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2003 Saturn VUE

Overall rating:  Product Rating: 3.0

Reviewed by 45 users

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Reviews written: 32
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Three months with a VUE (MAJOR update)

by wordgirl:      Mar 31, 2003 - Updated Nov 17, 2004

Product Rating: 4.0 Recommended: Yes 

Pros: Overall, my 4cyl/FWD/VTi VUE's better than I expected - drives, handles, and looks good!
Cons: Ergonomics ... and the dangers of the Saturn hype. Plus (see update) serious transmission issues
The Bottom Line: If you want a nice-looking, carlike SUV with good gas mileage and high reliability, take a look at the VUE. But do your homework and keep your guard up.

I took delivery on my silver VUE Jan. 2, and so far, I'm still tickled pink...(UPDATE: NOT SO MUCH ANY MORE. I'm not going to change the review, but see below for a major update.) this is my second Saturn and it's been a good purchase.

There are other reviews here written by people who are far more knowledgeable about cars than I - some who like it, some who don't. The pleasure I've taken in my new VUE probably has a lot to do with how much I expected going in; for more on that, read on down. (Because I tend to go on, I hilighted main points to make features easy to find)

But first, the VUE. I bought a low-end model - 4 cylinder, FWD. It's much harder to find reviews of low-end models because they're not always supplied to reviewers, but I did test-drive four different VUEs. The 6 cylinder was noticeably more powerful than the 4, but in daily driving, I'm finding that the acceleration of the 4-cylinder is perfectly adequate, and the savings in gas is significant.

I saw absolutely no difference in handling and braking between the AWD and the FWD. Unless you really want AWD, I'd save the money here.

Much has been made of the continuously variable transmission - what Saturn calls "VTi" - in this vehicle (which was just the subject of a recall in some models, but it's an easy fix.) It does take some getting used to. In the first weeks of driving it, I noticed a stronger tendency to exceed the speed limit on highways and even tailgate because there's no "gear shift" feeling to remind me that I'm still accelerating. It makes you pay closer attention to your driving - and that's good, right? The electronic steering also had a different "feel", and I asked my dealer to adjust it once (after about 600 miles) because it felt jittery to me. Either it's been fixed or I've adapted, because it now feels crisp and responsive.

My gas mileage has been averaging out about 23 mpg, which includes an even mix of highway and city driving.

People complain that the VUE has noise issues. I don't really notice them. But then, I've been "trading up" with each car purchase, so I'm leaving this as a judgment call.

I wanted the antilock braking system (ABS) but on test driving, it seemed that it really didn't make much of a difference either, so I opted to go with one that had all the other options I wanted (I got the power package.) I have since had the opportunity to put my VUE to an extreme braking test - three weeks ago, a 7-year-old girl ran her bike right in front of me as I was driving down my street. I can say with certainty that had I been driving my old SL1, that little girl would have been seriously hurt or killed. (We're talking RIGHT out in front of me.) I stood on the brakes, and the VUE stopped on a dime without a hint of skidding. The little girl was knocked over and squalling her head off but sustained only two scrapes and a few bruises. Good brakes, and I am desperately grateful for them.

(I'm revising to add this bit because I agree with a previous comment ... when I re-read it, I realized that Bob was actually being kind ... it sounded more than a LITTLE cold and it clearly doesn't fit with the tone of the review, but it does give you valuable info about the Saturn brakes. The fact is I probably shouldn't have mentioned the incident at all, and I would have simply edited it out but that would make Bob's comments seem nonsensical. The strange thing was I didn't even look at the front of my car until the police officer asked me if it had been damaged, and I doubt an impact this light would have damaged any car. The only reason I brought it up was to praise the brakes, which surely averted a tragedy. I also edited out a short anecdote below because it added no real info. )

The VUE has the standard Saturn polymer body panels, making it dent-resistant and easy to keep glossy. The side trim does look a bit strange in a few places because it's designed to flex. And to be fair, I have read some complaints on Saturn message boards regarding damage from gravel thrown up by the VUE's wheels. The molded mudguards seem to help, and they certainly keep the side of the vehicle cleaner. I recommend them.

But I am not so besotted with the VUE that I can't see its flaws. Chief among them are the CRAZY ergonomics.

