Saturn Vue – 2008 First Drive: The world of compact crossovers has been divided for some time into two parts: the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 in one half, and everybody else in the other. It's not that they're always the biggest sellers in their segment, although that's usually the case, but if one is shopping for a "cute ute," you can pretty much guarantee that the Toyota and Honda are on the list. With that in mind, it's even more surprising that one of the strongest competitors to come along in some time is a nameplate that up until this time was considered a backmarker. The 2008 Saturn VUE is completely redesigned, and is such a quantum leap over the original that we’re a little surprised that GM decided to keep the name.
Forget everything you know about the Vue, from its dumpy shape to the ill-fitting plastic body panels. The 2008 Vue is based on a European-designed model from Opel called the Antera. It is altered only slightly inside and out, mostly to accommodate Saturn badges on the exterior and GM’s standard American switchgear inside. The Vue itself is the first of a new line of truly global products from General Motors. The basic platform will eventually replace the Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent (hooray!), and much of the work was spread between GM’s North American, European and Korean divisions.
The new Vue brings several things to the table. First is style. Inside and out, this is one sharp looking little ‘ute. Sure the fender vents are a little much, but hey, at least you can brag to your friends that your Saturn looks like a Land Rover. Second is power. The available 3.6-liter V-6 engine and its accompanying six-speed automatic transmission are as good as any similar drivetrain from any other manufacturer you can name. Finally, there’s execution. Long a GM stumbling block, the Vue puts its best foot forward with excellent interior accommodations and few complaints to be found.
It’s too soon to say if the pre-production car Saturn delivered to us is going to be identical to what consumers see, and while we are generally impressed there were a few rough edges on our test car. If those edges are filed smooth by the time consumers get their mitts on models, we’re guessing they’re going to be very happy with what they find.
The Vue will arrive in base XE, upscale XR and high-performance Red Line when it debuts; An eco-friendly Green Line hybrid version will follow early next year. Right now, you can get a front-wheel drive XE Vue for $21,395. This represents a $3,000 bump in price over the previous Vue, but also includes things like anti-lock brakes, an automatic transmission as well as a few other goodies as standard equipment. The most basic Vue is powered by GM’s Ecotec four-cylinder engine in 2.4-liter form, which produces 164 horsepower and is connected to a four-speed automatic transmission. This is, interestingly, the only way you can get a four banger in a Vue, and it is available in front wheel drive only.The $24,515 all-wheel drive Vue XEs get a 215 horsepower 3.5-liter pushrod V-6 engine that has, in one form or another, been kicking around GM for more than two decades. It’s connected to a six-speed automatic transmission, and like the base model's four-cylinder, this combination is unique to the all-wheel drive Vue XE.
It’s well worth the extra stretch to move up to the XR models. Our front-wheel drive XR boasted a 250-horsepower 3.6-liter overhead cam V-6 connected to a six-speed automatic transmission. This is far and away the best powertrain available in the Vue, and at $24,895, we’d take a front driver with this powertrain over the all-wheel drive XE with the lesser V-6. Opt for four-wheel drive in the XR and you get the same engine mated to the same transmission and pay an additional $2,000. The Red Line comes with the same drivetrain, but with more aggressive suspension tuning and exterior styling. Front-wheel drive versions will start at $27,395, while the all-wheel drive Red Line will start at $29,395.
Our test car was a more or less loaded front-wheel drive XR. The $24,895 base price quickly grew with the addition of the Convenience Package, which combined rain sensing wipers, heated windshield washer fluid, remote starter and a universal home remote for $505, and the Premium Trim package, which added leather seats, steering wheel and shift knob and heated driver and passenger seats for $1,075. Individual options included chrome skid plates for $170, manual control for the automatic transmission for $150, and the DVD-based navigation system for $2,145 which also necessitated the $325 advanced audio system. Curiously, the navigation system requires the audio system and vice versa; they can’t be had separately, and why they aren’t bundled into one $2,470 option is anyone’s guess. Anyhow, the total price of $29,265 is a big chunk of change, but before you roll your eyes and head to the Toyota or Honda dealership, note that the Vue is priced competitively and has advantages over both of its class-leading rivals: The Toyota RAV4 isn’t available with a factory nav system at any price, and the Honda is four-banger only.
