Road Test: 2008 Saturn Vue XR AWD
By Tony Quiroga of Car and Driver
To borrow from one of the few hits sung by Ringo while he was a Beatle, Saturn has lately been "getting by with a little help from its friends." As part of an effort that the Saturn folks are calling "Opel look share," the entire Saturn showroom has completely turned over in less than 18 months.
"Look share" is the awkward term used to describe the partnership between Saturn and GM's European automaker Opel. The program ranges from the Aura, which uses the Opel Vectra platform fitted with Opel-like sheetmetal but screwed together in America, to the built-in-Belgium Saturn Astra that is a rebadged Opel Astra and will be sold at Saturn stores by the end of this year.
Analogous to the Astra program is the Saturn Sky, which was wholly developed in the States and is shared and exported to Europe as the Opel GT. We're told that future vehicles for both brands will be more of a collaboration than are the Aura, Sky, and Astra and more like the global effort that has yielded this latest-generation Saturn Vue and its clone, the Opel Antara.
That sense of solidity comes courtesy of a modified version of the old Vue's Theta platform. According to chief engineer Steve Valentine, only a few floor stampings carry over from the previous generation. The quiet solidity is no illusion as the '08 Vue comes in at a staggering 4146 pounds, nearly 400 more pounds than the last Vue V-6 AWD we tested and about 500 pounds heavier than a principal competitor, the Toyota RAV4 V-6 with all-wheel drive. Making the weight gain even more startling is the fact that the new Vue is nearly the exact size as the outgoing Vue and rides on the same 106.6-inch wheelbase. That extra mass makes the Vue the fat kid of the small-SUV class, a class occupied and dominated by the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and RAV4—all of which are hundreds of pounds lighter than the Vue. The weight gain might have been defensible if the new Vue had grown in size or offered a third row. Want a third row? A Saturn sales rep might suggest going for the much-larger $27,990 Saturn Outlook. Oh, you want a third row in the small-SUV segment? Toyota would tell you to buy a RAV4, and Mitsubishi might steer you to an Outlander, both of which are available with three rows and room for seven.
More impressive than interior space are the design and the materials used. Aside from the center stack and the cheap-looking gauge faces, the Vue's insides are identical to the Antara's. Marked improvements include tightly grained low-gloss plastics and metallic and chrome trim; these clearly put the Vue ahead of the competition. Our test vehicle's optional leather interior wouldn't look out of place in a Saab, and come to think of it, the tilt steering wheel may be from Saab's shelves. We wish that wheel could telescope—it sits too far away for many drivers—but the rest of the driving position, from the six-way power driver's seat to the expansive view out the front windshield, is excellent. This is a good time to pause to mention the huge glove box, which Saturn's folks assure us was designed to accommodate one of those giant purses that are permanently affixed to the Olsen twins, et al., not to mention any "outside wallets" or men's carryalls one might want to hide.
Running a close second to the all-important purse storage is safety equipment. Standard on all Vues, from the $21,395 base model on up, is a full complement of front, side, and curtain airbags, as well as stability control with a trailer-controlling algorithm, traction control, and anti-lock brakes. An XR-grade model starts at $24,895. Add $2000 for the all-wheel-drive system that sends as much as 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels—via an electronically controlled clutch pack—when slip is detected.
Laboring against the Vue's 4146 pounds took its toll on the otherwise impressive 257-hp, 3.6-liter DOHC V-6. Acceleration to 60 mph took an adequate-feeling 7.5 seconds, a number that makes the Vue XR quicker than the 9.0 seconds we estimated for the four-cylinder-only Honda CR-V (we've yet to test the latest one). The Vue feels fast enough until one considers the last Vue's 7.0-second time and the rip-roaring 6.3-second number put down by the V-6 RAV4. The Vue's six-speed automatic is one gear better than the competition, but it does have the unflattering tendency to slam through a couple of gears on full-throttle downshifts.
We suspect fuel economy is more important than acceleration to most buyers in the small-SUV segment. With this new Vue, the mass saps not only acceleration but also any semblance of good fuel economy. Saturn's 2008 EPA numbers are just 16/22, and in our hands the Vue returned just 15 mpg, which is worse than the 21 mpg we got in the Honda-powered Vue V-6. We're always willing to overlook pitiful fuel economy as long as there is acceleration that makes up for it. After all, we did name the RAV4 V-6 a 5Best Truck despite returning a dismal 16 mpg.
Compared with last year's Vue, the new one comes with a price increase of more than $2500. What the extra dough gets you is a far superior driving experience, a well-executed interior, more equipment, but more weight. Our Vue XR AWD had leather seats and premium trim ($1075), navigation ($2145), a $505 Convenience package (rain-sensing wipers, remote start, heated washer fluid), and a few other options, and that ballooned the bottom line to an incentive-ready $31,115. An equally equipped RAV4—but navigation isn't offered—is $30,593; a four-cylinder-only CR-V is loaded at $28,820. Equipped thusly, the Vue finds itself in a segment occupied by the larger Ford Edge, Honda Pilot, Nissan Murano, and Toyota Highlander. We suspect the sweet spot of the Vue lineup might be the mid-level model equipped with the 3.5-liter engine. If that model keeps the dynamic excellence of the pricey XR, the smaller pushrod engine is appropriately subdued, and the price stays in the mid-$20,000s, Saturn will have a winner on its hands. At more than $31,000, the Vue becomes less rosy.