Saturn's Vue Green Line is the hybrid SUV that lets you make your green political statement without spending too much green. At $22,995, it is only $2000 dearer than a comparably equipped non-hybrid 4-cylinder Vue, and it undercuts its main competitor, the Ford Escape Hybrid, by more than $2600. Although the two small SUVs compete directly, the philosophies behind their hybrid powertrains couldn't be more different.
The Escape Hybrid, available with either front- or all-wheel drive, uses a Toyota-style full hybrid system, meaning that it can move under electric power only at low speeds. The 330-volt hardware required to do this is heavy, though, adding 350 pounds to the Escape. On the other hand, its 94-hp electric motor lends a helping hand to the 4-cylinder gas engine, giving the hybrid passing power similar to a V-6 Escape.
Available with front-wheel drive only, the Vue Green Line gains a scant 55 pounds over its gasoline-only sibling, but it can't move on battery power alone. Instead, Saturn's small 36-volt motor/generator produces only about 5 horsepower, and although it can assist the gas engine somewhat, it is used primarily for regenerative braking and to restart the engine quickly and smoothly when accelerating from a stop.
The Green Line hits 60 mph in 10.2 seconds, a full second quicker than the base Vue. However, unlike the Ford, this hybrid uses good, old-fashioned displacement for the extra grunt. Saturn replaced the 2.2-liter, 143-hp 4-cylinder with the Sky's 170-hp engine. This 2.4-liter Ecotec features variable valve timing and produces more power than the old mill while using less fuel.
To reduce drag, Saturn lowered the ride height by about an inch, removed the roof rack, fit narrower tires, and added a rear spoiler. The Green Line also gets anti-lock brakes, traction control, 16-inch alloy wheels, body-color door handles and mirrors, chrome-finish skid plates, and bright side moldings as standard equipment.
At the EPA lab, the Vue Green Line earned fuel economy ratings of 27 city / 32 highway. Not only are both numbers 5 mpg higher than the conventional Vue, but the highway figure is the best of any SUV on the road, hybrid or not. The Ford Escape Hybrid manages one less highway mile on each gallon of gas, but around town its full hybrid system pays dividends - it is rated nine mpg higher than the Saturn.
We suspect that in the real world, the Ford will deliver slightly better fuel economy despite its more severe weight penalty. Ford's full hybrid system does a better job at being simultaneously quicker and more efficient, but that best-of-both-worlds performance comes at a price - the Escape Hybrid costs $3300 more than its conventional 4-cylinder sibling.
Two years after the Escape Hybrid went on sale, consumers are starting to realize that cars with this new technology don't always provide sufficient fuel savings to offset their price premiums. Saturn's hybrid-lite technology makes marketing sense, since the Vue Green Line provides the benefits that hybrid buyers expect-fuel savings and additional power-at minimal cost. Ironically, Saturn achieved a good portion of those benefits not through the hybrid system itself, but by making a few aerodynamic changes and installing an even more powerful gas engine. The little green badge on the back of the car doesn't say that, though, so buyers get to make the same political statement as their neighbors who bought the Ford-for a whole lot less money.