- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

Given that it’s still a teenager, Saturn looks remarkably mature these days.

Back in 1991, when the newest division of General Motors started selling cars, it offered a couple of economy-oriented compact coupes and sedans with plastic sides and modest power to ward off dings and enthusiasts.

But it did champion no-haggle pricing and promised a warm and fuzzy owner experience, in contrast to the dodgem and high-pressure sales representatives at most dealerships. It worked, too. Having a lot of customers who didn’t know much about cars and were put off by traditional selling, the “different kind of company; different kind of car” gave Saturn a toehold in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, it didn’t get the resources it needed from the parent company, so it didn’t keep up. It missed a tremendous opportunity to get into the car-based compact sport utility field, which eventually was taken over by the foreigners, notably Toyota with the RAV4 and Honda with the CR-V.

But recent years have brought about a resurgent Saturn, which now has fully competitive entries in some of the most important territories in the automotive universe.

There’s the acclaimed Aura mid-size sedan, which goes bumper-to-bumper with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The slick Sky two-seat sports car dices handily with its garage-mate, the Pontiac Solstice, as well as with the Mazda MX-5 Miata. And the seven-passenger Outlook crossover utility vehicle is as good as anything in the class. Orbiting out there, ready to land in stores, is the new compact Astra.

Meanwhile, Saturn delivers the re-designed 2008 Vue, a compact five-passenger crossover utility vehicle targeted at the sales leaders in the category: the CR-V and RAV-4. But it also shows plenty of muscle against the Chevrolet Equinox, Pontiac Torrent and Ford Escape.

All of these car-based vehicles—essentially tall station wagons—are similar in size, passenger accommodations and cargo space. They have a variety of models with both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, and they have sticker prices that are close to one another.

All but the Honda offers V6 engines. The Honda has only a four, but it doesn’t seem to bother customers because it’s far and away the sales leader among the compact CUVs.

Given time and familiarity, however, the Saturn Vue has the right stuff to establish itself, as well as chip away at some of the others in the class.

It has handsome, contemporary exterior styling and, at an inch over 15 feet, is exactly as long as the RAV4 and three inches longer than the CR-V. The interior has a classy look and feel and, in the fully-equipped XR version, had near-luxury accommodations with tasteful faux wood grain trim.

The base Vue XE, with front-wheel drive, starts at $21,450 and comes with a 169-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission. Like all Vue models, it has a full complement of safety equipment, including stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, and seat-belt pre-tensioners. GM’s OnStar communications system, with one year of service, also is standard.

The tested all-wheel drive XR model had a base price of $26,950, which included the 257-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode.

Standard equipment also included tire-pressure monitoring, remote locking, automatic climate control, an AM-FM-CD audio system with XM satellite radio and three months of service, auto-dimming inside mirror, fog lights and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Options on the test car included leather upholstery, a navigation system, rain-sensing windshield wipers, remote starting, upgraded audio system, garage-door opener and heated front seats. The options brought the suggested retail price to $31,000.

It’s an appealing package, except for fuel economy. The V6 engine provides plenty of power, although the Vue’s 4,235-pound weight is hundreds of pounds heavier than its competitors. The disparity shows up in the fuel economy rating, which is just 16/22 on the EPA’s city/highway cycle. That’s close to the high-performance BMW 550i V8 sedan, which has 360 horsepower and is rated at 15/23.

The Vue’s six-speed automatic shifts imperceptibly, and has an odd manual-shift mode. It’s a thumb-thing, a rocker button on the side of the shift lever. To upshift, you rotate the button forward; to downshift, you touch the back side. It works fine.

Handling is almost sedan-like, with a good steering feel. The Vue can capably handle tight corners without much body lean, though it’s no sports car. The ride is tight, but the suspension handles road irregularities without fuss. Most bumps are heard more than felt.

The driver and passengers are nicely isolated from road, engine and wind noise. Front seats are flat but supportive, and outboard rear-seat passengers fare almost as well, although knee room could be more generous. The rear seatbacks recline for comfort and fold flat to carry extra cargo. As usual, the designers disrespect the center-rear passenger.

Out back, there’s 29 cubic feet of cargo space, abetted by an unusual and clever track system for securing cargo nets.

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