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Blake Noble

Quick Drive: 2008 Saturn Vue Hybrid

3 posts in this topic

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No other country in the world has bought into the hype over hybrids like the United States of America. Whereas our European counterparts prefer more sensible diesels, we Americans have a Colin Farrel-esque stereotype about diesels in that they're grimy and they smell bad.

I suppose that it's not entirely our fault, though. After all, when automakers tried selling diesels in passenger cars here back in the late Seventies, they were far from being an acceptable replacement for gasoline engines. They did stink like something dead, they clacked and clicked like a bag of old bones, and they were known for sometimes breaking down. They also could have arrived at a better time. We were still sore that OPEC and the government took away our muscle cars; our Camaro SS396s and Chevelle SS454s; our Pontiac GTO 455s and Trans Am 455SDs; our Dodge Chargers and Challengers; just about everything great really. We wanted them back and everything they had to offer. We didn't care about diesels. We still wanted V8s that would burn the hide right off of a bull elephant.

So diesel passenger cars became a novelty here in the U.S. due to our less than romantic rendezvous with them while they rose to ultimate popularity in Europe. Europeans seemed to understand that a slightly foul odor and a little more noise were an acceptable trade-off for a cheaper fuel source and for an extended range of miles on one tank of gas. It's because of Europe we have the best diesels out there today. They aren't nasty, noisy, low-class engines anymore. In fact, they're now much better and more versatile than a gasoline engine.

So while Europe bought their diesels, we bought our gas engines and left the cruder oil to big-rig truckers and Big Tex who just bought his Dodge Ram 3500 Cummins dually to impress the Joneses next door. We were comfortable with Old Grandpa Gasoline. He'd been good to us. It weren't broke so we weren't gonna fix it.

Skip around in time a bit to the year 1997 in Japan. Toyota just introduced the Prius, a hybrid that ran off of a gasoline engine and an electric motor. At this time, though, gas was still cheap in America, so no one seemed to care here. It was just another small car with a novelty powertrain. After all, it was built by a car company we all thought could do no wrong and already made tin cans that could run on two drops of hi-test. There wasn't any real reason to buy one when the Preewuss landed on our soil for the 2001 model year.

However, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, speculators that were too busy sticking their heads up their asses to realize their greed was tearing apart the world economy, and various other outraging factors, gasoline prices began to rise ... and rise, and rise, and rise, and rise The majority of Americans did nothing, just paid the higher costs and went on, waiting for the prices to eventually drop. After all, it wasn't like we had never seen something like it happen before.

Some Americans, though -- the eco-conscious, granola-crunching, peace-loving, greenie weenies -- jumped on the Hybrid bandwagon, going so far as sticking butter knives in the tires of every Hummer H2 they came into contact with. If that didn't drive their point home, they'd perhaps light another one on fire and watch it blow up. Give peace a chance indeed.

Along with the greenie weenies, celebrities bought them up too, officially making it hip 'n happenin to own one. Other automakers scrambled to make competitors, to find other applications for Hybrid powertrains. The car I'm writing to you about is one out of a baker's dozen of Hybrid cars that have flooded the market in recent years.

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The Saturn Vue Hybrid (or Vuebrid as I like to call it; Vue Green Line in Saturn speak) I've driven came almost loaded to the gills with options. It had a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, premium audio system with a six CD changer, premium wheels wrapped in low-profile tires. The only options it didn't have were all-wheel drive (which isn't available on the Vuebrid anyway), leather seats, Sat-Nav, and a sunroof. From stem to stern, it was painted in a very flamboyant Mystic Blue that advertised a vehicle that I felt needn't be advertised. After all, GM already stuck three Hybrid badges on its exterior in a few thought-out places in addition to the Green Line badge. On the other hand, I'm glad it didn't have humongous Hybrid banners pasted to its windshield and lower doors like some Hybrid SUVs I know of.

The basic Vue itself is almost a completely unmolested Opel/Vauxhall Antara (GMC Terrain for you folks in the Middle East), which is based on GM's Theta platform like your Chevy Equinoxes, Pontiac Torme -- err -- Torrents, Suzuki XL-7s, and Chevy Captivas which we don't get here. The only changes made to the Antara to become the Vue are different grilles, badges, and a revised center stack to accept the (now old) GMNA corporate black-tie stereo.

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For the Green Line model, Saturn adds GM's mild hybrid BAS system hooked up to a 2.4 liter EcoTec four-pot. The BAS system uses an electric motor to restart the engine after being shut off at a complete stop. So while it isn't a full hybrid, it is still a clever way to save some gas or if you feel guilty that you bought an SUV, even though it's a car-based soft-roader and not a truck-based Earth bruiser.

Anyway, moving on and away from the boring stuff ...

The 2.4L EcoTec manages to churn out 172 horses and 167 pound-feet of torque. That's not too bad for a four cylinder. It wasn't too long ago that such numbers were V6 territory. However, first impressions makes it seem as if it's a little bit on the gutless side. Acceleration is there and you can use it, but this is no Saturn V Rocket. Taking off from a dead stop after the engine wakes back up, you can go, but sometimes you find yourself wanting to get off the line maybe just a little bit faster. Of course, the Vuebrid is actually one heavy SUV, so I'm not really all that surprised by this. The four-pot has its work cut out for it hauling the crossover's heavy, fat ass around. Happily, you might occasionally find yourself speeding a bit while cruising, after the engine builds up some steam and the transmission reaches fourth gear.

Speaking of the tranny, it's a good transmission. This goes without saying, though. GM deserves praise for their transmissions. The Vuebrid always shifts smooth and linear. It doesn't buck when it shifts gears, it doesn't make you wonder if something's broken. In fact, as I'm sitting here writing about it, I feel like I'm watching paint dry. I very rarely find anything to complain about when it comes to any automatic transmission GM puts in anything it builds.

