During a recent 10K training run, my buddy Jim, who prefers his cars to come from Germany, his wine from France, and his running shoes from Japan, still was incredulous as he recounted driving a V-6-powered Saturn Aura rental in San Francisco. "Joe," he said, panting for breath, "that car was actually pretty good. I couldn't believe it. A Saturn!"
Anyone who's ever driven the first-generation Saturn Vue, a vehicle mired in mediocrity, might be similarly shocked once settled behind the chunky wheel of the all-new 2008 Vue. Like the Aura, which is based largely on the Vectra developed by General Motors' European arm, Opel, the new Vue is the result of a transatlantic collaboration. It's a twin to the Opel Antara crossover. "We took the ride and handling developed in Europe," says vehicle line engineer Bob Reuter, "and transferred it directly here."
And why not? GM finally is overcoming the institutional, geographic, and cultural barriers that historically have prevented it from leveraging its global resources. Saturn leaders acknowledge that the first-generation Vue was developed in a vacuum, with little to no input from other divisions either here or abroad. And we know how that ended.
The new Vue, happily, is a far more satisfying vehicle. Our test car, an all-wheel-drive XR model with the top-spec 3.6-liter V-6 (what GM likes to call its "high-feature" V-6, as though an aluminum block, variable valve timing, and dual overhead camshafts are novel), showed its Euro roots when we pointed it down a curvy, bumpy stretch of road at twice the speed limit. The Vue might not have the reflexes of a BMW X3, but its body control, bump absorption, and steering feel were all impressive. The V-6, which also powers the Red Line model, revs freely to nearly 7000 rpm but gets just a little coarse at the very top of its band. Both it and the 222-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 (funny, GM doesn't call this iron-block lump a "low-feature" V-6) are mated to the six-speed automatic that was jointly developed by General Motors and Ford. Both V-6 models get hydraulic power steering. The $21,395 four-cylinder XE, which will underpin the mild-hybrid Vue Green Line coming this fall, is still equipped with electrically assisted steering, which feels artificial but improves fuel economy.
The Vue's interior is much better than previous Saturn efforts but is still not quite as well-realized in terms of material quality as the cabins of its competitors from Japan and Korea. The front seat bottoms are too low and too short, but the glove box is huge and there are some clever storage solutions in the rear cargo area. The exterior is marred by faint paint mismatches between the steel body panels and the plastic trim.
Overall, the Vue is fully competitive in its segment. And it's no longer a shock to hear such a statement about a Saturn.