Saturn, the General Motors brand that has carved out a green image, is trying to distinguish itself in the hybrid market with a compact SUV that gives consumers more choice.
The automaker is unveiling the 2009 Vue Green Line two-mode hybrid, hoping to reach consumers by combining towing capacity with fuel-savings in a small sport utility vehicle. Saturn will be the first brand to offer two hybrid options on the same vehicle, building upon a milder hybrid version of the Vue that was launched in 2007.
"I think some consumers today might be held back if the hybrid is not affordable," Jill Lajdziak, Saturn general manager, said ahead of the Vue's premiere this month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. "I think we give people the option that you don't have to go broke to go green by offering choice in the marketplace."
Saturn plans to start production in late 2008 of the latest General Motors Corp. vehicle to offer the "two-mode" hybrid system. The technology, developed with Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, was introduced last year on the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs and will be appearing on the Chevrolet Silverado pickup and Cadillac Escalade.
The vehicle gives GM another entry into the growing hybrid market. New hybrid registrations increased 35 percent to nearly 290,000 vehicles during the first 10 months of 2007, according to data from R.L. Polk and Co., an auto information and marketing company.
Toyota Motor Corp. has dominated the hybrid market with its Prius, but analysts said the Saturn entry should give GM another chance at cracking the competition.
"A lot of it is 'mine gets better mileage than yours gets.' That's where the bragging rights lie there," said Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book in Irvine, Calif. "To the extent that this (Vue) gets really great mileage and turns in great numbers, which it promises to do, that should stand it in good stead."
The Green Line is expected to provide a 50 percent fuel economy increase compared with non-hybrid versions of the Vue with V6 engines. Final fuel economy figures have not been determined, but the two-mode Vue would likely get about 29 miles per gallon combined, or about 35 mpg on the highway.
Similar to single-mode hybrid systems used by Toyota, Ford Motor Co. and others, two-mode Vues will operate in electric-only mode at low speeds or with a mix of the 3.6 liter V-6 gas engine and electric assistance at higher speeds.
Single-mode systems, however, have heavier motors, making them less ideal for towing. Saturn said the hybrid Vue will have a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds, allowing it to tow a small boat, jet skis or a snowmobile.
The 4-cylinder hybrid system on the Vue Green Line introduced in 2007 gets about 32 mpg on the highway or 28 mpg combined. That hybrid version, starting at $24,795, adds about $2,000 to the vehicle's cost and is more affordable than most hybrids.
Saturn has not yet announced starting prices for the two-mode, but the company has said consumers can expect to pay more for the system. Versions of the hybrid Chevy Tahoe, for example, start at about $50,400, compared with a starting price of about $46,500 for the gas-fueled Chevy Tahoe LTZ.
"There's a price to pay — which is you're going to have to pay a four-(thousand) to five-thousand dollar premium for the hybrid technology, which will take anything from five to 10 years to a payback period, depending on how much you drive," said Mike Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain for J.D. Power & Associates.