Not that Camcordima or Miata drivers have noticed, but GM’s long-neglected Saturn brand has been busy rolling out a raft of new models. I came, I saw, I drove, I despaired. The Aura, Sky and Outlook are fine machines, but even better examples of “80%” cars: GM vehicles that are an interior, gearbox, suspension and/or trunk space away from greatness. So when I saw the all-new, Opel-sourced 2008 Saturn Vue, I thought I knew exactly what was coming my way. I don’t mind saying it: I was somewhat wrong.
The new Vue’s sheetmetal is as far removed from its boxy predecessor as Adam West’s Batmobile from Christian Bale’s sled. That said, the new, rounded Vue adheres to the pre-apocalyptic cute ute playbook. We can talk about the differences between the Vue and, say, Honda’s CR-V. But details like the meshed vents ahead of the Vue’s front wheel wells, chrome roof rails and the black strips surrounding the headlights are as nothing compared to the striking similarities between the two vehicles.
Of course, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the homage to Honda’s best-seller. And there a good reason the new Vue is such a decent looking car: it’s actually an Opel Antara. That’s the soft-roader The General peddles in Europe, where GM is more like the Target of auto producers than the Mace’s Closeout City.
After clocking the new Vue’s unsurprising if handsome and class-competitive sheetmetal, stepping into its interior is something of a revelation. The new Vue is one of the best built and classiest cabins in a U.S. General Motors product to date. Again, credit the fact that the “rethink American” brand’s SUV-lite is a European parachute-job.
Saturn finally bailed on its plastic supply contract with Hasbro, disappointing GI Joes everywhere. Instead, the Vue features plenty of good synthetic stuff on the dash and doors, or what the press junket junkies have taken to calling “soft-touch” materials. The optional wood trim on the doors and dash, the upmarket fabric on the door panels and headliner, and the chrome butterfly insert at the bottom of the steering wheel are all credibly chic. Saturn, Opel, someone somewhere sweated the details, and it shows.
If only they’d sat down when they were doing it. The Vue’s seats seem specifically designed to maximize thoracic discomfort. Quite why Saturn decided to put a shoe inside every seat back is a question best left to those who study the sexual deviancy of our European cousins. Also, American sun worshippers will lament the fact that the Vue can’t be ordered with a sunroof. In the atypically understated words of a White House spokesperson, “that’s not helpful.”
At least Saturn didn’t skimp on safety equipment. Every Vue down to the lowly base models offer six airbags, Stabilitrak stability control, four-channel ABS, and active head restraints.
Like most cute utes sold in America, the base Vue is a front wheel-drive machine holstering a frugal four cylinder engine. In this case, the entry level Vue gets GM’s 2.4-liter Ecotec four-pot. It’s a willing little motor with decent mpg, but paired with The General’s ubiquitous four-speed automatic transmission, it’s no match for 3800 lbs. of mass.
Next up: a 3.5-liter V6 with 222 horsepower. On the upside, buyers are treated to a six speed transmission and all wheel-drive. On the downside, it's a nasty agrarian mill better suited to being thrown off a cliff than propelling a car. Fortunately (for your reviewer), I spent most of my time in a Vue equipped with the sweet 3.6-liter DOHC V6 and a six speed auto.
Sampling the V6-powered Vue XR is slightly misleading; it may be the best of the three available powertrains, but it's also the version you're least likely to see on the road. The Vue’s top-of-the-line powerplant churns 257hp, placing it just behind Toyota’s 269hp V6 RAV4 for best in class power. For one of the first times in recorded history, GM's strong and refined 3.6-liter isn’t being wasted in a rolling lunchbox.
Thanks to its shameful though safety-related curb weight (4000 – 4300lbs for the 3.6 liter models), the Vue’s extremely stable on the road and silent at speed. And in spite of its obesity, stomping and romping with the Vue is a hoot. With Teutonic steering and a European-firm suspension, it’s a highly hustle-friendly family hauler. Just remember that we’re talking SUV sporty, not actual sporty.
The Saturn Vue’s biggest problem, perhaps its only major problem, is that the base four-cylinder model doesn’t deal the competition a killer blow in a hugely competitive segment. As good as it is inside and out, as keenly-priced as it is (about a grand under the RAV4 base vs. base), the Vue’s Ecotec engine and four-speed gearbox can’t match Toyota’s powertrain for smoothness or fuel efficiency. Still, props to Saturn for getting 90 percent of the way this time. Who’d a thunk it?