Thursday, May 6, 2004

Two years ago Saturn introduced a sport utility vehicle called VUE. Then Saturn’s designers went back to the drawing board so they now have the new and improved version.

The 2004 VUE has numerous attractive features making this a more enjoyable all-around vehicle for any occasion — a versatility that the original version lacked. Most of the improvements are subtle but very desirable. For example, it now features dual-stage air bags and the front seat belts have pretensioners. Both of those features are only noticeable in an accident; I didn’t check them out.

Those who buy the optional comfort package will find a six-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support and heated driver and passenger seats.

A DVD rear-seat entertainment system is ideal when traveling a distance with children. The 7-inch LCD will keep their attention for hours — if you select the right show. OnStar and XM Satellite radio are also options, and three new radio systems are available. The test vehicle was equipped with a stereo that played CD and MP3, but I stayed tuned to XM Satellite and listened to the same channel I play in my home: Sunny.

Another change is a 16-gallon tank that holds about a gallon more than the original VUE; a change you might not notice.

But you might notice how the acoustical changes have made the interior much quieter.

Interior changes can be seen on the nickel-plated door handles, the backlit cluster sporting white instrument gauges with chrome rings, and the leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel.

These changes aren’t going to jump out at you, but there is one that will.

The exterior is now available is an Electric Lime color, which is so unusual it will take at least a week to get used to it. Even after a week, I wasn’t too thrilled about the color. Incidentally, body panels are now resistant to parking-lot dings.

I was thrilled with the new engine. The test Saturn had the optional $2,000 Red Line performance package. This package consists of a lower suspension, 18-inch tires and alloy wheels, chrome exhaust tips and a snazzy-looking front fascia. The combination made the VUE somewhat sporty and it handles very well, especially in hard turns.

The electric power steering is calibrated to give the VUE a sporty feel.

Under the hood is a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that is about half a liter stronger than in the old V-6 model. This new engine generates 250 horsepower and 242 foot-pounds of torque to make the old engine seem comparatively sluggish.

Saturn people tell me it can do 0 to 60 mph in 7 seconds. That’s not earth-shattering speed but I felt comfortable with the acceleration, especially when entering a freeway.

Another advantage to the additional power is in towing ability. The VUE can pull 3,500 pounds compared with 2,500 pounds on the old model.

This engine is linked to a five-speed automatic transmission that has grade-logic control, which eliminates that annoying up-and-down shifting when climbing a hill.

The VUE was also equipped with the all-wheel-drive option, which is a great safety feature for when roads are slick with either snow or rain.

I liked the way the liftgate raised, exposing a useful amount of storage space. There are numerous storage compartments throughout the VUE. Should there be

a need for hauling something large, there are the 70/30 split rear seats, and the backrest of the front seat can be folded down.

The base price is $23,960, but with the numerous options the bottom line on the test vehicle was $28,745, about $3,000 more than the old model — and much nicer.

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