2004 Saturn VUE
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Go ahead. Try to find a Honda label on the 2004 Saturn VUE sport-utility vehicle.
I had to search carefully under the hood of the test VUE before I spotted, in oh-so-small letters, the word "Honda" on a small component.
It was the only thing that told me I had one of the first very special VUEs—with a Honda V6.
Understandably, Saturn isn't making a big deal out of this. The word "Honda" isn't inside the VUE's owner manual, and it's not on the window sticker.
Consumers will notice how much peppier the new VUE is compared with its 2003 predecessor.
Honda-GM engine deal
In more ways than one way, the deal is a boost for the VUE.
The 2004 VUE now has more domestic content than its predecessor did because Honda makes its V6 in Ohio. The VUE's previous V6 came from Opel, a GM brand in Europe.
The new V6, which Honda uses in its own Pilot SUV as well as the Acura MDX, also gives far better performance and sounds better than the previous VUE V6 did.
Specifically, horsepower in a VUE V6 model is increased by 38 percent to 250 from last year's 181 horses, and torque is up to 242 lb-ft at 4500 rpm from 195 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
The test, top-of-the-line, 2004 VUE AWD with the 3.5-liter, single overhead cam V6 had power aplenty and moved forward easily whenever I pressed the accelerator.
It didn't matter if I was merging on the highway or zipping into city traffic. This VUE didn't feel like it was straining, and shifts from the 5-speed automatic transmission were smooth.
Note this five-passenger VUE weighs just over 3,600 pounds and compares with the more than 4,400 pounds of Honda's larger and seven-passenger Pilot SUV.
The VUE's engine numbers also compare favorably with competitors such as the Ford Escape, whose V6 produces 201 horses and 196 lb-ft of torque at 4700 rpm, and the Hyundai Santa Fe, whose V6 develops 195 horsepower and 219 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm.
When I tested the VUE in its first model year, 2002, I heard the V6 thrashing some during acceleration. There's none of this in the 2004 model as the new engine has a strong, confident sound.
In fact, Saturn also puts this engine into its new performance model of VUE that debuts in the 2004 model year. Called the VUE Red Line, it will include a sport-tuned suspension and 18-inch tires on fancy wheels.
V6 careful with gas
Last year's lower-powered 3.0-liter V6 mated to a 5-speed automatic in an all-wheel-drive VUE was rated at 19 miles a gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway, according to the federal government.
Despite the substantial performance enhancements, the test, 2004 VUE AWD with Honda V6, had the very same rating. For front-wheel-drive models, the Honda V6 actually improves highway fuel economy—from 26 mpg to 28 mpg.
The VUE's base, 143-horse, 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine remains unchanged in its performance numbers.
Plastic, inside and out
Now, the styling has become more acceptable to me. In fact, I appreciate that it's distinctive, yet not overly brutish or cute.
I just wish the VUE interior still didn't have such an overwhelming plastic feel. The tester had optional leather seats, and even this leather seemed artificial, without a suppleness or overt aroma.
As it has since its original introduction, the VUE has its power window buttons congregated around the gear shifter, rather than on the doors. This takes some getting used to.
Cupholders in the VUE's center console area sit low to the floor, so don't be surprised when you have to lean down to reach items you place in the cupholders.
As on other Saturns, polymer body panels are on the VUE. They're dent- and ding-resistant, but they need extra spacing between them to accommodate expansion and contraction in different temperatures. Traditional steel body panels do not have the same requirements.
So, while I like the dent resistance properties of the panels, I can't help but notice the large gaps they create between the VUE's hood and its front fenders. It's not the most well-finished appearance for a vehicle.
Saturn engineers worked to reduce interior noise in the VUE, and the 2004 model is the best yet.
Riding in the VUE, there was still some road noise, but it's not nearly as loud as in the earlier model, and I heard only a bit of wind noise emanating from around one side of the windshield on the test vehicle.
I loved the view out of the VUE—excuse the pun—as I looked down on both the VUE's cowl and hood. I also saw around and over some cars, but my view down the road was blocked by bigger trucks and SUVs. Otherwise, the VUE provides a car-like sensation, in terms of handling and steering.
The ride isn't plush, but it's not barebones, either. The overall sense is that riders roll over and on top of road bumps. I didn't feel as if I was getting roughed up by the pavement.
The VUE has an independent, strut-type front suspension and rear independent trailing arm configuration in back. Sixteen-inch wheels are standard equipment, and on the tester, they had a plain look.
Odds and ends
Even before the Honda V6 was added, the VUE was on a record-setting pace for sales with calendar 2003 numbers totaling more than 75,000, up more than 10 percent from the year earlier.
Still, the VUE with V6 has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price of more than $22,000 and that's higher than some competitors, such as the 2004 Escape with V6 and the 2004 Santa Fe with V6.
A final note: Saturn plans to expand the VUE lineup by offering a hybrid model with gasoline-electric powerplant sometime in calendar 2006.