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Saturn’s Red Line program has a long way to go if it’s going to match the viability of other in-house hop shops such as Mazdaspeed in making relatively pedestrian offerings more relevant to the youth market. Still, the Red Line touch for the VUE sport-ute provides distinctive dress-up parts that give the otherwise porky VUE some glamour while beefing up performance and ride.
The best decision made by Red Line packagers was to utilize a 3.5-liter, 250-hp Honda V-6 and accompanying five-speed automatic as motive power of choice. It has far more tractability and torque than the in-house six it replaces (forget the 2.2-liter Ecotec base four-cylinder, which you can’t get in a Red Line), and is smoother and quieter as well. It gives the VUE a spirit that merits the dress-up pieces found in the $1,995 Red Line package, but truth be said, it completely transforms the base VUE as well, if you’re pinching pennies.
First impressions were not the best. The rust-proof, dent-resistant plastic body panels still chafe because the large gaps needed for temperature expansion create considerable wind noises, and there’s still some evidence (the cheapest cup-holder/center console I’ve yet seen) that not everybody at GM has read Bob Lutz’s memos on improving interior materials. But by the end of our week with the Red Line VUE, its capabilities and style had pretty much won us over.
The Red Line has been lowered an inch from the base VUE and has been given a stiffer sport suspension package, P245/50R18 Bridgestone Turanza performance tires and 18-inch alloy wheels, a cool front fascia with a mesh intake insert and chrome exhaust tip. The package emphatically corrects a tendency toward steering vaguenuess in the base VUE, although considerable body roll remains during sharper maneuvers. Our tester’s so-called AWD system was inobtrusive to the point of invisibility, as the rear wheels would only come to life to compensate for oversteer way after the fact. Strictly urban guerrillas might want to save some bread and just go with the front-wheel drive version.
Life inside the Red Line is quite comfortable. There are lovely new gauges with sepia faces and chrome rings in all VUEs this year. The grey leather upholstery has handsome and understated, and the seats offer decent support and comfort. The cruise control, located on the bottom spoke of the three-spoke steering wheel, was a little confusing to operate (you press a minus-sign switch to set cruising speed), and stereo controls were a little small. The stereo was fitted with always-welcome XM satellite radio, a $325 option, although for some reason we experienced frequent signal dropoff during our time with the VUE.
The front passenger seat as well as the rear seats lock down when folded, providing a secure transport floor for loads of varying lengths. The 70/30 split rear seat has three sets of Latch child seat connections, so a baby can remain seated safely in the middle even if part of the back seat needs to be folded down—a very thoughtful touch. The total payload rating is 1,208 pounds; towing capacity with the Honda V-6 is 3,500 pounds.
The safety component includes all the usual belts, bags and anti-lock brakes. Side-curtain airbags that protect the head in side impacts are a $395 option.
Paying $29,000 for a Saturn may be a tough threshold for the smart and thrifty folks who have been the brand’s core consumers since day one. Then again, Red Line is basically outreach to a hipper, younger audience. The looks will score big points, and stepping on the gas should seal the deal.
2004 Saturn VUE Red
Price as tested: $29,315 (as tested)
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 250 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, AWD
Length x width x height (inches): 181.3 x 71.5 x 66.5
Wheelbase: 106.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,686 lbs
EPA City/Hwy: 19/25 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, child seat anchors, front seatbelt height adjustments, remote keyless entry, ABS, daytime running and fog lamps, child safety door locks, rear window washer and wiper
Major standard equipment: Electric power steering, roof rails, fold-flat front passenger seat, 70/30 split folding rear seat, rear cargo organizer with storage bins, power locks and windows, cruise control, front and rear 12-volt outlets, three rear-seat child seat Latch connections, Bridgestone Turanza 50-series performance tires, front and rear monochrome fascias
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles