2002 Saturn VUE
Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

After test-driving the new Saturn VUE V6 with all-wheel-drive and a 5-speed automatic transmission, I came away with the impression that this is one of the most powerful, roomy, and comfortable small SUV’s on the market. It’s well-equipped and comparably-priced, and offers Saturn’s unique rustproof, dentproof exterior composite body panels. On the negative side, I thought that the quality of the dashboard materials and seat cloth were below-average, and I had some concerns with its torque-steer and level of refinement.

Roomy and powerful but interior quality disappoints

Brand new for the 2002 model year, the Saturn VUE sport-utility vehicle is in the same class as such popular compact SUV’s as the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Jeep Liberty, Toyota RAV4, Mazda Tribute, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Xterra, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Chevrolet Tracker, Kia Sportage, and Subaru Forester — it’s a long list!

The VUE is bigger than most vehicles in it class: for example, compared to the Ford Escape, it’s 210 mm (8.3 in.) longer and 35 mm (1.4 in.) wider, and has a wheelbase that is 89 mm (3.5 in.) longer. It’s also about 153 kg (338 lb.) heavier than an Escape V6 model. Curiously though, the cargo area is slightly smaller.

2002 Saturn VUE
Click image to enlarge

The five-passenger VUE is offered with both four cylinder and V6 engines, and comes in front-wheel-drive (4 cyl. only) and all-wheel-drive models (4 cyl. and V6 models). A 5-speed manual transmission is offered on four cylinder models, and a new continuously variable transmission that eliminates gear steps for smoother acceleration characteristics is offered instead of a conventional automatic. However, the Vti transmission has been delayed, and as of this writing, it is not available. V6-powered VUEs offer a standard 5-speed automatic transmission, but not a manual transmission.

As you might expect from a Saturn, the VUE has a space-frame body design with bolt-on rustproof plastic body panels (on vertical surfaces). Their biggest benefit is probably resistance to door dings in parking lots. The VUE’s front-end styling, with its long horizontal headlamps and creased body panels, is easily recognizable as a Saturn, and I’ve heard varied opinions on its attractiveness. Personally, I like the VUE’s styling.

Three VUE models

2002 VUE’s range in price from $22,495 to $30,155 (including $830 Freight charge and $100 A/C tax), and are offered in three models, 4 cylinder FWD, 4 cylinder AWD, and V6 AWD.

Front-wheel drive models have GM’s new 143 horsepower Ecotec 2.2 litre inline four cylinder engine which is a surprisingly, smooth, quiet and powerful four cylinder powerplant. In addition to its standard five-speed manual transmission, the base VUE includes a unique electrically-powered power steering system, air conditioning, four-speaker AM/FM stereo with CD Player, fold-down rear seatbacks with 70/30 split backrests, a fold-flat front passenger seat to accommodate long loads, 16 inch wheels, integrated roof-rails, and a unique rear cargo organizer. Its base price is $22,495, and with the VTi it’s $23,715.

The four cylinder VUE with all-wheel-drive includes all the features found on the FWD model, but has a standard variable transmission. This model is $26,055.

The top-of-the-line all-wheel drive model (this week’s test vehicle) has a 181 horsepower 3.0 litre V6 engine and a standard 5-speed automatic transmission, the only 5 speed automatic in its class. The V6 powertrain gives the VUE a significant towing capacity of 1136 kilograms (2500 lb). Standard features include 16-inch alloy wheels, six-speaker AM/FM stereo with CD Player, foglamps and a package that features power windows, door locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry system; cruise control; map lights; and an auto-dimming mirror with compass and outdoor temperature gauge. This model is $30,155.

Driving impressions

2002 Saturn VUE
Click image to enlarge

The VUE has tall, wide doors for easy entry and a fairly low step-in height of 457 mm (18 in.). The VUE’s driving position is slightly higher than a passenger car with a higher hip point, and shorter drivers can find a comfortable position courtesy of a height-adjustable driver’s seat with a manual ratchet-type lever, and a tilt steering wheel. As well, the front seats have inboard folding armrests to rest one arm while driving on the freeway.

The VUE’s big windows make it easy to see out in all directions, and the sculpted hood design makes it easier to determine where the front of the car is when parking. I also liked the VUE’s large outside rearview mirrors, and the inside rearview mirror which includes a compass and outside temperature gauge. The only thing I didn’t like was the driver’s visor which seemed too low when flipped down. It can only be adjusted by unclipping it from the centre latch. The VUE V6 AWD’s 181 horsepower 3.0 litre DOHC 24 valve V6 is not the most powerful V6 in its class (the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute have 200 horsepower), but it offers more than enough horsepower for this size of vehicle, and zips from 0 to 100 km/h in the same time as a Ford Escape V6.

