All-new in 2005, the Saturn Relay undergoes numerous changes for 2006, the most noticeable being an optional 3.9-litre engine with variable valve timing that can be added to the Uplevel with front-wheel-drive.

Other changes include available second-row side impact airbags (paired with captain’s chairs); available PhatNoise entertainment system that can play video games, digital music and movies through the vehicle’s sound system; a safety package of front-row side impact airbags and traction control standard on Uplevel models; a power-sliding passenger door standard on Uplevel models; an optional radio/navigation package in a single unit; OnStar Dual Mode with one-year Safe & Sound package; and six-lug wheels. In the paint department, Black Cherry replaces Berry Red, while Bronzed Pewter substitutes for Bronze Mist.

Available in extended-wheelbase only, the Relay is one of four versions at GM, alongside the Chevrolet Uplander, Pontiac Montana SV6 and Buick Terraza. Like its siblings, it uses metal body panels, instead of the dent-resistant polymer panels that used to be Saturn’s trademark. Canadian trim lines are Base, Value and Uplevel. (The U.S. division markets the trim lines with different names, using Relay2 and Relay3.)

Although it’s a minivan, GM prefers to call the Relay a “mid-van”; its flat, truck-like nose and hefty styling make it look more like an SUV. All models start with a 3.5-litre V6 that can be optioned up, in the Uplevel FWD, to the new 3.9-litre. All use a four-speed Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. Versatrak all-wheel-drive is available in Uplevel trim; it runs in front-wheel-drive under most conditions, but if one or both front wheels lose grip, the system automatically transfers torque. Unlike many systems, it can also transfer from side to side between the rear wheels.

Standard features include power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, power heated mirrors, air conditioning, cruise control, 50/50 folding third row bench seat, fold-flat second-row seats, 17-inch wheels, overhead rail system (accessories such as storage containers and a DVD system can be easily snapped onto it), and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS.

Available features include ultrasonic parking assist, power-sliding driver’s-side door, overhead rear DVD system, rear-seat audio controls, rear storage system, a “toy box” that fits between the second-row seats, six-CD/MP3 stereo, leather interior, power rear quarter windows, factory-installed remote starter and theft deterrent system.

The Relay is a pleasant drive, with handling that’s responsive and light, but with enough road feel to inspire confidence. The standard V6 is surprisingly quiet and is sufficient to propel the heavy vehicle, although if you fill all seven seats regularly, the new optional 3.9-litre may be a better choice. There’s a great deal of interior space, with comfortable seats that offer plenty of legroom in the second row, and enough for third-row passengers on short hauls. On the down side, the Relay is big and bulky, and cumbersome to park; rear visibility isn’t the greatest, and the optional rear parking assist is a very useful option.

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