2009 Saturn Vue

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Road Test: 2008 Saturn Vue XR AWD

This 2008 review is representative of model years 2008 to 2009.
By Tony Quiroga of Car and Driver

Bottom Line:

For all its dynamic goodness, the Vue is let down by an as-tested price that is as hefty as its curb weight.
Pros:
  • Excellent road manners
  • Lively steering
  • Solid structure
  • More refined than its competition
Cons:
  • Obese curb weight
  • Suck-the-earth-dry fuel economy
  • Disappointing acceleration

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.

Key Competitors
Largely developed in Germany by Opel, the 2008 Vue and the Opel Antara are almost indistinguishable. Better yet, the Vue and the Antara are supposed to drive identically. We haven't driven an Antara, but it's apparent from the first turn of the Vue's wheel that the tuning of the strut-front and multilink-rear suspension was done by a student of German cars—in fact, chassis engineers at Opel. Saturn claims that all Vues, from the four-cylinder base model to our top-dog XR test vehicle seen here, will have the Opel-dictated chassis feel. The ride is supple without being soft. Wheel motions are quickly damped without any hint of abruptness, and the whole chassis works silently and without the cymbal-like crashes that accompany lesser suspensions—the Aura wishes it had this ride. Steering feel, a theoretical concept in the previous Vue, is, after a long wait, now a reality. On six-cylinder models, hydraulic-power-assisted steering replaces the previous generation's electric assist—four-cylinder models continue with electronic power steering, which we did not have a chance to test drive—and the weight, directness, on-center accuracy, and feedback from the steering wheel is sports-sedan caliber. Coupled with a solid structure that exhibits nary a quiver and low amounts of road noise, the Vue now behaves as if it were competing against BMW. It's not, but thanks anyway, Opel.

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.

Interior
The Vue might not have place settings for seven, but the rear-most seats in the RAV4 and Outlander are something you'd find at the kids' table. Since it's not any bigger on the outside than the previous Vue, it should come as no surprise that the '08 Vue has about the same amount of space inside for five passengers. Back-seat space (45 cubic feet) is just enough to keep front-seat passengers from asking, "Do you want me to move my seat forward?" Luggage space comes in at 29 cubic feet behind the second row and 54 cubic feet with the second row folded, which is noticeably less than the 36 and 73 cubic feet in the RAV4. An optional rail system, like those of expensive German station wagons, is offered, allowing one to segregate the groceries from the fishing bait.

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.

Engine
In addition to our tester's 257-hp, 3.6-liter V-6, Saturn offers a lesser 169-hp four-cylinder and four-speed automatic combo in the base front-drive version and the hybrid Vue Green Line. Mid-level XE models in front- and all-wheel-drive guises get a 222-hp, 3.5-liter pushrod V-6, and both V-6s get a six-speed automatic. Off the order books, much to the relief of GM loyalists, is last year's Honda-sourced 248-hp, 3.5-liter SOHC V-6.

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.

The Verdict
What we didn't overlook was the Vue's new clothes. GM tells us that the Vue/Antara's styling was a global effort, but the design has a strong Asian influence, especially from behind. At best, it's almost Lexus RX350-like, but there is a clear and strong Hyundai/Kia influence that leads us to suspect that GM's Korean subsidiary, Daewoo, had a hand in penning the new Vue. Aside from Saturn badging, the exterior is identical to that of the Opel Antara.

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.

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BB04 - 7/30/2014 10:31:14 AM