2002 Saturn VUE Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
April 22, 2002

You have to wonder why Saturn and GM were so far behind the curve in launching a compact, car-like SUV like the VUE. Before the VUE, the only compact SUV in GM’s stable was Chevrolet’s truck-based, not-so-highway-friendly Tracker. Too, for years, Saturn’s development resources were channeled into the mid-size L-Series sedans and wagons before they could focus on an SUV. The plain-jane L hasn’t exactly been a sales success, and, well, the SUV market is flooded by now. If only the VUE had hit the market a couple of years earlier. As Cher might bellow huskily, “If I could turn back time…” Indeed.

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Like the rest of the new crowd of SUVs, it’s no surprise that the VUE’s focus is on-road performance and car-like ride and handling, combined with a lot of versatility and space. Throw in the Saturn-typical dent-resistant side panels, an available CVT transmission, the high-ranking Saturn dealer network, and a 30-day/1500-mile money-back guarantee, and you have what should be enough to set the VUE out from the crowd.

The VUE is in an interesting size class. It’s not compact, yet not really mid-size; not big enough to have a third-row seat, yet spacious enough for adults to fit in the back seat. The VUE’s shape has an interesting effect from the outside, too. From the rear, it looks rather like a traditional SUV, but from the front it looks like a familiar Saturn wagon with an extreme lift kit.

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Roomy enough for four adults

Those who have driven previous Saturn models will feel perfectly at home inside the VUE. Some of the switchgear is borrowed from the other Saturns, and the VUE has the same trademark oversize, round gauges and two-spoke steering wheel.

The VUE’s interior is quite spacious and comfortable inside—roomy enough for four normal-sized adults and a weekend trip’s worth of luggage. The front seats are comfortable but thinly padded and contoured for a more reclined driving position than is typical for SUVs. In the back, there’s plenty of space, but the seats seem unusually low to the floor. The upholstery on our test vehicle was soft, light gray fabric that looks like it would soil easily…not the obvious choice in an “active lifestyle” SUV.

2002 Saturn VUE

2002 Saturn VUE

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Window and mirror switches are concentrated around the shifter console. It’s efficient and uncluttered but counterintuitive. The power mirror switch happens to be in a place where it seems natural  for this driver to rest his right knee if using the cruise control.

In the cargo area, there’s a unique unfolding cargo divider contraption, along with side bins for smaller items. The rear seats fold down easily, but they don’t fold perfectly flat as in some vehicles.

VUEs with the standard 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine can opt for the new VTi continuously variable transmission, which boasts maximized performance and economy. It’s the first such CVT on a domestic vehicle.

Powertrain great; flawed in other ways

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The 181-hp, 3.0-liter, DOHC V-6 featured in the upper-level VUE is a familiar GM powerplant, currently also used in the Saturn L-Series. Those who choose the V-6 have no choice but to get the five-speed automatic transmission. It’s the first five-speed auto to be offered in a compact SUV, and fortunately, it matches the V-6 quite well, with well-chosen ratios and snappy—but not rough—shifts. On sloping highways, we were pleased with how the transmission will downshift to fourth, or even third, and hold it for as long as needed, rather than hunting back and forth like some gearboxes do. The engine has a very robust power curve and feels perhaps more powerful than its 181-horsepower rating.

The new electric power steering does not feel like any improvement over variable hydraulic units in terms of feedback and feel. From a design aspect, it’s a much simpler idea: a helper electric motor is mounted along the steering, activating only as needed. In execution, though, it could use some fine-tuning. It feels dead and vague on center at higher speeds. Keeping the VUE on a straight course seems to require too many small adjustments.

Ride quality is a real plus. It’s remarkably well controlled, and it seems to get even better with a full load. Aside from the steering feedback being a bit odd, the VUE handles well, without the massive body lean that you might expect from a typical SUV or minivan. The overall impression is one of stability and security.

The brakes are adequate, but disconcerting at first. The pedal goes nearly all the way to the floor before you find any stopping force, then it requires a heavy foot on the pedal to stop quickly. Unlike other competitors who offer four-wheel discs, the VUE has discs in the front and drums in the rear, probably to keep costs down. Also, probably to keep costs down, anti-lock brakes are a $575 option. They should be standard, especially on the all-wheel-drive version.