Back to the engine, it's a four-cylinder, so of course it makes sounds like a four-cylinder. Because most of the power is hanging out in the higher registers, it has to be spun up quite high to make it work. And when you do that, it buzzes. It's not the loudest four-cylinder I've found myself piloting, but it's not the quietest either. At times, it gets a bit tiring to listen to. At times, you feel bad that it has such a heavy workload. Sometimes you wonder if it might just stop trying to be the little engine that could. I think liposuction would be a good idea.

However, despite it being the little the chunk of heavy metal that it is, it does get good fuel economy. If you drive with the goal to keep the Eco light in the instrument cluster on, you can get mixed results of 28 to 29 mpg. That's damn good gas mileage.

At first, the BAS system at work feels a little bit alien, but it slowly grows on you. Then you begin to realize, it's a brilliant way to make an engine more fuel efficient without installing a full-on hybrid system. I don't think it needs the hybrid tag, though. Maybe another name is in order? Someone should throw the marketing guys a five-dollar bill their way so that they can think of another cute name. I also wonder why GM wouldn't make this an option on other models. I have to admit that a V6 Camaro with a BAS option would be a neat coupe to own.

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Well, no ... and yes.

The Vuebrid does feel much, much taller than it does wider, so it has a center of gravity that I think is somewhere between the headrests and the moon. You don't have to look too hard to find body-roll and hard cornering can be a little bit scary. To think all of that extra blubber would keep the little guy a little better planted would be wrong, wrong, wrong. Spirited driving is something I wouldn't advise. In fact, if you drive this thing like you stole it, you could easily pull an Edmund Fitzgerald with it and capsize the old dingy. No freak waves required, however.

The suspension, though, is great in a straight line, a truly American trait to what is a very Teutonic truckster at heart. Bumps and potholes are made as painless as possible. The ride isn't too cushy and borders on being quite firm. The tires generate a little bit of road noise, but it isn't too intrusive. There isn't anything to whine about when it comes to the brakes, either. The pedal never feels spongy and things aren't too sensitive. They work as a set of four-wheel discs should.

And, for once, GM's electronic steering system doesn't feel like complete garbage. While it still doesn't have the tight, weighted feel and good feedback of a traditional hydraulic system, it no longer feels numb and unattached from the rest of the car. However, it still feels like there is way too much slack somewhere in between the front wheels and the steering wheel. Turns never feel spot-on responsive. While I normally say avoid anything resembling a steer-by-wire setup, this one is passable. Well, almost anyway.

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The Vuebrid's interior is a decent place to be. Panel gaps are quite uniform and the overall design is pretty pleasant to the eye with perhaps a dash of Pontiac in the round vents that flank the outer edges and the set upon the center stack. Come to think of it, it was stupid for GM not to use a similar design in the Chevroliac Torrenox. For you religious dash humpers, soft touch materials are abound everywhere except the lower dash and the grab handles (those handles must be an Opel thing) so don't place your man vegetables (or your woman oyster) anywhere around those areas. You could develop dash burn.

All of the switchgear has a nice texture except for any button you push, like say on the radio. However, operating the turn signals, wiper stalk, and any sort of knob feels like you're operating something with decent quality. The gauge needles, which appear red but are slightly transparent on their sides, are a nice touch as well. The chrome detailing around the vents and gauges also helps to liven things up. The seats are standard Opel-sourced goodness with great support and good grip. You'll never have a complaining back on any trip anywhere.

However, I have my complaints. As with the Astra I drove last time, I don't much care for the flat silver paint that covers the center stack. Maybe a little bit of gloss would be in order here to liven things up. But after seeing the Opel Antara's interior, I have to say, I like its center stack design much better. It looks a little bit more interesting than it's American cousin and most certainly better thought out. Here's something that GM didn't need to change but did anyway.

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Is it the best cute-ute ever? No. Is it the worst ever? No again. The Vuebrid is a very solid middle ground in this segment. While the new 2010 Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain have surpassed it as well as Ford's Escape hybrid without a hybrid system, it's still a solid buy. It doesn't look as ugly as a RAV4 or a CR-V (which, then again, what does?) and it isn't a total dog like a Jeep Compass. The only other sort of neutral choice is the Nissan Rogue, which isn't pretty either, but it's not the ugliest thing to roll around on four-wheels. You could do better in the forms of the two aforementioned GM twins or maybe lose a few mpg and buy a VW Tiguan. In the end, if you slap your money down on one of these, I don't think you'll regret it. Edited by whiteknight
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Sorry I had to use stock photography here. I tried to grab some shots when I returned the Astra today, but someone already had the Vuebrid out on loan before I got to it.

Anyway, I hope you guys enjoy it as much as my last review!

Edited by whiteknight
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i've driven a couple of the recent vintage Vues. they are nice. the 4 cyl has more pep than you'd think, and the 6 has guts. they both handle well for a crossover. the dash is laid out intelligently and i love the simple radio and CC and big vents.

the vue is kind of an odd tweener thing though. its heavy like a wider edge, but not quite as roomy inside or have as much cargo. its more luxurious than a rav4 but can't match the mpg.

to me crossovers are still evolving. the new terrain makes so much more sense to me than the Vue, and the Vue was a big upgrade over the previous equinox.

now that i have had time to accept GM's downsizing, i don't really mourn the loss of this Vue too much, since I would probably get a terrain over this or hold out for an Edge with 2011 upgrades including possible 4 cyl ecoboost. i realized too that even though saturns buying experience was above par, their pricing strategies had gotten way out of hand. even moderately equipped vues were priced highway robbery.

overall, anyone looking at a Vue I think is better served by an Outback on one end and an Edge on the other. or equinox / terrain if they stay GM.

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