Pros: Unique styling, acceleration, plastic body panels, cargo capacity
Cons: Unique styling, price, interior materials, rear seat comfort, unrefined engine and chassis
When I first drove the VUE back in December 2001, I was impressed by its car-like ride and handling. My initial review can be found here. Now, after driving a 2003, I find myself having to change my evaluation. The VUE still rides and handles much like a car. The problem is the car it rides and handles like, Saturns L-Series. (Click on the hyperlinks to go to my reviews of related vehicles.) A few months ago I drove the 2003 Subaru Forester, and it profoundly changed my expectations for how a car-based SUV should feel. The VUE no longer cuts it. For details, read on.
Compact, car-based SUVs remain one of the hottest segments of the market. Toyota and Honda have offered such vehicles for about six years now. The first generation RAV4 and CR-V werent quite right for the American marketToyota and Honda didnt originally intend to offer them herebut the second generation of each is much improved. (My review of the second-generation CR-V can be found here.) Ford really blew the segment two years ago with the Escape, which brought V6 power and a top SUV brand to the segment. Last year GM got into the game with the VUE, offered by Saturn.
Saturn is a logical place for such a vehicle. The Japanese created this segment, and Saturn was created by GM to copy the Japanese, and especially Honda, as far as product was concerned. Think of the VUE as Saturns knock-off of the CR-V, and you wont be far off. Still, there are a few significant differences between the two vehicles. Ill cover these as I make my way through this review.
Saturn VUE Reliability
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Styling and Accommodations
In styling, the VUE looks like a Saturn SUV might be expected to look: clean and friendly with a touch of quirky. Saturn stumbled when its designs got too plain in the late-90s, and it has learned from this experience. In the VUE, some character is provided by flared wheel openings, Audi-esque cutlines where the bumper fascias meet the body (okay, Olds and Saturn did this first, but it looks better on the A6), an upward sweeping indentation in the doors, and a hood that wraps over a bit into the fenders.
The last warrants a bit more comment. Like the S-Series (small) Saturn, the VUE uses space frame construction. What this means is that the metal frame provides all of the structural strength of the vehicle, enabling the fenders and door skins to be made of plastic. (The larger, L-Series Saturns have plastic front fenders and door skins, but metal rear fenders that contribute to the structure.) On the plus side, these panels resist dents and wont rust (not that vehicles rust much anymore, with todays anti-corrosion technology). The downside of plastic panels is that they expand and contract quite a bit with temperature variations, so the gaps between them must be larger. Some reviews have criticized these gaps on the VUE, saying they allow fingers to be inserted up to the second knuckle. This has not been the case on the VUEs I have seen. The gaps are perhaps twice as broad as those on a Honda or Toyota, but they are much narrower than those Ive seen on past Saturns, and very even. Now for that hood. The VUEs designers appear to have incorporated wider than normal panel gaps into the design. The way the A-pillar and hood are styled accentuate these gaps rather than hide them, lending the product a hyper-functional, overtly structural character where each panel is clearly visible as a distinct part of the whole. I personally think it works.
A few other features of the exterior design bear mention. The front end is perhaps the most car-like of any SUV, with very horizontal headlamps. Owing to these lamps, the VUE from the font looks like a car that has been given a serious suspension lift. The much more expensive Audi Allroad looks much the same way. Some people expect their SUVs to look more trucky, but then theyll probably want other aspects of the vehicle to be more trucky as well. Think of this front end as truth in styling. The rear end is marked by blacked-out D-pillars, making it look as if the glass wraps around from one side all the way around the back to the other. The original CR-V was similarly styled in this area. That the new one has painted D-pillars, like just about every other SUV, suggests that Honda learned that SUV buyers desire the more rugged, stronger look of painted pillars. Though other features of the VUEs styling may be quirkier, this one may cause Saturn the most heartache.
