2003 Saturn VUE Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Saturn's view of the SUV.
Saturn created the Vue for young families who want a manageable, but highly functional, sport-utility, one that can haul plenty of gear without requiring huge parking spaces and a big garage.
Saturn is best known for friendly sales and service. It's also known for innovation and the Vue is no exception. Like Saturn cars, the Vue is fitted with polymer body panels to resist dents. It's also available with a continuously variable transmission. Its long wheelbase makes for a roomy interior. These features, combined with a competitive price, help the Vue to stand out in the increasingly popular compact sport-utility market.
All-wheel-drive models add all-weather capability. Vue comes standard with a four-cylinder engine. With the optional V6, the Vue can tow a small boat, jet ski or snow machine.
For 2003, the Vue boasts an expanded model lineup with optional leather seating, seat heaters, and 180-watt audio.
The 2003 Saturn Vue is available in four models, all designed to be highly configurable.
The base Vue ($16,325) comes with a 143-horsepower four-cylinder engine, a five-speed manual transmission, and front-wheel-drive. It can navigate dirt roads, but is not designed for off-road driving.
There's also a four-cylinder model with the VTi automatic transmission ($18,495). It's a continuously variable transmission that uses pulleys and belts rather than gears for seamless acceleration.
All-wheel drive is available with the four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission ($19,170) for improved all-weather capability.
New for 2003 is a V6 model with front-wheel drive ($21,070). At the top is a V6 AWD model ($22,720). All V6 models come with a more conventional five-speed automatic transmission. V6 models also come with more standard equipment, including cruise control, power exterior mirrors, an auto-dimming interior mirror, and aluminum wheels.
Electronic traction control is only available on the four-cylinder model with five-speed manual and comes packaged with anti-lock brakes ($600). ABS for AWD models does not include traction control but costs the same $600.
All versions of the Vue can be ordered in one of two themes, which Saturn calls Outdoor Expression and Urban Expression. The hardy Outdoorsman sports a front brush bar, a prominent roof rack, and 16-inch wheels with all-terrain tires. Interior features include a rubberized cargo area and floor covering, Ostrich leather accents and a plug-in handheld GPS unit. The Urban warrior comes with 18-inch wheels, performance tires and a lowered suspension. Inside is an integrated navigation system and rear-seat gaming system.
A leather upholstery package has been added for 2003 that includes driver lumbar support and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Another new option is an advanced audio system with an eight-inch subwoofer, 180-watt amplifier, and six door-mounted speakers. Also available is a power sunroof ($725).
The Saturn Vue is distinctive and visually striking, but it is not necessarily a head-turner. Its exterior design is more sensible than sensational, with looks that are modern and practical, and strong lines that avoid the bubble effect that curvy, cutesy imported mini-utilities share. New for 2003 are badges that have a three-dimensional effect.
The front end is thick and snubbed, with headlamps that ride high atop an exaggerated grille. From the side, the Vue is boxy and nondescript, except for its high beltline. Its large, back-end liftgate with floodlights provides easy and efficient access to the rear cargo area.
Vue does offer serious strength and stability underneath its slightly bland facade. Polymer body panels provide a rugged, dent-resistant exterior without the clutter of lower-body cladding. Car-height bumpers offer enhanced protection from parking lot damage and help create a smoother appearance. The spare tire is mounted inside the vehicle, which significantly reduces potential damage from low-speed rear impacts.
The Saturn Vue has an interesting interior. Instruments and controls are straightforward, but creative stowage innovations appear throughout the interior.
A 70/30 split folding rear seat provides more versatile stowage of longer items while carrying rear passengers. Even the front passenger seat folds flat, allowing room for an eight-foot ladder or a surfboard or something else from the local home-improvement center. Three power outlets provide opportunities to plug in toys or tools.
The flat load floor in the rear is a result of the compact all-wheel-drive system. Of particular note are the configurable cargo spaces: A cargo organizer folds out of the floor to corral smaller objects. There are hooks for grocery bags and two compartments sized specifically for gallon jugs, a welcome convenience on late-night food runs. Tie-downs provide for the safe transport of a wide variety of goods. Apparently, Saturn forgot about dry cleaning, however, as we could not find a good place to hang it.
Getting inside Vue is easy, thanks to wide door openings and a low step-in height. Despite the Vue's high beltline, visibility is good, with a panoramic feel to the interior. Big mirrors afford good visibility rearward.
Most of the switchgear is well designed and easy to operate. The stereo is nicely designed and attractive. Heating and air conditioning controls are straightforward and easy to operate, but look like they came from a compact car. Oddly enough, the window switches are located on the center console, harder to find than if they were on the door. Usually this is done to make for easier conversion to right-hand steering, but we can't imagine Saturn exports many vehicles overseas. Some of the interior trim looks like low-grade plastic, however, and flashing can be seen on trim pieces. The center console lid is flimsy and the steering wheel feels cheap.
In the safety department, the Vue gets high marks. Laudable are its space-age frame and optional curtain airbags ($395) designed to provide head protection in a side impact or rollover. The Vue also comes with a rear-center shoulder belt, not found on many compact SUVs. Vue also comes with child-seat tether anchors.
The Saturn Vue performs well when equipped with the V6 engine. The V6 works well with the five-speed automatic transmission, which downshifts smoothly, quietly and without fanfare to fourth gear when called upon for more power. The V6 delivers responsive acceleration performance. It's capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in a very respectable 8.4 seconds. The V6 with AWD is rated 19/25 mpg.
Slowest is the four-cylinder all-wheel-drive model with the continuously variable automatic, which compares with a 0 to 60 time of 11.1 seconds. That's a big difference. The VTi continuously variable transmission actually offers better acceleration than the standard five-speed manual (0-60 mph in 10.2 seconds for the VTi versus 11.0 seconds for the manual on front-drive models). The manual transmission delivers good fuel economy, however, with an EPA rating of 23/28 mpg City/Highway. City fuel economy suffers by 2 mpg with the VTi.
The AWD system provides improved traction on unpaved roads and adverse-weather driving. It works automatically with no input required from the driver. It is designed to withstand extremely cold weather. But it is not intended for serious off-road driving.
We were disappointed in the amount of torque steer exhibited by the all-wheel-drive V6 model. Stand on the gas and you'll feel the steering wheel tug to the right as power is applied to the front tires. Apparently the rear wheels do not come into play until the front wheels begin to spin. So, if the front wheels have good traction on dry pavement, the result will be torque steer.
Vue's ride quality lacks sophistication. Road noise and vibration are evident and there's a general lack of smoothness around town. Handling is not razor-sharp, either, but the Vue navigates well over a variety of driving terrain. The speed-sensitive power steering offers precise, easy steering in parking lots, yet adjusts for good road feel and stability on the highway. It's programmable for the customer's preferences, and uses a torque sensor to automatically boost assistance during emergency avoidance maneuvers.
Vue gets rear drum brakes instead of the preferable disc brakes. An anti-lock brake system (ABS) is optional on all versions and models and we recommend it because it helps the driver to maintain control of the steering in a panic stop.
The best thing about the Vue is that it's backed by Saturn's highly regarded sales and service people. If you don't like the local Saturn dealer, look somewhere else.
FWD 5-speed ($16,325); FWD automatic ($17,720); AWD ($19,170); V6 FWD ($21,070); V6 AWD ($22,720).
Options As Tested
ABS ($600); head curtain airbags ($395); OnStar communications system ($695).
Saturn Vue V6 AWD ($22,720).
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