Saturn Vue V-6 wins with the help of a ringer

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Saturn’s last-decade image as a viable American alternative to the Japanese economy brands has been tarnished over the past few years.

Saturn has failed to keep up with the Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans of the world. The new Ion, introduced a few years ago replacing the original S-Series, is a prime example of how General Motors can cut corners with cheap materials and below-par workmanship in the interest of making a small profit. But GM is smarter than some think and they also have the ability to learn from those mistakes.

Additionally new players such as South Korea’s Kia and Hyundai, which have grown in quality and reliability, have added to Saturn’s competition woes.

But not all is lost at Saturn. There are some impressive vehicles planned for the near future, namely Sky and Aura. And there is one model now in showrooms that is worth consideration proving that GM and Saturn do learn and can be smart when they need too.

Our test vehicle was a 2006 Saturn Vue V-6, probably the only vehicle in the Saturn stable that we can enthusiastically recommend. Yes, we did like the Ion Redline coupe, a hotrod version of the standard Ion, with its turbocharged 205 horsepower. But that car has limited appeal.

For family transportation we highly recommend the Vue V-6. It has excellent performance, stretch-out room for five passengers, decent cargo volume, a refined ride, a handsomely restyled interior and a stylish exterior. And the price is very appealing.

Ironically, the Vue is propelled by a cast aluminum VTEC Honda engine similar to those found in such stalwarts as the Honda Pilot and Acura MDX. And it’s that refined engine that makes this particularly Vue noteworthy.

So, perhaps, if you can’t beat the Japanese, join them. At least cut a deal for one of their top engines. In this case the Honda V-6 transforms the Vue into a performance-oriented smooth-as-glass mid-sized SUV with a high satisfaction quotient. We did say that GM does have capability of being smart.

The engine completely outclasses the relatively poor General Motors 3.0-liter 181-horsepower 6-cylinder sold in 2002 and 2003. And the base 2.2-liter 143-horsepower 4-cylinder is simply overmatched in the 3,100-pound vehicle.

The 3.5-liter engine, mated to a 5-speed automatic, is capable of taking the Vue from 0 to 60 in about 7 seconds and gives the driver confidence when power is necessary in sticky situations. There’s no need for hesitation to determine if passing will be a safe or sorry proposition.

And this performance comes without sacrificing decent gas mileage. Our test vehicle was rated at 20 miles to the gallon in city driving and 28-mpg highway on regular gas.

The Vue has been one of the most attractive vehicles in the crossover segment since its inception in 2002, but perhaps originally a little rough around the edges. Saturn designers gave the SUV a facelift for the 2004 model year, and they have spruced it up again for 2006, making improvements in all the right places. The front end has been modernized giving the vehicle a more rugged look, and on the inside a new center stack and center console do a world of good for eye appeal. So GM has done more than getting engine smart.

The combination of an attractive vehicle, a cutting-edge V-6 engine and an up-to-date transmission — something not found in every GM product — would elicit big bucks, you might assume. But that’s where you would be wrong, and the Saturn’s attractive pricing plays a big part in our recommendation of the vehicle.

Our test Vue in front-wheel drive format carried a base price of just $21,990. In that application the Vue has a strong list of standard equipment including ABS with traction control, air conditioning with dust and pollen filters, AM-FM stereo with CD player, power windows and locks, compass and outside temperature display, cruise control and 16-inch alloy wheels.

For those who tow playthings, the V-6 Vue has a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds.

Our test vehicle had some desirable options such as power sunroof, XM radio, six-disc changer, head curtain side airbags, leather seating, power driver’s seat and heated front seats, 17-inch alloy wheels and chrome roof rails. That brought the bottom line to a still affordable $26,200.

If you want the cold-climate security of all-wheel drive figure a base price of $24,315.

A unique feature that set the original Saturn apart back in the ’90s is still available today — ding-resistant polymer body and door panels. Saturn is still the only brand to use this technology, which assures a Saturn that has weathered the parking lot wars for a few years will look as fresh as it did when it left the showroom.

So what’s the downside to these remarkable doors and side panels? The doors feel flimsy and don’t shut with the quality-sounding thunk you like to hear. Is it worth the trade off? One of our usual riders was impressed with the Vue, but disturbed by the tinny sound of the closing door. Some people are just miffed by things they don’t understand.

There is no three-row option in the Vue, but cargo volume is an impressive 31 cubic feet behind the second-row seats and 64 cubic feet with the second-row folded. This makes the Vue extremely useful in everyday life. The whole world doesn’t need three rows of seats that automakers seem to thirst for. Truthfully the third rows in most vehicles are barely suited for young children and well anchored pets. There are few that really hold adults comfortably and with reasonable access, so the two rows of seats in the compact Vue is just fine.

One storage feature we found particularly helpful is a pop-up grocery bag holder that is large enough to handle about a dozen bags keeping those pesky plastic sacks impervious from spills on the trip home.

The Vue has kept Saturn’s head above water with healthy sales in each of the four model years it has been on the market. For calendar year 2005, the Vue ended with sales of about 90,000, representing 42 percent of total Saturn volume.

We don’t know how many of the Vue sales are the V-6 model, but if you want to experience the best that Saturn (with a little help from its friends) has to offer — and a solid entry in the compact/mid-sized crossover segment — then the Vue V-6 is the ticket.