Some people will not like this or that detail of the design, but Saturn learned the hard way that overly safe designs make its vehicles too similar to everything else, and thus invisible to many potential buyers. Overall, I think they did a good job. The VUE is unique, it looks like a Saturn, and above all it looks both fun and sophisticated. Though about the same size as the CR-V, the VUE has more presence and generally looks much less like a toy SUV. I say cut Saturn some slack and be thankful its not a blatant copy of the CR-V or Escape.
The VUEs interior styling is more conventional. The gauges and switches generally come from other Saturns. Overall, they look and function well. Some people will object to the power window controls location near the shifter, but I dont mind it. The basic design of the dash resembles the Lexus RX 300, with the shifter mounted on a shelf that protrudes from the center of the dash. Lower down, on the floor between the seats, Saturn has included a low, non-movable center console with a smallish storage compartment and cupholders. The last might be too low to be used easily. I suspect its low to attempt to mimic the open feeling in the front seat of the CR-V. Unfortunately, the promontory on which the shifter is mounted kills that effect. I dont mind the sportier ambiance this design lends myself, but there is something to be said from the much more spacious feeling of the CR-V, with its unique dash-mounted shifter, dash-mounted parking brake, and fold-away console. A significant difference to keep in mind, either way.
My least favorite parts of the interior design are the door panels and center console. These are covered in a hard plastic with a pebbled surface texture. It looks and feels cheap. The padded door panels and armrests of the Saturn L-series are much missed here. These are just the worst examples of cheap materials. There are many others.
Overall, the VUEs interior is more stylish than those in the CR-V and Escape, but the low quality of many materials negates this potential bonus. The interior of the Forester is perhaps even more stylish, and the materials used are the best in this class. The higher quality materials in the CR-V reinforce its utilitarian aesthetic, recalling older Mercedes. The Escapes materials are not much better than the VUEs, but they somehow seem less out of place in the Escapes more utilitarian interior design. Redesigning the door panels and center console would help the VUE a great deal.
I have already mentioned that the CR-Vs interior feels more spacious. This is partly due to its design, but also because it is more spacious. Though the VUE is three inches longer and an inch wider than the Honda, it has 6% less passenger volume. Most notably, it has an inch less shoulder room (more significant than it would seem) and a whopping three inches less rear legroom (front legroom is virtually identical).
This last disadvantage may be the largest weakness of the VUE. The new CR-V has a very spacious, surprisingly comfortable rear seat. Its not just that the Honda has 39.4 inches of rear legroom, which is big car territory. It also helps a great deal that the Hondas rear seat cushion is mounted high off the floor, so it provides thigh support to adult males. The rear seat in the Escape is similarly high, such that it is also comfortable despite providing the same amount of legroom as the VUE on paper. The VUEs rear seat, in contrast, is mounted fairly low, as is frequently the case in GM vehicles. As a result, it provides insufficient thigh supportadults closer to six feet than five will have a bit of that "knees in your throat" feeling. It does not help that the map pocket on the back of the drivers seat bulges out, making contact with the shins of this 5'9 male. (There is a bit more knee room behind the passenger seat, which has a plastic back.)
Why didnt Saturn mount the cushion higher? There is more than enough headroom, so that wasnt the limiting factor it often is in sedans. It seems that they wanted to avoid the complexity, expense, and owner inconvenience of having to fold the rear seat cushion as well as the seatback. It is easier to fold the Saturns seat, especially since you do not need to remove the rear headrests first as you have to do in the others. However, I believe that the loss in rear seat comfort and load floor flatness is too high a price to pay for this convenience.
Front seat comfort is better. The seats are moderately firm, softer than those in the Honda but not too much so. Though lateral support is minimal, you sink in just enough to feel well-supported in regular driving. The front seats are fairly high up, and combined with a large amount of glass afford excellent visibility, especially forward. Some of the pillars are a bit thick, but none obtrusively so. As in the CR-V and uplevel Escape, a manual height adjustment is standard. For 2003 leather seat faces are available, an the VUE I drove was equipped with this $995 option. The leather is of a fairly low grade, which is typical of vehicles in this price rage. The seats feel a bit less comfortable and supportive in leather, as you dont sink in as much. I felt like I was sitting on the seat more than in it.
