Curbside Classic: 2002 Saturn VUE – Just Enough, Too Late.

There was one major problem that plagued Saturn. It wasn’t just the fact than when it was released it looked like a Mini-me decontented Cutlass that had costed GM billions of dollars to develop. And that every single aspect that made it distinct and original was eroded until all that was left was a cheap car that didn’t so much competed with the Civic and Corolla as with the bottom feeder (at the time) Koreans. It was that for about half of their life they had a lineup of only one car. And in a time of huge moves in the auto industry (which is any time in the auto industry) that pretty much means that you are dead on the water.

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Sure, the S-Series was given some special editions, and it was available as a wagon and a 2-door coupe (as a sucker for pop-up headlights, the first generation of those is the one to get) but it was still a one compact lineup. And at the moment the money was being made in mid-size sedans and full-size SUVs. I’m guessing after the initial expense of getting the brand out to the world it was deemed too much of an investment to develop another bespoke vehicle for the brand. But sometime around 1996 or so they must’ve realized that the S-Series wouldn’t last forever and brand expansion was required.

First came the L-Series, and once again it wasn’t so much competition for the Accord and the Camry as it was for the Optima and Sonata for the “I need a largish car that’s also quite cheap” crowd. Two years later, our subject car came along and…well it’s a bit bland isn’t it?

Yes, it seems that style wasn’t so big a priority when designing the VUE. The end product seems to have been designed by a kid when asked to draw Mommy’s car. But looking at it from another angle, isn’t it refreshing to see a small crossover that’s not overly styled or bloated? The combination of simple styling and those composite body panels also means it has aged better than other crossovers from similar vintage like the Hyundai Santa Fe. And the plain wrappings also hid some interesting technological developments if you knew which model to choose.

For example, the VUE Green Line it was the first vehicle made by GM that had a mild-hybrid system. And brace yourselves, because I’ll try to explain it. Essentially, there’s a powerful electric motor where the alternator is supposed to be and that gives you electric power assistance when you start, regenerative braking when you stop and start/stop functionality for city traffic. This system gave the Green Line massive improvements in fuel economy compared to the conventional-powered model going to 25 MPG city (up from 19) and 32 on the highway (up from 26).

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For those that preferred power and handling to saving fuel there was this. The Vue Red Line, a lowered, sportier model with a jewel under the hood. You see, instead of using any of the V6 engines that GM produced at the time, the Red Line (as well as some other V6-powered VUEs) was powered by a 3.5-liter Honda V6 mated to a five-speed manual. This is the same award-winning engine that powered the similar vintage Acura RL flagship, although in that application it was tuned to produce 286 horsepower then compared to the 248 it did on the Saturn. Still, 0-60 in 7.4 seconds and 0.81g thanks to the sports suspension are nothing to scoff at.

That’s not to say that I’d give the VUE a clean bill of health. It was still a Saturn, which meant the lowest of the low in the GM parts department. Horrible, ill-fitting plastics of dubious precedence and quality. And it had a CVT, which I personally find deeply annoying. Still, it managed to become Saturn’s top seller at one point, selling 91,972 units in the U.S on 2005, this was also its best sales year. Unfortunately, the VUE would go downhill from there.

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For starters there was the rather unfortunate facelift bestowed on it for the 2006 model year. This is what I was on about the design being generic but aging well on the pre-facelift model. I’m guessing the intention with this was to make it look less generic and trying to make it fit better with the facelifted L-Series. It didn’t make it any less generic, merely switched it to a worse level of generic.

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In 2008, the new VUE was released. Now following the new “American Opel” direction that the powers that be had decided for the brand, the VUE was now but a rebadged Opel Antara. The composite panels, like anything that was publicized as being the next big thing when Saturn was released, was now gone. The Saturn brand would be gone just a few years later.

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The Saturn VUE was a hit for Saturn, one of the few in its life alongside the ION Red-Line but I’m left wondering what would’ve happened if it had been developed and released earlier. Let’s say in the late ‘90s when the first-gen RAV-4 and CR-V were the ones leading the charge in the newfangled “Compact SUV” market. I don’t think it would’ve ultimately saved Saturn, but would it have been something that would’ve gone toe-to-toe with them and caused an incentive for the higher ups to throw a bit more money into the failing brand? Food for thought.

VUE_0405(curbside black VUE images by Brendan Saur) 

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1992 Saturn SL (GM Deadly Sin)

Future Curbside Classic: 2004 Saturn L300