Saturn Vue Review

saturn vue review

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?

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2 of 52 comments
  • Art  Vandelay Art Vandelay on Aug 09, 2007

    Wow, just read the Highlander review and now this. Let me get this straight, The Toyota has a cheap, ill-fitting interior while Kudos are given to...A SATURN. I looked at both, and I do not disagree, I am just concerned I am not ready for the surely coming apocolypse. Incidentally, when It's too cold for my KLR650 I drive a stone reliable 1995 SW1...You know, one of the bad old Saturn's the dealer likes to hide when I show up for service with 220,000 miles. A nice interior would NOT be my first thought when driving it, now in my wifes 02 Vue.

  • Ronjr123 Ronjr123 on Feb 11, 2008

    I recently drove one of these as a rental in Florida for ten days and I tell you what....I Hated IT!! It was the base model with the 4 cyl and 4 speed auto. On the flat FL highways, it could not get out of its own way fast enough. It was a dog on the highway. The cruise control in this ute could not keep a constant speed no matter how hard it tried. Set the cruise at 75, and it would coast until it hit 70, then downshift and accelerate(?) until it reached 80, then upshift and do it all over again. It was terrible. As for the looks, I like the exterior (it could be mistaken for a CR-V in the nose), but the interior I did not appreciate. The seats were uncomfortable for a long ride and orange(?) dashlighting was irrating. The radio display would completely wash out in the day light. As my wife drives an 08 CR-V, there is no comparison. I would not recommend this, atleast in the 4 cyl model.

  • EAM3 Learned to drive in my parents' 1981 Maxima. Lovely car that seemed to do everything right. I can still hear the "Please turn off the lights" voice in my head since everyone wanted a demo of the newfangled talking car. A friend of the family had a manual transmission one and that thing was fun!
  • FreedMike That wagon is yummy.
  • Syke Thanks, somehow I missed that.
  • 285exp I am quite sure that it is a complete coincidence that they have announced a $7k price increase the same week that the current administration has passed legislation extending the $7k tax credit that was set to expire. Yep, not at all related.
  • Syke Is it possible to switch the pure EV drive on and off? Given the wonderful throttle response of an EV, I could see the desirability of this for a serious off-roader. Run straight ICE to get to your off-roading site, switch over the EV drive during the off-road section, then back to ICE for the road trip back home.