Also, this time around I was unable to find a comfortable driving position. The recliner is a ratchet type, and none of the setting felt quite right. The steering wheel felt a bit far away, and it does not telescope. The problem might actually have been with the design of the steering wheel. I has a very thick spoke right where I want to put my hand, such that I cannot rest my left elbow on my armrest and comfortably grip the wheel at the same time.
Many people buy SUVs for their interior versatility. Here the VUE comes up a bit short, but not overly so. As in the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the front passenger seatback folds forward to permit very large objects to be carried inside. One unique feature is a cargo organizer that folds out of the floor to form a box about one by three feet in size. It is a bit flimsy, but not nearly to the degree some other reviews have suggested. It should be more than up to the task of keeping small objects or a few grocery bags from rolling about the interior.
With the rear seatback up or down, there is a usable amount of cargo space. But there could be more. Though a bit smaller outside, the Honda provides about ten percent more cargo volume inside. Credit/blame goes largely to the location of the spare. The CR-Vs is mounted on the tailgate, while the VUEs, like the Escapes, is under the cargo floor. As a result, the cargo floor is lower in the CR-V, and a decent amount of additional storage is available beneath it. That fixed rear seat cushion also causes problems here for the VUEthe rear seat doesnt quite fold flat, though I suspect a bit of weight on it might fix this by compressing the seat cushion.
Many people will be more than willing to give up 10% of their cargo room in exchange for the advantages of having the spare inside. Though this means the spare cannot be full size, it stays cleaner there, and is less likely to rattle. It allows the vehicle to look more sleek and car-like. Perhaps most importantly, in a minor rear collision the spare wont be pushed into the tailgate, causing hundreds of dollars of damage. This is a danger on the CR-V, and on the Toyota RAV4 as well, since the spare extends further rearward than the bumper.
Sadly, Saturn has not gone all the way and constructed the rear bumper to car standards. Small SUVs tend to have weak rear bumpers, such that minor rear collisions result in much damage, and I note that only the front bumper of the VUE is rated to withstand a 5 MPH hit. The competition doesnt do any better, and often does worse, but Saturn could have led here.
One final area where the VUE comes up a bit short is the tailgate. Like the Escape but unlike the Honda, it opens upward rather than to the side. Some people prefer one, some the other. Shorter people can have trouble closing upward opening tailgates, and taller people can hit their heads on them, but they do get more out of the way. Neither is easy to open in a closed garage. Thats where a separately opening liftglass can help. Unfortunately, the VUE, unlike most of its competitors, does not offer this feature. Because it often preferable to open only the glass, many buyers will be disappointed by this omission.
On the Road
One area where the VUE promises to trump the CR-V is on the road. Though the second generation CR-V has a larger, more powerful engine, its still a four-cylinder. Some people, myself among them, would much rather have the more refined sounds and sensations of a six. Like the Escape but unlike the CR-V, the VUE is available with both a four and a six. Both engines are slightly modified versions of those in Saturns L-series cars.
Note that the six unlike the four uses a timing belt. Although a belt is quieter, I prefer a timing chain, as this saves a few hundred dollars in maintenance down the road. The sixs belt will probably have to be replaced at about 60,000 miles.
The VUEs engines bracket the CR-Vs in power. While the Hondas four produces 160 horsepower, the VUEs four produces 143 and the its six produces 180. Performance is not a simple function of horsepower. Transmissions also affect performance. Saturn provides two unique transmissions in this class. Instead of a conventional automatic, the four is available with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). I have described such a transmission in detail in my 2002 A4 review. To cut to the chase here, a CVT permits an engine to be held at the power peak as the vehicle accelerates, such that it produces full power all the time rather than losing a great deal of power every time the transmission shifts and RPM consequently drop. Though the Saturn four makes 10% less power than the Hondas, the CVT should compensate for this. Weight also affects performance, but since the two vehicles weights are almost identical, their acceleration should be close. On the downside, holding the engine at a constant RPM feels a bit strange and could result in a great deal of noise unless the engine is very refined, which the Saturns is not.
