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Saturn's hybrid SUV taken for test drive

The 2007 Saturn Vue hybrid doesn't have the look and feel of some other hybrids, but it drives well and gets 23 percent better mileage than its gas-only sibling. writes a journalist who test drove one.
The 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line
The 2007 Saturn Vue Green LineSaturn via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Saturn adds a new twist to the gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle debate this summer when its first hybrid debuts.

The 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line sport utility vehicle offers improved fuel economy over gas-only Vues and yet carries the lowest starting price of any hybrid SUV in the U.S. market.

Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $22,995 for a Vue Green Line is some $4,500 less than the MSRP, including destination charge, of $27,515 for the previous lowest-priced gas-electric hybrid SUV in the United States — the five-passenger, 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid.

It’s also some $3,200 less than the lower, $26,240 starting price for the 2007 Ford Escape Hybrid, which Ford has already announced.

Toyota, whose gas-electric hybrid vehicles are the best sellers in the country, has more premium-priced gas-electric SUVs.

They are the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which starts at $33,635 for a two-wheel drive model with V6, continuously variable transmission (CVT) and seating for seven, and the 2006 Lexus RX 400h, which starts at $45,355 for a two-wheel drive model with V6, seating for five and CVT. Lexus is the luxury division of Toyota.

But note that Toyota as well as Honda offer five-passenger hybrid cars — 2006 Toyota Prius and Honda Civic — that undercut by a few hundred dollars the Saturn Vue Green Line’s starting prices.

$3,300 more than gas-only Vue
In addition, the Vue Green Line is $3,300 more than a comparable, four-cylinder-powered gas-only Vue.

The Vue Green Line comes with front-wheel drive, four-cylinder engine that burns regular gasoline, seating for five and four-speed automatic transmission.

On the outside, most observers won’t see the subtle front air dam styling updates that differentiate the Vue Green Line from other Vues. They’re more likely to notice the new, hybrid badge that’s on this Vue.

Overall, though, the Vue Green Line has the same pleasant, mainstream styling of all five-door Vue compact SUVs.

The vehicle looks pretty normal inside, too. While a new indicator tells when the electric power is being charged or is being used to assist the gas engine, there’s no central graphic display on the dashboard showing the hybrid system at work, the way there is inside a Toyota hybrid.

And there’s no bar chart in a display on the dashboard to show a driver how his or her driving is affecting fuel economy, the way there is inside Ford’s Escape.

Indeed, because the Vue Green Line is based on an aging Vue SUV, with its old electronics communications “bus,” drivers of the Green Line don’t even have an onboard computer telling them the fuel mileage they’re getting.

They must figure this out for themselves — say, at the gas station when they fill the tank. They then can manually divide the gallons it took to refill the tank into the miles that they traveled on the previous tank and discover what mileage they got.

It’s not a sophisticated system especially considering that the majority of American hybrid buyers purchase their vehicles to boost their fuel mileage and want to readily see the mileage they’re getting as they travel.

Additionally, it seems odd that a hybrid, considered high tech, doesn’t include an on-board computer for fuel mileage when so many other, non-hybrid vehicles do.

Saturn officials did add an “Eco” light in the instrument cluster that goes on whenever the system detects that the vehicle at that moment is getting more than the government “average fuel economy ratings.” But this appears to be vacuum-operated, not computer-calculated, and comes on at predictable times — whenever a driver lets off the gas and is coasting, for example.

Pleasing ride, roomy inside
All this has nothing to do with how the Vue Green Line rides and operates, however.

Like all Vues, the ride is rather pleasing and not at all bouncy or truck-like. Some rough road bumps come through to passengers and are noisy, but most are well-managed by the suspension.

Passengers have a high ride height for good views all around.

There are some road sounds that come through via the tires and a bit of wind noise at highway speeds.

The hybrid system in the Vue is much simpler than the one used by Toyota and Ford, which explains why the pricing can be set where it is.

Basically, all current gas-electric hybrids pair a gas engine to electric motors and battery packs and include regenerative braking — all to maximize efficiency.

The Vue Green Line uses an electric motor and nickel-metal hydride battery pack to supplement a 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine for a total of 170 horsepower, up from 143 horsepower in the non-hybrid, four-cylinder Vue.

But unlike other hybrids, this Vue cannot run beyond a few short seconds solely on electric power.

Typically, this short, electric-only operation comes when the Vue is just starting up from a stop and the gasoline engine is getting started. (Like other hybrids, the Vue’s gasoline engine can shut itself off when the vehicle is stopped, say at a stoplight, in order to conserve fuel. It then automatically restarts when the driver lifts off the brake pedal.)

The reason the Vue’s electric-only time is limited is because the hybrid system is designed primarily to supplement the gas engine — for example, in acceleration maneuvers when the driver wants to pass another vehicle on the highway. The electric power is not meant to provide propulsion on its own.

This means that Saturn didn’t have to re-engineer the Vue’s powertrain. Instead, the Vue’s electric-drive motor is combined with the vehicle’s alternator, which is simpler and less complicated than Toyota’s use of two electric motors as well as a planetary gear.

But the Ford and Toyota hybrids can travel for somewhat extended periods on electric power, with the gas engine off, thereby offering more opportunities for fuel savings.

For instance, a Highlander Hybrid recently tested traveled down a residential street, all on electric power. And it moved from stop to stop in congested traffic, again, all on electric power. This provides additional opportunities for gas savings.

Not the best hybrid mpg
So, as you might guess, the Vue Green Line doesn’t get the fuel economy ratings of the others.

Final government ratings haven’t been posted. But Saturn estimates 27 miles a gallon in city driving and 32 mpg on the highway, for a combined 29.5-mpg rating.

This is 5.5 mpg more than a gas-only, four-cylinder Vue with automatic, for a 23 percent fuel economy improvement.

But it’s not as high as the Escape’s 36/33-mpg rating (yes, in Ford’s hybrid tuning, city driving gets a higher fuel mileage rating than does highway travel.)

Note that the Escape remains the top SUV in fuel economy rating in the country even with the introduction of the Vue Green Line.

Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid also is competitive — 33/28 mpg for a combined 30 mpg — than the Vue hybrid, despite the fact the Highlander uses a V6 engine and generates more power.

I readily heard the Vue hybrid’s four cylinder stressing a bit in aggressive driving — as I’ve experienced in many four-cylinder-powered SUVs.

But overall, the Vue Green Line moved through traffic well and without fuss, and the extra power supplied by the electric motor was much appreciated.

During testing, I found the Vue hybrid’s engine on/off and supplemental electric power came on smoothly, while in some of the more complex Toyota hybrids there has been occasional roughness — a feeling as if the vehicle’s about to stall in transitions.

Saturn also saved money in the Vue with the four-speed automatic transmission. It’s a long-used unit from Saturn’s parent company, General Motors Corp., and contrasts with Toyota’s use of a more complex CVT, which has an infinitely variable number of gears to try to maximize efficiency.

Another cost saving is the battery pack that stores electric power for the hybrid system. Because the Vue’s battery pack doesn’t need to provide enough power to propel the vehicle for long all by itself, it’s smaller than those in the Escape and Highlander.

The Vue’s rectangular-sized pack sits tidily behind the back seat, under the cargo floor, where it does not impinge on storage space and doesn’t add a lot of weight.