Saturn's Terrific Vue

GM's Saturn line has another winner in its compact crossover Vue. The 2008 model is peppier and more upscale than ever

Editor's Rating:

The Good: European styling, speediness, towing capacity, wide choice of engines

The Bad: Relatively poor fuel economy, no third-row seats

The Bottom Line: Check it out before buying a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4

Up Front

These days, just about every new General Motors (GM) product I drive surprises me by how good it is. The latest example is the Saturn Vue, a compact crossover vehicle that was totally redesigned for 2008. The new Vue is assembled in Mexico but is based on the Antara, a European model made by Opel, GM's German subsidiary, and its design, styling, and driving characteristics all show considerable European influence.

Saturn is becoming GM's conduit for selling Opel products in the U.S., and that's a good thing. The new Vue is much more directly competitive with its main rivals—the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4—than the previous Vue was. It's better-looking, peppier, and has a nicer, more upscale interior than the old Vue. If you're a diehard Toyota (TM) or Honda (HMC) fan who is considering one of those models, give the new Saturn Vue a test drive. You'll be surprised by what a sweet vehicle it is.

The new Vue is somewhat pricier than the old one was, but it also comes with more standard equipment and is slightly roomier inside. It's about an inch taller and wider than the previous model; the overall length is an inch shorter, but interior space is unaffected by the reduction and the wheelbase remains the same.

The size of the Vue's engine also has been increased. The previous model came standard with a 2.2-liter, 143-horsepower, 4-cylinder power plant that didn't have enough oomph for the vehicle's weight. A 3.5-liter, 250-hp Honda engine was available as an option.

Only one version of the '08 Vue—the entry-level SE with front-wheel drive—comes with a 4-cylinder engine. This 2.4-liter, 164-hp four-banger is slightly more powerful than the previous one, but it's still fairly wimpy because the Vue's weight has increased by some several hundred pounds.

With all-wheel drive, the '08 Vue SE comes standard with a 3.5-liter, 222-hp V6. Fancier versions of the new Vue—the XR and the sporty Red Line—come with a more powerful 3.6-liter, 257-hp V6, the same engine that's in the Saturn Aura XR sedan.

The '08 Vue's price starts out low but rises rapidly as you move up the line. The entry-level, front-wheel-drive XE starts at $21,335 (but has that wimpy four-cylinder engine). With all-wheel drive and the smaller of the two available V6 engines, the XE starts at $24,515.

The fancier XR starts at $24,905 with front-wheel drive and $26,905 with all-wheel drive. The Red Line starts at $27,395 with front-wheel drive and $29,395 with all-wheel drive.

The good news is most of the Vue's option packages cost less than $1,000. The main exception is the $2,145 DVD-based navigation system that also includes an MP3-compatible CD player, speed-sensitive volume, and an auxiliary jack for your iPod.

The next-most expensive option is a $1,075 Premium Trim package that includes leather interior trim and heated front seats. A $740 Preferred Package adds a power driver's seat and heated outside mirrors. A $505 Convenience package adds heated windshield washer fluid and rain-sensitive wipers, and a sunroof costs $800. Most of the other add-ons (such as a $350 trailer-towing package, $150 roof-mounted luggage rack, and $115 fog lamps) are under $500.

The bad news is the fuel economy of conventionally powered versions of the new Vue is relatively lousy. With all-wheel drive, the XR is rated to get 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 on the highway under the new, more realistic mileage rating system the government has adopted as of the '08 model year. In 164 miles of fairly hard driving, I got 16.1 mpg in that model.

That puts the Vue well behind the fuel efficiency of its main rivals. An '07 Honda Pilot, which only comes with a four-cylinder engine, would have been rated at 19 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway under the government's new system, and an all-wheel-drive '07 Toyota RAV4 with a six-cylinder engine at 19 mpg city and 26 highway.

You can improve your mileage by going with an '08 Vue XE with front-wheel drive and the four-cylinder engine, but you may not end up saving as much at the gas pump as you might expect. That version of the new Vue is rated to get 19 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway, or an average of 22 mpg.

The catch is the Vue's owner's manual recommends using premium gasoline (which on average costs around 7% more than regular) with the four-cylinder engine. You can use regular gas if you want, but the manual warns that if you do, the four-cylinder engine may knock and acceleration will be more sluggish.

By contrast, the front-wheel-drive Vue XR is rated to get 16 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway, or an average of 19 mpg, but it uses regular gasoline. So, if you're buying a Vue, you have little incentive to go with the four-cylinder engine other than that the list price is lower. (The same is true of the RAV4 with a four-cylinder engine, by the way. It uses regular gas, but its mileage is rated at 20 city/25 highway under the new government system, no better than the RAV4 with a powerful six-cylinder engine.)

GM has a lot riding on the success of the Vue, which is Saturn's top-selling model through the end of August. This is a transition year, so it's too early to tell how well the new Vue will do, but sales have been a bit disappointing so far. Total Saturn Vue sales fell 10.1% in the first eight months of the year, to 58,538 units. By contrast, Saturn's overall sales were up 12.9%, to 167,106, for the period—a strong performance in a tough market.

