Saturn crossover – a VUE with room

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We love to root for the underdog. So it’s good to see an automotive nameplate rise from mediocrity — near extinction, perhaps — to relevance in just a couple of years.

This distinction goes to Saturn, a division of General Motors, which is enjoying somewhat of a resurgence as well.

We recently spent a week behind the wheel of the all-new Saturn VUE, a compact crossover vehicle. We’ve stamped it a job well done and a major improvement over the previous iteration.

Over the past two years, we’ve spent several weeks driving the three varieties of Saturn Aura, a mid-sized sedan, and we’ve enjoyed two weeks of seat time over the past 12 months in a couple of Saturn Outlook full-sized crossover vehicles. Last year we were mesmerized by the classy and affordable Sky roadster.

While the Aura and the Outlook may not rank as “best in class,” they are darn good and far superior to recent Saturn products and worthy of consideration against all competition in the sedan and large crossover segments.

The VUE, likewise, has vaulted into serious contention against such standouts as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Santa Fe.

The sudden up-tick in style and sophistication is no accident. General Motors decided to make use of its considerable worldwide assets in developing new products for Saturn and the VUE, like the Aura and the soon-to-come Astra, comes directly from the European Opel arm of GM.

The VUE is derived from the Opel Antara and has been transformed into one of the best looking compact crossovers on the market.

European styling cues abound. A high-arching roofline with the A-pillars flowing neatly to meet high molded hood edges give the VUE a striking appearance of solidarity from front to back. Muscular-looking wheel arches create a bold stance from the side. Nice touches such as black side vents, dual stainless-steel exhaust tips and stylish 17-inch alloy wheels further set off the head-turning look.

But there’s much more to the VUE than striking good looks. And that’s the essence of Saturn's transformation.

The European-tuned Opel suspension gives the small SUV a more aggressive driving demeanor than found in its competitors, a large V-6 engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission translates into smile-inducing performance and an interior with high-grade materials and excellent fit and finish rivals the best the Japanese have to offer.
Beauty here is definitely more than skin deep.

But like a lot of General Motors nameplates in recent years, you have to make the correct choice by bypassing the entry-level version used as an advertising tool for low prices. For instance, we don’t think that the four-cylinder engine making 164 horsepower mated to a four-speed automatic in the base XE lives up to the new VUE image. You won’t get the vehicle we have been describing.

The advantages of the four-banger are obvious — a little better gas mileage and a lower initial price starting at $21,395. We think you will be disappointed and the price advantage will be lost at trade-in time.

So that leaves two desirable options – the base XE also comes in an all-wheel drive version powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 generating 222 horsepower mated to a six-speed automatic. It starts at $24,415.

The second option and our choice is the top-line XR trim level that features the 3.6-liter
V-6 generating 257 horsepower mated to the six-speed. It comes in front wheel drive beginning at $24,895 or all-wheel drive starting at $26,895. Both versions have a 3,500-pound towing capacity.

While this engine is not as quiet as the Honda V-6 found in the previous edition, it offers smooth performance, reaching 60 miles per hour in just a tick or two over seven seconds and can hit 90 mph in a quarter mile. That’s on a par with the 269-horsepower V-6 in the Toyota RAV4.

We found a slightly stiffer suspension setup than in the previous VUE and we think most people will find it easy on the behind, and those who want to live a little on the weekend will be delighted with the sporting persona it exhibits on the twisty back roads.

Steering is well weighed with good on-center feel. And perhaps of equal importance to shoppers in our midst, the VUE is exceedingly maneuverable in parking lot situations and in slow stop and go around-town driving.

We found the seating position excellent, and for the short of stature the power driver’s seat can be elevated to yield a good view over the steering wheel.

The restyled General Motors trucks last year ushered in a new and appealing dashboard look, and it’s been extended to this GM crossover.

Chrome-ringed gauges are easy to see and soft-touch switchgear such as the climate controls are easy to understand and use.

The VUE is no different than most vehicles with navigation — you have to use the screen for tuning radio stations. We wish both radio and climate settings were independent. But we continually wish for a million bucks in the lottery, too. On the plus side, the GM navigation is relatively intuitive and provides accurate maps and listings.

OnStar is also set up and ready for all models. The satellite-based system includes hands-free phoning, turn-by-turn directions and a diagnostic check of your car if you think something is amiss. It also is excellent for emergencies when medical help is needed or when you lock your keys in the vehicle. But like satellite radio, there is a monthly charge.

Rear-seat accommodations are up to segment standards with decent legroom and reclining seatbacks. There is no third-row option and we applaud that. For a third row please move up to the next size in the GM roster of crossovers.

Cargo space is only average, but probably more than adequate for most families. There’s 29 cubic feet behind the seats and 56 cubic feet with the seats folded flat.

All models come with the requisite 21st Century equipment including power windows and locks, keyless entry, air conditioning and a decent audio system with CD/MP3 player and satellite radio.

One sour note — we wish Saturn had found a way to wring more gas mileage out of its V-6 engines. We found the 16/23 FWD and 16/22 AWD ratings disappointing. The smaller V-6 is rated even worse, 15/22. This won’t help the “greening” of GM.

In any case the VUE overall is job well done and deserves serious consideration when shopping for a compact crossover. 


Base price: $21,395; as driven, $30,945
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Horsepower: 257 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 248 foot-pounds @ 2,100 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/3
Turning circle: 40 feet
Length: 180.1 inches
Wheelbase: 106.6 inches
Curb weight: 4,325 pounds
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
Cargo capacity: 56 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17 gallons (regular)
EPA mileage: 22 highway, 16 city
0-60: 7.3 seconds (Edmund's)
Also consider: Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander

The Good
• Potent V-6 engine
• Gorgeous exterior styling
• Stylish interior

The Bad
• Cargo capacity on small side for segment

The Ugly
• Gas mileage of V-6 engines a disappointment