Construction aside, Saturn has also developed a corporate face that is distinctly European, not surprising since many of its newer vehicles are coming from GM’s European division, Opel. The Vue continues along this line, with a smooth but chunky shape that looks clean and modern. We’re not sure who put the silly vents behind the front wheels, maybe it was the same guy who put the out-of-place round reflectors on the rear bumper, but these are minor nits, and even with them the Vue is a sharp looking little trucklet that avoids the peculiar window treatment of its Honda rival, or the heavy-butt look of the RAV4. It is on par with the Hyundai Santa Fe, one of the nicest small suvs around.
As pleasant as the exterior is, we were most impressed with the interior. This is a first-class place to be. Touches like the real metal trim on the door pulls and steering wheel and fully-lined storage bins in the center console are downright luxurious, and the overall design is clean and classy. The driver's seating position is good, but could be improved with a larger seat and a telescoping steering column. Otherwise, head, shouder and leg room are all very good.
Heating and ventilation controls are the same as we've seen in a lot of GM vehicles lately. This is good news, because it means clearly marked, high-quality buttons and knobs with rubber grips. In fact, all the controls in the Vue feel first rate, from the window switches to the buttons for the overhead lights. The gauges are housed in three separate aluminum-look rings, three because there is no temperature gauge (although plenty of room for one), just speedometer, tachometer and fuel level. The round vents are ringed in chrome, and the navigation and audio system is one of the better ones in the industry. We didn’t like the low-mounted cup holders in the center console, but otherwise there was little to complain about here.
The back seat is also admirable, with plenty of leg, hip, head and shoulder room for even tall passengers. Three passengers would be too tight, but two have plenty of room. The reclining seatbacks are a plus, and if you’re only riding with three, the right-side rear passenger can fold down the front seat for use as an ottoman. Yes, we know it’s for long cargo, but c’mon, it’s still nifty.
Speaking of cargo, there’s plenty of space behind the second row of seats for daily stuff like groceries. There’s a cargo net system that uses sliding latches mounted high on the walls and near the floor. It’s handy and multi-configurable, but if the latches are on the lowermost rail, you can’t open the compartment in the floor above the spare tire. The second row split-folds quickly and easily for long objects, and as mentioned, the front passenger seat can be folded down for even longer cargo.
The standard suspension was firm enough that we decided to see what the handling was like. Lo and behold, this thing actually does well on mountain roads. At moderately quick speeds, the Vue sticks well, with good responses and limited body roll given the Vue's overall height. It gives up when you really get moving; the steering goes numb as the front tires lose traction, and the roll feels more pronounced. Still, it’s a good vehicle to drive quickly and instills us with high hopes for the Red Line version.
The drivetrain is one of this car’s strongest points, and it’s hard to believe it’s the same setup that was in the noisy and unruly Suzuki XL7 we tested just a couple weeks prior. The V-6 is smooth and refined sounding, a little strained at high revs, but not bad. The transmission shifts quickly and smoothly, and although it's nice to have a manual control function, this one was better suited to upshifts. Downshifts were frequently slow to respond, even though the engine was nowhere near overrevving in the lower gear. Also, we’d prefer paddle shifters or a slap-stick rather than the button mounted on the side of the gear selector in the Vue.
Visibility is good to the sides and front, with the windshield pillars only occasionally intruding on the view. Unit-body crossovers like the Vue require a lot of structure to stay stiff for demanding customers, and a lot of the rigidity is found in the rear hatch area, specifically, the rearmost pillars. That’s true here, too, and combined with the small rear window makes the Vue surprisingly tricky to back up for such a small vehicle, and there are no backup sensors or a camera available. The side mirrors are generous, but the odd shape made one editor think they were about to fall off.
Despite it’s strengths, the Vue isn’t a slam dunk. The name is still a potential stumbling block for some. The previous Vue sold pretty well, but was unacceptably junky to us, and carrying over that name may scare off potential buyers who rejected the earlier version of Saturn’s small ‘ute. Some serious marketing dollars will have to be poured into the pipeline to reeducate customers on that front. Current Vue owners looking to upgrade may balk at the $3,000 base price increase over the ’07 Vue, extra equipment or not. There’s also the issue of market saturation. Virtually every manufacturer has something in this segment, and few of the vehicles are bad. The Honda CR-V may only have a four-banger, but it’s still a heck of a trucklet. The Ford Escape is newly redesigned and also boasts V-6 power in the same price range. The Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Santa Fe have V-6 power and an available third row of seats for roughly the same price.
