In truth, we’re right now in the midst of the greatest resurgence of automobile performance since the late 1960s. Some obscure set of factors has finally re-converged to encourage a climate which enthusiasts find temperate; above fuel efficiency concerns, emissions worries, or new design directions, the focus in so many niches of the new-car market is on horsepower. Hooray!
Thus, just about every new car on the market is a powerhouse and every redesign of an existing model sports better numbers. It’s a phenomenon that has even spread to trucks and SUVs-ten years ago your average four-by-four was judged by tow ratings, while today their conversations include zero-to-sixty times and quarter miles. Heck, even Porsche sells a truck now-and Land Rover, which got by for decades powering the Range Rover with a 1960s’ Buick V8 making 215 horsepower-now trades on power and sporty feel.
So it’s no surprise that ‘feel-good’ brand Saturn has gotten into the mix. Hot on the heels of the hotted-up Ion Red Line compact comes the redesigned 2006 Red Line edition of the Vue baby SUV. We spent a week with this hot-rod-Saturn, and came away with some interesting, if mixed, impressions.
First off, it’s a good-looking machine. The Vue itself has gone from an angular, malformed misfit to a macho megastar, courtesy of a well-done recent redesign. The Red Line edition adds ground effects, mild spoilerage, 18″ alloys wearing 245/50 rubber, and other go-faster-looking bits that actually make for an aesthetic success. We like the gaping grille below the bumper is reminiscent of an intercooler, set off by recessed fog lights, and the black-out treatment applied to the window area. It looks equal parts modern and fast, and we hope that if America’s love affair with the SUV continues, we’ll see more examples of the breed with this much flair.
Inside are some interesting details as well. Silver-faced gauges are complemented by suede-like sport seats, which unfortunately lack much in the way of bolstering. Red Line floor mats are a neat touch, and in general the gray-and-black color scheme looks sexier than it sounds. And in a thoughtful moment, Saturn’s interior designers threw in an innovative package-holding system that folds up from the rear cargo area’s floor and does an excellent job of keeping your gear from rattling around.
Our tester was equipped with a single-disc CD player with mp3 capabilities and an iPod connector. The aluminum and high-quality plastic audio and climate system interfaces, as well as secondary switchgear, is sourced from that magical new GM interior parts bin that contributes to the upscale feel in the Solstice and H3-looking and feeling as good as anything in the class. One interesting (if childish) Red Line feature is the ‘ambient floor lighting,’ which bathes the front and rear footwells in blue or orange light at night. It’s not as garish as it sounds, but then again, it’s not as useful as those subtle LEDs illuminating the console area that we’re seeing in other new designs-nor would we choose to skip heated seats for the feature (required since the color-selector switches replace the ones for that option).
Perhaps the best feature of the Red Line Vue-available in other Vue models as well-is the powerplant. It’s a sweet 3.5-liter V6, rated at 250 horsepower, that moves the Vue with authority and utter smoothness. Zero to sixty comes up in 7.5 seconds, and the free-revving motor never sounds stressed. Of note here is that this honey of an engine is actually sourced from Honda; a boon for buyers from reliability and performance standpoints, but a public relations problem for Saturn. Still, with almost 70 horses more than the GM 3-liter that powers the base Vue, there’s nothing to knock under this hood. Especially as this motor works extremely well with the smooth GM five-speed automatic it’s paired with. Shifts are as smooth as butter, but not slushy.
The suspension is another story, however, although lowering the chassis by an inch does provide a better stance. Don’t let those racy looks fool you, though; the Vue is an SUV through and through, and handles like one. Saturn attempted to imbue the Vue with a crisper, sportier feel, but the added stiffness also imparts even more pronounced side-to-side movement in a vehicle with a high center of gravity such as this. We didn’t expect the stability of a Cayenne, but even the Hyundai Tucson felt more solid in aggressive driving. Howling tires, pulse-quickening body lean and prayer-eliciting brakes should not be mistaken for high-performance equipment, and should not be mixed with high-performance driving. The stiffened shocks and springs, and lower-profile rubber, are certainly an improvement over the stock Vue, but a corner-carving hero they do not make. At least the ride is comfortable, and predictable understeer is relatively safe.
Torque steer can also be an issue, interestingly enough. Although the Red Line Vue has “all-wheel-drive,” the system only engages the rear wheels when slippage is detected up front. Thus, most of the time all those horses are galloping through the front wheels only, and in some cases-especially hard acceleration through a slight turn-the extra directional pull can really surprise you.
A couple other complaints, while we’re at it: The rear seats are flat and hardly comfortable on long trips-this is symptomatic of the baby-SUV segment but still annoys. At least they fold relatively flat, and can be locked down for stability. Ergonomics truly went out the window, however, with the parking brake handle design; it’s so close to the side of the console that your knuckles scrape the hard plastic every time you use it. And finally, the wind noise at high speeds seemed excessive.
Saturn has developed a separate Green Line for the brand’s economy-minded offerings. Still, our Red Line tester rates as a ULEV vehicle, and the EPA gives it a laudable 28 m.p.g. highway rating. Of course, we’ve got lots more lead in our feet than the EPA’s testers do, and we barely did half as well at an average 15 m.p.g. in mixed driving.
Still, this is a good-looking piece in a class where style is almost utterly absent. If nothing else, the $1,995 Red Line option is worth it just for the body mods. The Red Line Vue itself stickers at almost $25,000, which could cause sticker-coma upon initial inspection. That’s actually $1,200 less than last year, though-and keep in mind, GM has still not weaned itself off incentives completely. Also remember you’re getting V6 power, an upscale interior, more gadgets and a lot more style at that price-suddenly it seems like a bargain. Plus, you get all-wheel-drive, a well-equipped interior, and a sweet powertrain, all at a price that would never get you in the door at Porsche or Land Rover.2006 Saturn Vue Red Line: Sporty Style at Half the Price,