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In fact, while the VUE has a list of basic luxury items and power accessories as standard (including an auto-dimming rearview mirror), head curtain airbags, another important safety item for an SUV—are also optional.

All-wheel drive tuned for the road

The VUE’s all-wheel drive system is similar to most of the newer car-like compact SUVs, in that it’s tuned for practicality and on-road use rather than off-road prowess or extreme traction. In short, it uses hydraulic pressure to activate clutch packs and control the flow of torque from front to back. The system is tuned such that in normal driving, all power is routed to the front wheels. When the front wheels slip, up to 57 percent of engine power can be routed to the rear wheels. This is accomplished through a unit mounted near the rear differential, called the progressive coupling assembly (PCA), which includes a gerotor pump and multi-plate clutch pack. A difference in rotation between the front and rear wheels causes pump pressure to be applied to the clutch pack, routing torque to the rear wheels. When the front wheels are no longer spinning, the pressure from the pump is relieved and the clutch pack disengages power from the rear wheels. Saturn says that the unit is designed to allow a slight amount of slippage before the system reroutes the power—this is mainly to avoid damage to the system due to a flat tire or use of the compact spare.

Though it might not be ready to take on the Rubicon, the VUE’s all-wheel-drive system is fine for slippery roads and light-duty off-roading along muddy forest-service tracks. Saturn warns that the all-wheel-drive system is “not intended for strenuous use,” but we have a feeling most VUEs won’t see their way off the tarmac. We daringly took the VUE down a small trail, through deep, blown-in sand, to the beach, and the system did its task unobtrusively, with no groaning sounds and very little wheelspin.

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In normal driving it’s hard to tell that you’re in an all-wheel- drive vehicle. There’s no low-speed binding or added noise. An exception: in normal driving, taking our right foot quickly off the accelerator at moderate speeds sometimes created a momentary jerky, ratcheting effect in the drivetrain, possibly caused by the transmission, the all-wheel- drive system, or a combination of both.

Refinement, quality could be better

Where the VUE just doesn’t match up as well with its competitors is in refinement and perceived quality. The interior seemed excessively plasticky, with too many different pieces. Assembly quality was shoddier than we expected, and the quality of the switchgear seemed barely adequate for its $25,000-plus sticker price.

Our test vehicle had a lot of creaks coming from the plastic panels along the doors and cargo area, plus some wind noise at highway speeds from rear weatherstripping that didn’t make a good seal. Engine noise is also a minus. The engine sounds particularly coarse when accelerating, and too much of the sound makes its way into the cabin.

The VUE drank fuel at about the rate we’d expect from an SUV. In a tank of mostly highway driving and some suburban stop-and-go, we recorded 19 miles per gallon, equivalent to its city rating—rather unspectacular considering its size.

A size between

Saturn’s SUV fits in an interesting niche, poised smack between compact four-cylinder car-based SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester and mid-size car-like crossovers like the Toyota Highlander and Pontiac Aztek.

In all fairness, two vehicles to compare the VUE most closely to would be the Ford Escape and Hyundai Santa Fe. At 200 and 181 horsepower, respectively, from similarly sized V-6s, they’re nearly evenly matched on paper. The (heavier) Ford Escape’s handling prowess makes it the choice for most fun to drive (if that’s possible in an SUV), while the Santa Fe comes out on top as more refined overall (that’s right…a Hyundai), more comfortable, and perhaps even more attractive.

The public’s response to our VUE was positive, but no one showed real excitement for it. At a gas station, one thirty-something minivan driver asked what it was, then said that it looked good, but more like a small minivan than an SUV.

But these are the type of buyers who’ll buy the VUE—bread-and-butter families, along with repeat Saturn customers, who place weight on customer service and the dealership experience itself. The VUE might not be at the top in terms of refinement, but it’s a well-designed SUV and a good, practical choice.

2002 Saturn VUE AWD V-6
$22,575 base, $25,370 as tested
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 181 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 106.6 in
Length: 181.3 in
Width: 71.5 in
Height: 66.5 in
Curb Weight: 3491 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 19/25 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags
Major standard features: Air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, locks, and mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, split folding rear seat, CD sound system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles


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