2005 Saturn Relay
The good news for fans of General Motors' Saturn brand is that a seven-seat minivan, the Relay, is now included among its product offerings. The Relay is sort of sporty and sort of luxurious, although it's not terribly convincing in either aspect. It's just about what we would have expected Oldsmobile to sell when GM finally got around to revising its minivans, which happened for 2005, but, of course, the Olds line has been wiped out.
While it is reasonably well equipped, the Relay cannot compete against minivan segment leaders Honda and Toyota when it comes to powertrain refinement, nor does it come close to convenience leader Chrysler in the seating department. And there are odd discrepancies among the included features. For instance, our test model, the front-wheel-drive Relay 3 ($29,295 as tested) had power-sliding side doors, but the liftgate was manually operated--and it was a real bear to close.
The Relay gets its motivation from an overhead-valve V-6 displacing 3.5 liters. The block is cast iron, and the heads are aluminum. Output is 200 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque. GM has defended its use of these old pushrod-operated engines (there are several of them in a host of GM vehicles), saying the torque peak arrives very low in the powerband and that this characteristic is ideal for the kind of driving done by most people.
We will point out that Honda's engine of the same size makes 255 hp and never once says, "Not tonight, honey, I've got a headache," as the Relay's engine continually does. And the Relay is hardly a paragon when it comes to fuel economy, yielding 18/24 mpg in front-wheel-drive and 17/23 mpg in all-wheel-drive configuration. For the sake of comparison, when outfitted with variable cylinder management, the muscular Honda Odyssey Touring achieves 20/28 mpg.
While it's significantly down on power, refinement, and fuel efficiency, the Relay also offers an average transmission: the four-speed Hydra-Matic. This unit hunts around for the right gear, is reluctant to downshift when you press the accelerator to the floor, and lacks not only a fifth ratio but also any of the logic features found among the class leaders. Manual selection of gears is difficult because of a poorly designed, steering-column-mounted shift lever. (The segment leaders figured out that the best minivan solution is to mount the lever on the center stack.)
At least the Relay rides acceptably well. We could do without the subtle fore-and-aft bobbing motions, but overall it's pretty comfortable and composed. Even though the Relay measures 204.9 inches in length, it went nimbly along the curving river road where we like to test our minivans. Seventeen-inch tires (mounted on hunky-looking six-spoke, alloy rims) let the front wheels turn into corners with some authority. The strut-type front suspension is common to both front- and all-wheel-drive versions. But the awd version gets a significant upgrade from the standard beam-axle rear setup; it comes in the form of a unique fully independent, cast-aluminum, multilink suspension. We wouldn't have guessed the Relay weighs as much as 4631 pounds. The four-wheel disc brakes are great, by the way.
Until now, we've managed to avoid the subject of the exterior. Yes, in other words, the snout. GM says this family of vans has SUV-like styling with the functionality of minivans. We call it Mother Hubbard styling. It just looks dowdy, and the attempt to jazz things up with sculpted headlights and taillights, in our subjective judgment, fails colossally.
The interior is reasonably attractive, with quite a bit of GM's "protein vinyl" that looks an awful lot like leather. And the ergonomics are fine, except that the seats are too narrow. But, really, the most important concern in a minivan is how the second- and third-row seats work. Easy removal or stowage is what lets the utility happen.
The Relay's second-row captain's chairs are a best-two-out-of-three proposition. To remove one, you pull a strap under the seat. Then you get it in a kind of headlock, and with the proper footwork and use of leverage--and after some alarming guttural sounds from your esophagus--you'll have the chair freed. These second-row seats do not slide back and forth when in place, so knee room is fixed, and it's not fixed for Shaq. Nor do the seats slide together to form a bench, so access to the third row is always going to be restricted.
The third row doesn't tumble into a well, as in Hondas and Mazdas, nor does it readily lift out; the 50/50-split sections just flop forward, and the headrests deflect when they bump against the second-row chairs. The result is that the Relay cannot quickly offer a completely flat load floor. It does, however, offer twelve-volt power points in front and rear and a rear AC plug.
The Relay is tall, narrow, and long. Somehow, this combination doesn't add up to roomy. Behind the first row, it feels rather cramped. Maximum cargo volume of 136.5 cubic feet exceeds the Mazda MPV's by less than 10 cubic feet, even though the Mazda is more than 15 inches shorter overall. But there are twelve cup holders. Each first- and second-row seatback has a storage compartment for headphones, DVD-system remote control, and whatnot. These compartments are lined with foam to keep down squeaking. The Relay is almost as free from squeaks and rattles as the Chrysler Town & Country.
There are three versions: Relay 1, Relay 2, and Relay 3. Leather upholstery, MP3 player, rear DVD entertainment, all-wheel drive, rear parking assist, and remote engine starting are optional or included in the upper trim levels. The Relay isn't available with tri-zone climate control, heated seats, sunroof, navigation, or a better audio system than the eight-speaker arrangement we heard. Dual-stage front air bags are standard, with side air bags optional. All seven seating positions have three-point harnesses, but there's no headrest for the middle occupant of the third row. Then again, if there were, the driver would never be able to see through the rear glass--the view is almost blocked already, in the narrow cabin, by the other headrests.
Saturn calls the Relay a transitional product. We really wanted GM to do a better job than this on its revised minivans, but there's not a single class-leading feature, and some stuff is basically obsolete. We predict that only Saturn partisans, and maybe those wooed by the attractive financing offers and rebates, are going to want the only-OK Relay.