- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

Saturn arrived late to the SUV party. Its VUE popped onto the scene as a 2002. Saturn certainly isn't the last brand with an SUV of some sort Volkswagen and Porsche are launching their SUVs as 2003s but what is significant about Saturn's timing is that when the VUE did arrive, it wasn't the killer vehicle we expected.

Sure, it's larger than its competitors such as Toyota's RAV4 and Honda's CR-V. Its wheelbase is longer too. It costs less than the Toyota and comes standard with air conditioning. That's a plus. However, the VUE is a bit rough around the edges. It's engine doesn't offer the horsepower of the competition's four-bangers, and interior fit and finish lag as well.

New last year, the VUE hasn't really changed for 2003. Its V-6 can now power a front-wheel-drive version and a couple of new exterior colors are being offered, but that's about it. There are also a couple of new option packages available such as the upgraded 180-watt audio system with a subwoofer and six speakers. Nice.

Actually, the 2.2-liter four-cylinder-equipped VUE is less of a disappointment than the 3.0-liter V-6 model. When mated with the VTi variable transmission, the four-cylinder does a better job at what it's supposed to do than the V-6 and five-speed automatic transmission combo. The VTi is the only continuously variable transmission (CVT) found in an SUV. Because it constantly changes gear ratios according to engine speed and power requirements, it coaxes optimum performance from the engine. Whereas traditional automatic transmissions are restricted to a set number of gear ratios, CVTs move freely. Acceleration is also smoother with a CVT because there is no discernible shift from one gear to the next. It's a fluid change.

Optimum performance isn't the only benefit of the CVT. Fuel economy is also improved, usually to the degree of being equal to that of the same vehicle armed with a five-speed manual transmission. In the case of the VUE, the Environmental Protection Agency rates its miles-per-gallon as 21 in the city and 26 on the highway. Acceleration is smooth if not breathtaking. The VUE spools up gradually but with determination. Reaching 60 mph from a standing start requires a leisurely 11 seconds or so. This is a tick slower than either the CR-V or RAV4. The four-cylinder is a tad noisier than those of its key competitors as well.

Thanks to its longer wheelbase and independent four-wheel suspension, the VUE delivers a pliant ride over most road surfaces. Its all-wheel-drive system operates without driver input. Like the Honda and Toyota, it has no low-end setting for serious off-roading but handles itself well on slippery road surfaces. Cornering is about equal to its competitors with a bit of body roll evident when hitting the twists at speed.

Inside, the cabin is roomy enough. It stands up well against the CR-V for space while blowing away the RAV4. Although rear leg room is stingy and doesn't really reflect the VUE's exterior length advantage over these competitors. A low step-in is a plus for loading and unloading passengers. Cargo space is adequate, and the flip-up lift gate provides a large opening.

There is seating for five. The rear seat is split in a 70/30 configuration; both sections fold flat into the floor for additional cargo space. Base price of the Saturn VUE AWD with VTi is $18,860. Standard features include driver's seat height adjuster, air conditioning, four-speaker AM/FM stereo, dual front airbags, LATCH child-seat restraint system and rear-window defogger. A $1,360 option package adds power door locks and windows, dual power outboard mirrors, cruise control and map lights. Upgrading the 16-inch wheels from steel to alloy will add $400 to the bottom line. Tacking on the $510 delivery charge brought the price as tested to $21,330.

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