The first problem - and one Saturn MUST fix - is the horn. It's hard to find and impossible to use in an emergency. This really goes beyond "ergonomics," and I'm seriously thinking about asking if there's a way to install an "aftermarket" horn even if it costs quite a bit and looks bad. A horn is essential safety equipment and must be easy to use. Beyond that, most of the issues are ones of mere convenience and functionality - like the arm rest that has to be raised before you can buckle your seatbelt, or the "scan" button on the CD/radio that is almost out of reach for a short-armed woman, or the strange window controls you push up to roll the window down. The rear seat is not all that comfortable, and the seats do not appear to have any significant fabric protection on them (My friend's daughter stained one with chocolate milk -- argh!) But even so, I'd buy a VUE again.

If you've gotten this far, you must be seriously thinking about someday buying a VUE too. I've bought two new Saturns now and between times, I had a chance to talk with a former Saturn salesman, who confirmed many of my suspicions from the first experience, which was .... not good. So, for what it's worth, here's my experience on the "Saturn difference" of fixed-price selling and aint-we-all-one-big-family philosophy.

There is no difference. If you find yourself in a Saturn dealership, sinking into this blissful mindset - SNAP OUT OF IT!

They are not there to give you therapy, they are not there to make you feel good, they are not there to sing songs or eat barbecued chicken with you. They are there to sell you a car for as much money as they can manage, same as any other dealership.

If you forget that, you're in danger.

I hate to be cynical here. Saturn sales reps make a big deal about not being paid on commission - but they [i]do[/i] get incentives and bonuses. All that hullaballoo about "fixed prices" really translates down to one thing: "Lucky you! You get to pay full retail for our cars!" To be fair, Saturn's retail prices are quite reasonable. But still.

Once the deal is close to being made, that nice salesman* is going to turn you over to a "finance manager" or "general manager" and this, my friend, is where the "Saturn experience" really ends. This guy's main mission in life is to add on to your invoice price, and shave off the value of any trade-ins or incentives. Like any other car dealership, you have to read every piece of paper they put in front of you from start to finish. Like any other dealership, you have to ask questions. (What's this "documentation fee"? Why did you say my payments were going to be $315 and now they're $330? Why are you only showing a trade allowance of $1,000 when you said it would be at least $2,000?)** You don't have to be adversarial. Just remember where you are and that these guys are, in fact, car salesmen.

Don't get me wrong. Saturns have many unique features, they're great, reliable cars (my SL1 had 170,000 miles and was facing its first major repair when I traded it in) and there are a lot of really nice people selling cars for them. But if you walk in there expecting to be treated like a long-lost cousin you're facing one of two outcomes: You'll get shafted, and be bitter and disillusioned ... or you'll get shafted, and won't even realize it.

I'd rather get a car I really loved and not be shafted at all, wouldn't you? Because I went in with my research done and my eyes open - at least this time - my VUE has been a constant source of pleasure for me.

*They are almost all men, even though Saturn does, to their credit, make an effort to hire women sales personnel.
**The only place you can really deal at a Saturn dealership is on your trade-in value. You must know what your car is really worth when you go in there, and there are many resources to find out. I recommend the free "real market value" service on the Edmunds website, but there are others. Because my car was essentially worth nothing (due to age, milage and body damage) the tradein allowance I haggled was really a discount off the retail price of the car.)

****HERE'S THE UPDATE: In October 2004, I was driving home late one night when my car started making grinding noises. I steered it off the interstate and into a parking lot, where it gave one last horrendous noise and fell completely out of gear. Once my forward momentum stopped, I could race the engine but made no movement either forward or backward.

Bottom line: I had suffered a sudden, and catastrophic, transmission failure. The next day, the dealership could not give me any good reason why this would happen - they said there was some kind of contamination in the transmission fluid that tore it up. They did replace the transmission under warranty (and quickly, too) but it spurred me to do some reading. Apparently, the Vues have serious transmission problems. Until they are sorted out, I'm afraid I can't buy another. I am not changing my rating because my one anecdote doesn't really prove anything, but please be advised. :D
Amount Paid (US$): 20,700
Condition: New
Model Year: 2003
Model and Options: Vti Trans., FWD, 4cyl w/ power package
Product Rating: 4.0
Recommended: Yes 
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