"It's a lot like an old-style GM family station wagon that suddenly found itself a bit taller, a bit beefier and sporting all-wheel drive."
Good: soft ride, near perfect size, good visibility
Bad: sloshing handling, poor steering

 

After nearly starving Saturn to death for a decade, GM has finally thrown Saturn dealers some new metal to sell. Well, actually, plastic (as in body panels). Unfortunately, none of the new stuff is all that spectacular, including this middle of the road, mid-sized SUV. Saturn has made its reputation as a company with exceptional customer service and adequate cars. And assuming they can keep up the customer service end, the VUE will not alter that reputation.

The VUE is a soft-riding, sloshy handling mid-sized all-wheel-drive wagon. Its best attribute is its size, which is nearly perfect. It's bigger than the "mini-utes" like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CRV. But it's smaller than the Ford Explorer and Chevy Trailblazer. It's also lower and more car-like than similarly sized SUVs, such as the Ford Escape and Nissan X-Terra. In other words, big enough to fit people and stuff comfortably, but not so big you'll have trouble parking it, garaging it or getting in and out of it.

While it's based on a car platform, the worst attribute is that it steers more like a '72 Buick Estate Wagon than like a Honda Accord. We can only hope they address this in future model years.


The driving experience in the VUE is very car-like, although as we say, it might not be the car you have in mind. The steering is so soft and lacking in road feel that it could have been lifted right out of a '74 Caprice, or one of its soul mates. You can put one finger on the wheel and spin it. Soon thereafter, the car will change direction. Of course, if you still consider your '73 Electra the best handling car you ever owned, this may be the car for you.

What Saturn gives up in handling, they've gained in comfort. This is certainly one of the softest riding SUVs you'll find this side of a Cadillac Escalade. So if you're a hemorrhoid sufferer or just put a premium on comfort, the VUE is worth a drive.

 

The VUE can be had with either a four- or six-cylinder engine. Our test VUE had the six, which is optional in the base model and standard in the all-wheel-drive edition. We thought it was just about the perfect size engine for this vehicle. It offered plenty of power around town, and enough on the highway. It's not a fuel sipper, however, and ran through tanks of gas surprising quickly.

Another advantage of the VUE's car-based chassis is that the VUE is easy to get in and out of. No rappelling in and out of the driver's seat is necessary. To do this, Saturn sacrificed a little bit of ground clearance, which none of us will ever miss. It's important if you're climbing over logs and boulders and lassoing grizzlies. Are you ever going to do that? Didn't think so. Your tailor will be disappointed because you won't be splitting your pants as often, but you'll be grateful for a driver's seat that's closer to terra firma.


Visibility in all directions is excellent. And because the VUE's high hood goes straight out horizontally, and then drops right off, it's also very easy to know where the front of the car ends, which makes parking pretty easy.

There are soft net pockets in the doors, nice big cup holders placed just a bit too low between the seats, and a decent-sized bin down there as well. The cup holders are very well designed. Anything that spills out will run back into the cup holder, rather than onto that box of prized Cuban cigars you stashed on the floor. There are some nice cubbies in the back cargo area.

 

Unfortunately, like a lot of General Motors' cars, the switches and controls on the interior of the VUE felt a little like cheap plastic -- which, not surprisingly, is exactly what they are. It's too bad, because for a lousy twenty cents more here and there, GM could have made them feel more substantial. And by the time you get one of these babies out the door with a V6 and all-wheel drive, you're in the $26,000 range. And in that neighborhood, you want more than cheap plastic. At the last, you want mid-priced plastic.

The window switches for the power windows are located in the middle between the seats, which is not convenient and is rather counterintuitive. If you want to open the passenger's front window, you have to reach over the shifter to do it.

 

Otherwise, ergonomically speaking, the VUE is pretty good. Everything makes sense. There are three big switches for the ventilation. Cruise control switches are on the steering wheel. The radio is a little bit funky, and the knobs can be confusing. The knob on the left is on-off and volume, which is fine. The knob on the right, though, controls bass, treble and the fader. How often do you adjust that? Once or twice a year? A tuning knob would have been much more useful. That's a similar situation with a few other radio controls below those knobs. We won't bore you with details. It's just that they're different without being better.

Here's one nice touch: When you turn off the ignition, all the doors unlock, so every time you get out, you can open the other doors and the trunk without having to do anything. If you currently have a car that doesn't do this, you'll really appreciate this thoughtful little addition.


In terms of looks, we're not a big fan of the Saturn front end. It's almost Oldsmobile-like -- which is not exactly a compliment. Otherwise, though, it's nice looking: mildly beefy without being big. Men won't be embarrassed to be seen driving it.


The VUE engine is the same as the V6 that GM has been using in the Saturn wagon for the past few years, which has proven to be reasonably reliable. We would expect the VUE to be about average in terms of reliability.


Maintenance should be fairly routine on the VUE. However, the six-cylinder engine is shoehorned into the engine compartment, and that will make service and maintenance more time consuming (and therefore expensive) than normal. The VUE, like other Saturns, also uses plastic body panels, which are dent-proof, and may save you some money on body dings and parking lot dents.


Aside from the numb steering, there's nothing terribly wrong with the Saturn VUE. It's a nice size wagon, it's got most of the features people are looking for, and it's got Saturn's reputation for customer service and haggle-less purchasing. That said, there's nothing terribly exciting about the VUE either. And by the time you get it dressed the way most people will want it, with a V6 and all-wheel drive, you're in the price range of a Toyota Highlander. And for that kind of money, we'd take the Highlander hands down.

For a little less, you can also have a Honda CRV, which has a very peppy 160 HP four-cylinder engine and Honda's legendary reliability.

But if it's comfort you crave...if you like a nice, soft ride under your rear end, and want a mid-sized SUV, the VUE is worth a drive. It's a lot like an old-style GM family station wagon that suddenly found itself a bit taller, a bit beefier and sporting all-wheel drive. If that appeals to you, Saturn has a VUE with room.


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