Behind the Wheel

With the larger of the two V6 engines, the new Vue is very quick for a family vehicle. Some reviewers have timed it at around 7 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60 mph, matching the raw speed of a Toyota RAV4 with a 269-hp V6. My times weren't that low: I consistently clocked my all-wheel-drive Vue XR test vehicle at 7.9 seconds in 0-to-60 runs. But that's speedy enough for most SUV buyers.

The Vue has progressively sportier suspension settings as you move up the line, so you have to pay extra for the Red Line to get the sportiest available driving experience. But I found the Vue XR surprisingly fun to drive when I put the automatic transmission in manual mode, via a toggle button on the side of the shift lever, and did the shifting myself. This system seemed a bit cumbersome when I tried it in Buick's nifty new Enclave. Maybe I'm just getting used to it, but the system seemed more user-friendly in the Vue.

When you do the shifting yourself, the new Vue feels a lot like a European sedan. You can run the engine out and downshift from, say, fourth to second gear when you're heading into a sharp curve. There's less body roll than in most SUV-style vehicles, and there's lots of available power when you punch the gas on the fly. After a while, I found myself pulling out into oncoming traffic with far more confidence than in most family vehicles. I knew in a pinch I could always punch the gas and accelerate faster than most other vehicles on the road.

The Vue is by no means an off-road vehicle, but ground clearance is a decent 7.8 inches, so it should do well in snow and over moderately rough terrain.

If you go with the V6 engine, the new Vue has good towing capabilities. Maximum towing capacity is a substantial 3,500 lb. (vs. just 1,500 with the four-cylinder engine), and the standard stability control system includes an innovative trailer-stabilization system that uses active braking to reduce swaying and keep a trailer under control on hills. The Vue is also designed to be easily towed behind a recreational vehicle without damaging its drivetrain.

The '08 Vue's cabin, which reminds me of the interior of the new Saturn Aura, is one of the model's strong points. It isn't luxurious, but it's clean and tasteful, with design elements that make it distinctive—such as a parking brake lever shaped like the handle of a saber. Headroom is ample, and there's plenty of legroom for most people in both rows of seats: nearly 41 in. up front and 37 in. in back.

The '08 Vue has a substantial 29.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second-row seats, which expands to 56.4 cu. ft. with the rear seats folded down. The seats fold down flat in a 60/40 pattern, and are extremely easy to get up and down. Another nice touch in the back storage area is a nifty cargo management system. There are rails along the sides of the cargo area with moveable clamps and netting that allow you to anchor different sizes of cargo.

I do have a few nitpicks about the new Vue. Left to shift on its own, for instance, the XR's six-speed automatic transmission is a bit clunky. It hunts around for the right gear quite a bit on hilly roads and powers down excessively harshly when you floor the gas pedal all of a sudden.

The instrument lights in my test vehicle illuminated in a shade of yellow that, for propriety's sake, I'll compare to Mountain Dew. Why such an unattractive color? Also, only the driver's seat can be had with power adjustments. The passenger's seat adjusts manually and the bench-style rear seats can't be adjusted back and forth.

Finally, my test vehicle developed a very annoying rattle in the center console when I drove over rough roads. The rattle wasn't there during normal driving, but given how tight and well-made everything else in the Vue seemed to be, that was a disappointment.

Buy It Or Bag It?

A major consideration in buying a compact SUV is whether you need a third row of seats. Neither the Vue nor the Honda CR-V has one, while the Toyota RAV4 does. The RAV's optional third-row seats are very cramped, but they're better than nothing. So, if you do a lot of carpooling, the RAV4 may be your best bet among the three models.

Also, keep in mind the CR-V, with only a four-banger available under its hood, isn't in the same league as a V6-powered RAV4 or Vue when it comes to performance. (The obvious upside is the CRV's greater fuel efficiency. Our reviewer averaged 26 mpg in an '07 Honda CR-V.)

Setting aside its relatively poor fuel efficiency, the Vue offers good value, especially if you buy one now. Though Saturn is known for no-haggle pricing, GM is offering $750 cash rebates on the new Vue through Oct. 1. By contrast, there are no rebates on the CR-V and RAV4.

As a result, the '08 Vue's recent average selling price is just $23,309, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). That's nearly a grand less than the average price of the '07 CR-V ($24,137) and '07 RAV4 ($24,251), and nearly three grand under the price of the '08 Mazda CX-7 ($25,981), PIN says. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN is owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)

At a recent average selling price of $22,844, the '08 Ford (F) Escape (a more traditional compact SUV) is cheaper than the Vue—but only slightly.

The bottom line is the new Saturn Vue rivals the RAV4 as one of the sportiest, most versatile and inexpensive small SUVs on the market. Just expect to pay a bit more at the pump when you gas it up.

Click here to see more of the 2008 Saturn Vue.