- The Washington Times - Friday, November 9, 2001

Saturn may be last to market a sport utility vehicle, but it was worth the wait.
The VUE, Saturn's name for its new model, is versatile and cute. It offers some of the virtues of a sedan, station wagon and minivan, along with being a compact sport utility vehicle.
It brings to the segment such distinguishing Saturn features as polymer body side panels, space-frame construction and head-curtain side air bags, along with some advanced technology, such as electrically assisted power steering and an available continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Continuously variable transmissions are not new they have been around for many years but this is the first use by a domestic manufacturer and a first for an SUV. Why a CVT? It provides the features of an automatic transmission without its power-robbing weakness. This makes it perfect for smaller four-cylinder engines.
The VUE, thanks to Saturn's unique vehicle architecture, offers with a wide range of powertrain choices. The VUE is available with a four-cylinder front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, or V-6 with all-wheel drive. The in-line four is offer with either a five-speed manual or CVT, while the V-6 is provided with a five-speed automatic.
During the introduction, we put long hours and miles behind the wheel of the three models. All are impressive but our favorite was the CVT version. It provided the convenience of a traditional automatic, but there was noticeable loss of power, and there are no shift points making for a smoother drive.
The CVT uses a pair of variable-diameter pulleys and a special steel belt to precisely match engine output to vehicle speed. Its primary benefit is its ability to allow the engine to operate more efficiently than a traditional step-ratio automatic transmission, achieving virtually the same fuel economy as a manual transmission. I found that the CVT provided excellent acceleration and that it lost little or no power on steep hills.
If I were ordering a VUE, it would be theCVT version it is an impressive unit. We're not taking anything away from the five-speed manual, but, like most Americans, I prefer the car to do the shifting.
The available 3.0-liter, 181-horsepower V-6 comes with a five-speed automatic, a first for this class. It also provides excellent acceleration, particularly for passing situations, and above-average fuel economy.
Ride and handling on all VUE models is good. The SUV features four-wheel independent suspensions. The system provides responsive handling and a controlled ride on a variety of surfaces. My personal opinion is that the ride and handling will provide owners with a secure feeling on almost any type of road.
Saturn also introduces an advanced electrically assisted power-steering system that is claimed to provide precise steering at lower speeds and a confident feel on the highway. On the intro models, the steering varied from vehicle to vehicle, but we were told this would not happen on production models. Unlike a conventional steering system, no engine power is needed to drive a hydraulic pump. Saturn claims that this system will consume less fuel.
The all-wheel-drive system features a transfer case located just ahead of the rear axle line that is able to smoothly transfer torque to the rear wheels if the front wheels start to slip. It is fully automatic, maintenance-free and so compact that it requires no drive shaft tunnel allowing for a flat floor.
The AWD system will prove handy on both dry and icy roads, but it won't turn the VUE into a true off-road vehicle. It probably can handle a muddy dirt road, but don't expect to join the rock-climbing clan. VUE's distinctive styling and personality allows it to stand out in the crowded SUV market. Saturn's brand character is incorporated in the front-end design with horizontal headlights separated by a body-colored center panel and a prominent Saturn emblem. The fascia's lower area consists of an air intake with center split bar. Outboard air inlets feature grills on front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder models and are filled with fog lamps on all-wheel-drive four-cylinder and V-6 models.
The interior is spacious and offers many nooks and crannies for storage of small and midsize packages. The rear-seat back rest can be adjusted to either of two positions to suit passenger preferences. The 70/30 fold-down design allows passengers to configure the seat position to meet their needs. The combination of folding down the front passenger seat and the rear seat provides the ability for VUE to carry long objects.
Safety features abound and include space frame construction, head-curtain air-bag system, a standardized child safety seat system, anti-lock brakes and optional OnStar system plus daytime running lamps. VUE isn't the only compact SUV on the market, but it is one of the most interesting and enjoyable-to-drive models and it is priced below $20,000.
N. AMERICAN AUTO WRITERS SYNDICATE


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