2002 Saturn VUE by Bengt Halvorson (4/22/2002)
Saturn's minor makeover of its L-Series station wagon for 2003 turns out to be more of a test of this reviewer than the other way around.
In a press release that strains to be substantive, Saturn basically admits that a little chrome here, a slight adjustment there is about all the company managed to accomplish with its mid-size family wagon for the new model year. Nevertheless, I am duly seduced. Call me a superficial cad, but Saturn's judicious application of the equivalent of a little eyeliner and blush has genuinely transformed its dumpy family car into a fetching "estate wagon" with upwardly mobile pretensions.
It seems to work at the level of the subconscious. First of all, there's the new, gleaming chrome-mesh grille surrounded by fancy Euro-style headlamps and fog lights. Like an elegant string of pearls, these additions bring a welcome touch of class to a car whose former sense of style was an homage to an anteater.
Saturn design chiefs, moreover, must have taken to heart the fairly widespread dissatisfaction with the L-Series' exaggerated "wedginess" when viewed in profile. Accordingly, springs have been adjusted to alter ride height: the car sits nine millimeters higher up front, eight millimeters lower at the rear. It's subtle, but this wagon now stands tall and self-confident, not stoop-shouldered and apologetic, as before.
Creamy leather seats and delicious cut-pile carpeting had me almost convinced that I was driving an Audi Avant instead of a Saturn LW. (Actually, because it's derived from a German Opel, the LW300's Teutonic resonances are more fact than figment.) Interior fit and finish--indeed, the entire cabin's ambiance--are the most impressive I've ever beheld in a Saturn.
As must be expected for a car whose life begins at a mere $22,575, however, there are some quirks and foibles to be borne. The logic behind the location of various switches and controls, for example, is nothing short of odd. Power window switches are in the console, the power mirror adjuster is at the base of the driver's A-pillar, and door lock/unlock toggles are more or less at shoulder height for front occupants. Eventually, I'm sure most owners will react intuitively to these placements, but it's an oddball pattern that seems needlessly counterintuitive.
2003 Saturn LW
A somewhat greater complaint that actually has safety implications concerns the operation of the standard traction control system. Sure, the "TC" control switch is impossible to miss in the center of the dash. When the car starts, TC should be on, and the LW300 is no exception. Yet unlike almost every other manufacturer, Saturn has elected to illuminate an LED whenever the TC system is enabled; whereas typical industry practice is to activate a warning light only when TC either malfunctions or is consciously turned off. Thinking I was actually engaging TC by extinguishing the LED meant that I was disabling the system when I intended just the opposite. Idiot light, indeed!
And so that, I suppose, explains the rampant, joyful wheelspin I experienced time and again when accelerating around town. At least I can say I enjoyed a direct experience of the LW's feisty 3.0-liter V-6. Its numerical ratings are decent if not inspiring: 182 horsepower and 190 lb-ft of torque. But the personality of this twin-cam powerplant is very engaging, even when mated to the standard four-speed automatic. It revs quickly and almost effortlessly, and gear changes are crisp and direct. I'm especially partial to transmissions that make it easy to cut out of overdrive when stop-and-starting through traffic, so I wish the LW300 were able to oblige in this regard. Since it can't, I settled for racking back the gear selector, but this is a bit more awkward than I would have preferred.
I also would appreciate a bit less engine noise invading the cabin from underhood. Call me a hypocrite, but exhaust note is a song to me whereas engine clatter is mostly nuisance. In the LW300, there's none of the former. The same should certainly apply to the latter. Saturn's "big" wagon, nonetheless, is well isolated from annoying road noise, however. This fact enhances the athletic and precise handling feel. Ride character is definitely biased in favor of Euro tastes, meaning that certain couch-potato sensibilities may find it a bit harsh. Quite the opposite for me: I found this 3300-lb wagon particularly nimble and pleasant in a sport-touring sort of way.
2003 Saturn LW
Sport touring, in fact, is exactly the point. Saturn's LW300 aims to provide an affordable alternative to luxury wagons from the likes of BMW, Audi, VW, Saab, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. It's also a thoughtful person's alternative to the SUV--if you can make do with a five-seater, that is. The LW300's cargo space is particularly functional and spacious. With all seats in use, there are 33.5 cu. ft. of very boxy space in the back; this more than doubles to 79 cubes when the rear bench is folded. Those are SUV-class cargo numbers; but in the LW300, they are complemented by frugal mileage ratings of 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway.
Full disclosure requires me to divulge that my LW300 tester came equipped with this fantastic optional DVD entertainment system that combines a remote-control DVD/CD deck using wireless headphones for rear passengers with a six-CD in-dash sound system for front occupants. Aside from the slight annoyance of having a DVD deck where the driver's center armrest should be, this entertainment extravaganza is definitely one of those "wow" features, in terms of its gadget quotient as well as its $4280 price. Today, long-distance sport-touring is all about narcotizing those back seat troublemakers, I suppose.
In the process, an impressively affordable Euro-style wagon creeps ominously close to $30,000. In my eyes, the makeover of the LW300 is most attractive because it highlights the Cinderella that has been lurking undetected within this unassuming family wagon. An expensive bundle of extra baubles, however, does little more than gild the lily and detract from the natural beauty within.
2003 Saturn LW300
Base price: $22,575; as tested, $27,865
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 182 hp/190 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 190.4 x 68.5 x 57.3
Wheelbase: 106.5 in
Curb weight: 3272 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 21/29 mpg
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front and side curtain airbags
Major standard equipment: Cruise control; power windows/locks/mirrors; AM/FM/CD player
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles