is updated for the 2006 model year with new headlamps, grille, hood and interior, is mildly intriguing.
And the Vue appeals to many buyers because it rides more like a car than a truck, while providing good views over traffic because of its high ride height. Note, though, that the Vue's ride height is not so high off the pavement that adults have to hoist themselves up to get inside.
Fuel economy status
Don't overlook the Vue's status as the fifth-best gasoline-powered SUV in fuel economy in the 2006 model year.
When fitted with the base four-cylinder engine and five-speed, manual transmission, the front-wheel-drive 2006 Vue is rated at 23 miles a gallon in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A four-cylinder, two-wheel-drive Vue with automatic is rated lower, at 22/27 mpg.
But when a fuel-conscious consumer gets to the point of considering a Vue with an automatic, I recommend going on up to the Vue with the V6, which comes only with an automatic transmission.
This V6 is a Honda engine and arguably the best perk of the Vue. (GM and Honda signed an unusual agreement in 1999 for this powerplant-sharing, which put the Honda-engineered and Honda-built 3.5-liter V6 into the Vue starting in the 2005 model year. Honda's new top executive in Japan has said, however, that he's not fond of such agreements and prefers that Honda engines be found only in Honda vehicles, so the current arrangement may not extend very far.)
So lucky consumers who get the current Honda V6 will note that it gives the Vue very nearly the same fuel economy, overall, as the much more anemic-feeling, GM-built four cylinder.
Specifically, the Vue with V6 has a wonderful 250 horsepower and 242 lb-ft of torque as well as a commendable fuel economy rating of 20/28 mpg, for a combined city/highway rating of 24 mpg. This compares with the combined city/highway rating of 24.5 mpg for the four-cylinder Vue with automatic that generates just 143 horses and 152 lb-ft of torque.
Note that the recommended gasoline for all Vues is unleaded regular.
The Vue retains the dent-resistant plastic body panels that Saturn is known for. These panels can withstand a grocery cart banging into them and dings from adjacent car doors—all without any lasting evidence of damage.
But because these plastic panels need room to expand in the heat of a sunny summer day, the gaps between some Vue body panels, such as by the doors, are large and noticeable and not as easily overlooked as those found on other vehicles with metal body panels. The difference is apparent when comparing the Vue to a Honda or Toyota vehicle—two companies that have focused efforts on reducing the gaps between outer body panels.
The Vue's door handles outside can accommodate a full hand, but they don't pull straight out as a person might expect. These handles have to be lifted upward as well as out, which takes some getting used to.
While I'm at the door issue, I noticed the keyhole on the driver's door of the Vue tester. I couldn't miss it, because it was surrounded by a sizable dollop of black rubber or sealant in an unattractive fashion.
Another boo-boo on the low-mileage test Vue: The bulb that was supposed to show drivers I had my blinker on, indicating an upcoming right-hand turn, was burned out. I noticed because every time I put on the right-hand blinker, it made a very rapid blink-blink sound, not the more normal sound pattern of the fully operational left-hand blinker.
Inside, the new Vue has more modern-looking audio and ventilation controls, and plastic trim on the insides of the doors and on the dashboards is updated.
In an unusual offering in the lower-priced, compact SUV segment, all Vue models now come standard with the OnStar emergency notification system with a free, one-year subscription. OnStar can notify emergency personnel if a vehicle is involved in a crash that's severe enough to deploy the frontal airbags.
Also new: All Vues now come with standard remote keyless entry, cruise control and power windows, door locks and outside mirrors.
I just wish the rear seat cushion was updated, too. It's flat, feels thin and doesn't extend far enough to provide the support for my thighs that I like. And I'm 5 feet 4 with short legs.
In addition, in the test Vue, I could easily see joints and other components of the rear seats where the cushions join. This is not something I see regularly in other SUVs.
Still, rear-seat legroom and front- and rear-seat headroom is comfortable.
The Vue's rear seatbacks are split into one-third and two-thirds sections that fold down to accommodate long cargo items. Maximum cargo space is a usable 63.8 cubic feet.
Safety items optional
Alas, the Vue lags in some safety equipment.
The middle person in the back seat has no head restraint.
Anti-lock braking (ABS), which has been around for more than a decade and helps give drivers steering control during panic braking, is optional equipment on the four-cylinder Vues, and the pricing of more than $500 for this option is surprisingly high.
Curtain airbags are another example. They are available for all 2006 Vues, but only as optional equipment. Pricing for these protective bags are nearly $400.
In contrast, the 2006 Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage, for example, have standard curtain airbags and anti-lock brakes, among other things, on all models. And the Tucson and Sportage starting MSRPs are competitive with the Vue.
Current power choices
The test 2006 Vue, with uplevel V6, responded readily, and driving was pretty effortless. I slipped into city traffic easily and merged aggressively into highway traffic without hesitating.
In fact, I found myself on several occasions traveling faster than I thought—once getting up to 65 miles an hour quite quickly on an uphill entrance ramp to a highway.
This V6 comes with a smooth-shifting, five-speed automatic transmission and produces 242 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm.
To put this in perspective, the 2006 Tucson's V6 produces 173 horsepower, while the Mazda Tribute's V6 develops 200 horsepower.
Indeed, for the 2006 model year, Toyota updated its RAV4 to include a V6 for the first time. Maximum horsepower in the new RAV4 is 269.
The Vue's base engine remains the 2.2-liter four cylinder that generates a maximum 152 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
Too bad, though, that no Vue has an automatic with shift-it-yourself manumatic mode. It is available in some other SUVs, such as the Tucson.
Some wind noise emanated from the driver door window area in the test Vue, and I heard some road noise from the tires.
But the Vue rode and handled like a car, with only vibrations—not jolts—coming through, even on dirt roads with washboard surfaces.
At times, though, the steering felt light and a bit disconnected.
Waiting for a hybrid?
In mid-calendar 2007, the Vue becomes GM's first consumer vehicle with gas-electric hybrid power system.
The 2007 Vue Green Line, as it's called, will come with a hybrid powerplant that combines a four-cylinder engine with electric power that's stored in a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. This is similar to the workings of the nation's best-selling hybrid, the Toyota Prius.
But where the Prius can be propelled solely on electric power in certain circumstances—another gas-saving mode that can come during slow speed travel, for example—the Vue Green Line will be limited to only about three seconds of electric-only power.
This is expected to keep the Vue's fuel economy savings on the milder side vis-a-vis the Prius-type system.
But at least one GM official has indicated this less-complex hybrid system could mean consumers won't have to pay the going $3,000 or more price premium that today's hybrid vehicles carry. He said the premium for a Vue hybrid may be closer to $1,500.
Stay tuned. Exact fuel economy ratings and prices won't be announced for the hybrid Vue until closer to the on-sale date in the middle of calendar 2006.