- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2000

If you're making the "Best Ten List" of new vehicles, you now only have nine more to go.

Saturn unveiled its all-new sport utility vehicle at the South Florida International Auto Show this week. This "different kind" of sport utility vehicle offers some of the best ideas found in the compact SUV market as well as important technology firsts for General Motors.

Saturn introduced its first cars at this show in Miami a decade ago with the then-new small coupe and sedan. This started a new "no hassle" way cars were sold with special attention to customers' needs that had only been dreamed about by consumers. The 440 Saturn retailers are proud of being recognized as leaders in customer satisfaction. Saturn ranked as the No. 1 nameplate in the J.D. Powers Sales Satisfaction Study, finishing first in this study five of the last six years. In 1999, Saturn added the midsize L-Series sedan and wagon and will follow with this SUV just two years later.

The rapidly growing compact SUV market has produced some very able competition including the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and the Mazda Tribute. This new Saturn entry had to be good and is intended to leapfrog these products in terms of design, features and user-friendliness. The yet to be named SUV has a clean, functional design featuring unique polymer bodyside panels that resist dents without the clutter of lower-body cladding. Other design features include a horizontal bar between large rectangular headlamps, strong flares over the wheels and a subtle swoosh on the lower body sides that has become a Saturn trademark. The spare tire is mounted inside rather than on the back, adding to the clean look.

The innovations are most evident on the inside. The space-frame design helps to provide a low step-in height for easy entry and exit. The front seats are designed for excellent comfort while providing a commanding view of the road. The rear cargo area is large and free of clutter, with the spare tire stowed beneath the load floor. The rear compartment also features a pair of storage pockets to keep smaller items from rolling around in the back, as well as two hooks for plastic grocery bags and four tie-down loops for securing larger items. The rear seat is a 70/30 fold-down design, so customers can tailor the space to meet their needs. The front-passenger seatback folds flat and it features a durable scuff-resistant surface, allowing objects like an 8-foot ladder or surfboard to be carried inside the vehicle. Major functions like folding seatbacks are designed for one-handed, one-step operation. A unique center-console design includes a handy space for a purse or planner, and the interior features a number of well-designed storage areas as well as a six-CD changer in the dash.

In the power department both the four-cylinder and V-6 engines are dual-overhead-camshaft designs. The 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine will be available with a European built five-speed manual transmission, or with an advanced continuously variable transmission (CVT). This is the first use of a CVT for General Motors in this country. The CVT uses a pair of variable-diameter pulleys and a special steel belt to precisely match engine output to vehicle speed, providing seamless acceleration and an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent better fuel economy while using 45 percent fewer parts than a conventional automatic transmission. GM's Powertrain Group designed this transmission. Saturn SUVs with the 181-horsepower V-6 will feature a five-speed automatic transmission. Another first on the technology side is the rack-and-pinion steering with electric assist. This allows easier maneuvering and parking around town and further helps fuel economy with the elimination of a power steering belt and hydraulic pump.

This carlike SUV has a platform unique to Saturn and will be available with front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive versions. The all-wheel-drive system features a transfer case located just ahead of the rear axle line that can smoothly transfer up to 100 percent of drive torque to the rear wheels should the front wheels start to slip. It is fully automatic, maintenance-free, and so compact that it requires no drive-shaft tunnel in the interior, allowing for a flat floor. Safety features are based on the space-frame construction, which allows engineers to put the structure where it provides optimum strength with minimum weight. Front and rear crumple zones in the space frame help absorb the energy of a crash while protecting the integrity of the safety cage. Car-height bumpers help reduce damage from low-speed impacts. Saturn's new head-curtain side air bags will be available on the SUV providing extra protection in the event of a side-impact collision. The all-new four-wheel independent suspension system reportedly helps to provide predictable handling and excellent maneuverability in a wide variety of driving conditions. The 8-inch ground clearance accommodates unpaved roads and other day-to-day driving. GM's OnStar system will be a first for use in the compact SUV segment.

Saturn's new 2002 SUV will compete in a market that is expected to double in the next five years. With a carlike ride and features found in more expensive vehicles, this entry will certainly get the attention of the competition as well as customers that intend a purchase in this most popular segment. At an estimated price just under $20,000, this will be the one to watch when it becomes available next fall. Stay tuned for the newest Saturn.

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