Regardless, buyers in the compact crossover segment would do themselves a huge disservice to pass over this little Saturn.
Price Range: $29,265
Engine Size and Type: 3.6-liter V-6
Engine Horsepower: 250 hp
Engine Torque: 243 lb.-ft.
Transmission: six-speed automatic with manual control
Curb Weight, lbs.: 4076
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): TBA
Observed Fuel Economy: 18.6 mpg
Length: 180.1 in.
Width: 72.8 in.
Wheelbase: 106.6 in. Height: 67 in.
Leg Room (front/rear): 40.7 in./36.9 in.
Head Room (front/rear): 40.2 in./39.3 in.
Max. Seating Capacity: 5
Max. Cargo Volume: 54.3 cu. ft.
Max. Towing Capacity: 3,500 lb. (with trailer brakes)
Competitors: Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe, Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage, Mazda Tribute, Mitsubishi Outlander, Toyota RAV4
To note that the 2008 Saturn Vue represents a huge improvement over its predecessor is a classic understatement. That clunky old box of junky plastic only did one thing better than the new Vue: provide comfort and cargo space. The redesigned Vue has a tighter back seat and smaller cargo compartment than the old model, and I find the driving position awkward on a seat that is too small and which provides too much lumbar support even when dialed all the way down. Neither Vue’s styling does it for me, and the silly side vents on the 2008 version are extraneous. Add a telescopic steering wheel and a better driver’s seat, and I’d have little to complain about here. --Christian Wardlaw
2008 Saturn Vue: Second Opinion
Saturn’s finally stopped designing “sensible looking” vehicles and started making ones people might want to drive. Granted, the Vue looks like a dozen other vehicles, but mistaken identity definitely outshines its predecessor’s unique frumpiness. Our test model had numerous quality issues like misaligned body panels and interior plastic gaps. Being number 52 off the production line, hopefully this will be resolved soon. Torque-steer was a problem, and the ride bumpy. The new V-6 is peppy and more than adequate easily producing power faster than the transaxle can get it to the ground. Wind, road and engine noise were present, but below conversation levels. Seats were comfortable with adequate room for four. Unfortunately, Saturn planned for five. They finally got me to look, but I’m still walking away. -- Vernon Heywood
2008 Saturn Vue: Second Opinion
Typically, upward mobility is a gradual process, one characterized by continual improvement. In that light, the 2008 Saturn Vue is a success. Showcasing fresh style and three new home-grown powertrains (no more Honda-sourced V-6s for 2008), Saturn’s revamped little crossover leaves its predecessor in its dust. Such a move required adopting a model from Europe’s Opel lineup, but hey, if its gets the job done, who’s to argue? We drove a front-wheel-drive XR with the powerful and refined 3.6-liter V-6 engine mated to a smooth-shifting, manually-interactive six-speed automatic transmission. With plenty of grunt, albeit accented by a small degree of torque-steer, the muscle under the hood is clearly the 2008 Vue’s strongest asset. The styling is a plus, too, but I’m not crazy about the round reflectors in the rear fascia, or the fact that the dimensions don’t allow for a third row seat, something that a Toyota RAV4 competitor would be happy to provide. Other detractions include a transmission that’s hard to get into gear, a multitude of steering wheel and power seat adjustments that still left me without a comfortable driving position, and a base sticker price that’s about $3,000 higher than last year. Saturn officials claim that the level of standard equipment serves as justification, but no matter how you slice it, returning Vue shoppers will likely view $3,000 as a helluva pill to swallow. Let’s not even discuss the lack of a current sunroof option. Better in every way, but given competitors including the RAV4 and Santa Fe, not what I’d consider best. -- Thom Blackett
2008 Saturn Vue: Second Opinion
If the new Vue is an accurate indicator, the days of the tinny, noisy and cheap Saturn products are a thing of the past. The Vue looks, feels and rides like a much more expensive vehicle than it is. The acceleration will surprise you as will the comfort and build quality. Wind noise is minimal but there is a bit too much engine noise seeping into the cabin, especially under hard acceleration. I also experienced a searching transmission when kicking it down into passing gear. Overall I walked away from my drive impressed and excited to see an American car company making such great strides to build a vehicle that can be competitive against the foreign competition. -- Ron Perry