2008 Saturn VUE Hybrid

There’s no bigger buzzword in the car world than “hybrid.” GM is getting in on the act with the Saturn Vue Green Line, the first of the automaker’s new line of “affordable” hybrid systems.

It doesn’t offer the extreme mileage of smaller hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid, but it does compete with other compact SUVs, like the Ford Escape Hybrid. GM says the most important thing for buyers will be affordability; the Vue Green Line starts at $22,370 and gets 27/32 mpg city/highway. That compares to the Escape Hybrid’s sticker of $25,655 and 36/31 gas mileage. I spent a morning with the Green Line and came away surprised at how much value GM managed to pack into this efficient SUV.

The technology powering this hybrid is a standard gasoline-powered 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine mated to an electric motor. Combined, they produce 170 horsepower and 167 pounds-feet of torque. That doesn’t sound like much, but the all-new Honda CR-V only produces 166 hp, so this hybrid is competitive in the market.

On the road, I found the Vue a capable companion no matter what type of engine was under the hood. Road noise was minimal, the ride was pleasing and handling was more responsive than I remember in older Vue models. Of course, there are a few hybrid quirks that take some getting used to. When you come to a stop the engine pretty much shuts off. When you accelerate again, the electric motor does almost all the work up to a certain speed, but the Green Line does a good job of making the process feel normal. I didn’t find the powerplant lacking for acceleration power on the highway, either.

My sole complaint would be the four-speed transmission, which didn’t deliver silky-smooth gear changes at every moment, but for cars in this price range, that’s not a deal-breaker.

The brakes were also surprisingly solid considering the rears are drums and they’re part of the hybrid system. Even though there aren’t disc brakes on all four corners, antilock brakes come standard.

The Vue’s exterior and interior got a mild upgrade just last year. Besides a few small badges proclaiming its greenness, the Green Line doesn’t look any different from the gasoline models.

As in a standard Vue, the interior plastic and fabric aren’t top of the class, but for an SUV they come off as utilitarian and would likely hold up well over time. There’s a small meter in the gauge cluster that shows drivers when the hybrid is charging its batteries through braking, as well as when the electric motor kicks on to assist in acceleration. This will become vital for those learning the proper way to drive a hybrid for optimum efficiency — think, “lots of coasting.”

Saturn also managed to stow all the hybrid mechanicals — mainly the large batteries — in such a way as not to lose any cargo space. That space is slightly smaller than newly redesigned rivals in the segment, like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Mitsubishi Outlander. Or course, none of those small SUVs get this kind of gas mileage and all are around the same price or more.

The Vue is a no-frills machine; the big feature here is the hybrid system. XM Satellite Radio and OnStar are available, but OnStar’s new Turn-by-Turn navigation service is not.

The Vue does a decent job in the safety arena but still lags competitors in standard features. Side curtain airbags are optional, and without them the 2006 Vue received the lowest side-impact crash-test rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It did, however, receive the highest rating for frontal crashes. Antilock brakes with traction control do come standard, but there is no rollover mitigation or electronic stability system offered.

There simply isn’t a greener or more efficient small SUV for this price on the market. The cost of entry versus the value you get in the Vue is very favorable, and it’s the type of hybrid I prefer because it doesn’t let technology take over the driving experience.

The first of three hybrid versions of the second Vue is now ready for public consumption and it again features the mild hybrid belt-alternator-starter system. The control software of the system has been updated for 2008 for improved mileage. While the old Vue got 23/29 mpg (according to the revised 2008 procedures) the new one is rated at 25/32 mpg city/highway. That 32 mpg is the best among any SUV for 2008 although the Ford Escape hybrid is rated at 34/30 mpg with its strong hybrid system (it managed 30 real world mpg when it was in the ABG Garage). The new Vue Green Line is priced at $24,795 this year, undercutting the Escape by $280.

Scribbled on May 18th 2008 in Saturn, Saturn VUE
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