I dont know why the Saturns six doesnt make more power. Its the same size as that in the Escape, and 180 horsepower is definitely on the low side for a 3.0 liter 24 valve V6. Saturn should be able to find at least 15 more horses here without resorting to premium fuel.
The sixs acceleration is aided by a five-speed automatic. The extra gear compared to the competition permits a shorter first gear, for quicker acceleration, and a taller top gear, for more relaxed and more economical highway cruising.
This time I again drove a VUE with the V6, but with front-wheel-drive instead of all-wheel-drive. This saves $1,200 and a hundred pounds of weight. The latter benefit makes this the quickest VUE you can get.
The vehicle I drove should be plenty quick for 90% of buyers, even if the Escape retains a slight edge in acceleration.
A much larger issue concerns the mode of power delivery. Going with a timing belt does not seem to have done much good. The Saturn V6 is about the most unrefined V6 on the market today. The six in the Escape is also quite noisy and unsophisticated in tone, but its preferable to the VUEs racket-producing lump. The engines in the CR-V and Forester might be fours, but even they are more refined.
Then there is torque steer. Accelerating hard from a dead stop causes the vehicle to pull to the right. The all-wheel-drive model does much better here since its front wheels do not receive as much torque. Ditto the tendency of the inside front tire to lose traction when acclerating out of turns with the front-wheel-drive VUE. All-wheel-drive helps with this as well.
The VUEs four-wheel-drive system is very similar to that in the Honda. Usually power goes entirely to the front wheels, but if these slip some power is automatically diverted to the rear wheels. This occurs very quickly, and is transparent to the driver. Such a system is generally intended for slippery roads, not going off-road. I drove the VUE over roads with a bit of ice on them, and it performed well. The Escape has a bit of an advantage here. Left in auto, the Escapes system functions much like those in the Honda and Saturn. But a switch is provided to lock the system in all-wheel-drive, such that torque is split 50/50 between the front and rear, much like in the RAV4. This provides a little more off-road capability, and subtly affects handling. That said, the Escape like the others lacks a low range, and is generally not designed for off-road use.
Helping performance but harming peace of mind, the transmission kicks down quite readily. From a dead stop the VUE lunges ahead even if the throttle is just lightly prodded. Smooth takeoffs require conscious effort.
This time around I drove the VUE more aggressively, as I went to a dealer near some curvy roads Im familiar with. The VUE still felt quite nimble for such a vehicle, but lean in turns was higher than I remembered from before. Of greater concern, the chassis felt much less composed this time around, bobbling when tossed about and skipping over road imperfections. I observed similar behavior in my earlier test drive of the Saturn L-Series wagon. While such unrefined motions strangely made the wagon more fun to drive, they are amplified by the higher center of gravity in the taller VUE, such that they have no positive consequences. Any of the other vehicles Ive mentioned feels more stable on the road, especially the Forester. This said, despite the off-road tires with tall sidewalls (65-series) road grip was pretty good, and I never felt like the rear end might break loose on me. The all-wheel-drive model might ride and handle a bit better, as its extra weight might help compose the ride while sending some power to the rear wheels might further balance the chassis. I also wonder if its chassis setting are a bit stiffer, as this time around the chassis felt loose.
The VUE uses an innovative power steering system that gets its assist from an electric motor rather than an engine-driven hydraulic pump (which should aid fuel economy). While I hated a similar system in the new Saturn ION, I didnt mind it nearly as much here. Effort seems to vary less than it does in the ION, such that it lacks the IONs overassistance below 60 MPH. That said, I still found it the worst of the small SUV bunch in terms of sharpness and feedback. The Subaru is the best here, with the Honda in second.
The VUEs soft suspension settings and tall tire sidewalls do contribute to a fairly comfortable ride, especially if your definition of a good ride is a lack of sharp jolts. Still, Id trade off a bit of softness for more body control. The VUE lacks the steadier, more planted feel of the others. Noise levels are moderate, a bit better than the Escapes but a bit worse than the others.
Adjusted for options, the six costs $1,725 more than the four, about in line with what the Japanese charge for a six. This amount is fairly reasonable, but could be lower. Since the V6 is so unrefined, the four might be worth a look, as the CVT should partially overcome its power deficit. As I already mentioned, all-wheel-drive costs $1,200 more (after adding $400 to the front-wheel-drive model for the alloys standard with all-wheel-drive). This price is very reasonable, especially as the all-wheel-drive system helps with some of the VUEs weaknesses. The competition charges a bit more for all-wheel-drive.
The two-wheel-drive VUE with V6, alloys, ABS, leather, sunroof, side curtain airbags, and CD changer costs $25,420. Saturn dealers dont discount.
A Ford Escape Premium with the same equipment (except the side airbags are no the curtain type) lists for $24,980, and costs about $23,800 after the typical dealer discount (according to Edmunds) and $500 rebate. So its much less expensive than the Saturn.
A Hyundai Santa Fe LX with everything on the Saturn plus automatic temperature control lists for $23,489. The Santa Fe doesn't accelerate as quickly or handle as nimbly but generally feels much more refined. Its interior materials are of higher quality. Even assuming that dealers don't discount--and I doubt this--we're talking a better vehicle for two thousand dollars less. Almost makes me willing to overlook the overly quirky styling of the Santa Fe.
The Honda CR-V is not available with a V6 or leather. The top line EX is all-wheel-drive only and lists for $22,760. A comparably equipped four-cylinder all-wheel-drive VUE runs $24,585. Between these two Id buy the Honda even if it cost more.
The toughest competition might be the Subaru Forester. Though the rear seat of the Forester is a more cramped than those in the Honda and Ford, its at least equal that of the VUE in comfort. Cargo volume is about the same as with the VUE. With an automatic the Subaru does not accelerate as quickly as the Saturn and Ford, but it more than keeps up with the Honda. Where it beats the others is in interior style, interior materials, and handling. Especially with a manual, the Forester is by far the most fun to drive. The Forester XS with standard all-wheel-drive, automatic, and optional leather lists for $25,970, and costs only $24,600 after the typical dealer discount. Its the one Id buy.
The Chrysler PT Cruiser GT Turbo isn't an SUV, but has a similarly versatile interior, so I should probably also mention it. It lists for $25,925 when equipped like the others here. The $1,500 rebate currently available brings this down to $24,425, and the dealer discounts available now that PT mania has passed should bring the price to under $24,000. (Edmunds doesnt list this car yet, so Im guessing on the discount. A non-turbo PT Cruiser costs about $2,600 less.) If you don't need the ground clearance of an SUV but simply want a versatile interior, the PT Cruiser GT could be the way to go. Especially if you like to go fast and are turned on (or at least not turned off) by the retro styling.
I can no longer recommend the VUE. Its price is too high and its refinement too low. The interior feels cheap, the engine is about the roughest six going, and the chassis feels skittish. Yet Saturn charges more than anyone else.
The only area where the VUE beats the Subaru Forester and Honda CR-V is acceleration. Generally I recommend the Subaru between these two, but the Honda does have an advantage in rear seat room. For those who want a trucky-feeling SUV, the Escape is likely the best bet, though I have issues with its seats and the quality of some interior materials. Finally, if ground clearance isn't an issue but acceleration and handling are, the PT Cruiser GT Turbo might be the best choice among compact vehicles with versatile interiors.
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