2002 Saturn VUE
Click image to enlarge

According to AJAC’s (Automobile Journalists Association of Canada) independent acceleration tests, the VUE goes from 0 to 100 km/h in 9.5 seconds, equivalent to a Ford Escape V6 and Mazda Tribute V6, and quicker than the V6-powered Jeep Liberty, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Suzuki XL7, and the four cylinder Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. There’s no lag as you accelerate from a dead stop – in fact, the accelerator pedal is a little too sensitive. Passing also very quick – its 80 km/h to 120 km/h passing time of 7.9 seconds is also faster than the above-mentioned competitors. However, during my acceleration tests of the AWD VUE, I noticed that it pulled slightly to the right when accelerating hard from rest. And I found the V6 engine a little unrefined when accelerating, yet very smooth on the highway. While cruising on the freeway, the relaxed 3.0 litre V6 engine does only 2000 rpm at 100 km/h and 2400 rpm at 120 km/h.

The VUE’s 5-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly and smoothly most of the time and varies shift timing depending on the situation – for example when coasting down a slight grade, the transmission will stay in third to aid engine braking, and then shift into fourth and fifth when the car proceeds onto a level grade. Going up hills, the transmission will also stay in a lower gear rather than shifting back and forth between lower and higher gears.

The VUE uses Regular unleaded fuel, Fuel consumption in the city is 12.6 l/100 km (22 mpg), and on the highway it’s 8.6 l/100 km (33 mpg) — that’s better than a Ford Escape V6 but worse than a Honda CR-V 4 cylinder. I noticed the VUE’s gas cap filler door is not lockable.

The permanently-engaged all-wheel-drive system features a transfer case located just ahead of the rear axle that can transfer up to 100 percent of drive torque to the rear wheels should the front wheels start to slip. It is fully automatic, and almost invisible to the driver. By running in front-wheel-drive most of the time, it saves fuel, and only activates when needed in slippery situations. The transfer case does not have a separate Low Range gear.

2002 Saturn VUE
Click image to enlarge

The VUE V6 has a maximum towing capacity of 1136 kg.(2500 lb.), but it should be noted that this includes the weight of the driver, and not the passengers and cargo.

For those interested in the four cylinder VUE with the continuously variable transmission (which Autos will test at a later date), the VTi is a fully automatic transmission that uses a pair of variable-diameter pulleys and a special steel belt to precisely match engine output to vehicle speed, providing equivalent or better acceleration times and improved fuel economy over traditional automatic transmissions.

The VUE’s unique electric power steering has a very light, easy-to-turn feel at slower speeds, and a firmer, surer feel at higher speeds. I liked it, but occasionally, I noticed some curious squealing sounds when making a sharp left or right turn. The VUE’s turning diameter of 11.6 m (38 ft.) is acceptable for an AWD SUV with a 106 inch wheelbase.

A fully independent suspension (front strut type and rear multi-link) gives the VUE a well-balanced, comfortable ride and sure-footed handling. The Bridgestone Dueller HT 235/65R-16 M+S tires on my test vehicle provided excellent dry and wet weather grip, and weren’t noisy on the freeway. Overall, I found the VUE to be a very comfortable vehicle to ride in. As well, it offers a 20 mm (8 in.) ground clearance for winter driving and off-road adventures.

Its standard front disc/rear drum brakes have a firm pedal feel and include standard 4-wheel anti-lock braking. Independent braking tests by the Automobile Journalists Association show the VUE braking from 100 km/h to 0 in 151 feet, not as good as the Honda CR-V which does it in 136 feet and the Jeep Liberty in 139 feet.

VUE from the inside

2002 Saturn VUE
Click image to enlarge

The driver faces large, round, easy-to-read dials for the speedometer and tachometer shielded from glare by a semi-circular hood. Like many Japanese cars, the left stalk has headlight controls and the right stalk includes wiper and rear wiper settings, including a 3-position intermittent setting for the rear wiper. As well, the buttons for the power windows and power mirrors are found on the centre console, not on the doors. The cruise control buttons are found exclusively on the steering wheel spokes.

The centre stack, which is painted a low-gloss black, features a large oval air vent at the top, and a slot with the letters ‘VUE’ printed on it – just in case you forget what vehicle you’re driving. There are buttons for the foglights and instrument dimmer, a compact AM/FM/CD player with a built-in digital clock (and six speakers), and an open storage area that can be filled by an optional cassette player. The heater controls are a conventional three dial arrangement with separate controls for air conditioning, recirculation, and rear window defogger. There’s also a handy 12 volt power point.

2002 Saturn VUE
Click image to enlarge

The automatic transmission gear lever is elevated up on a protruding centre console unit, and is easy to reach. Its pistol-type release grip allows the lever to move between gears.

Between the front seats are two cupholders with grippy rubber inserts – these cupholders are sensibly placed near the floor where potential spills won’t splash the dash or seats. Beside the cupholders is a long, thin storage bin designed for pens, pencils, combs or what-have-you. Behind the cupholders is a covered storage bin that’s useful for storing CD’s, cassettes, and other small items. There’s also a storage slot in the lower left dash for coins, garage door openers, notepads, or other small items. The front doors have mesh pockets and the rear doors have small, open storage areas.

Though the dashboard and console are well-designed, I thought the quality of the plastics was below-average, and the fit was not always perfect – for example, there was a gap between the raised centre stack and the top of the dash in my test vehicle. Another thing I noticed was that the rear door rattled when I closed it.

The VUE’s second row, three-person bench seat offers plenty of headroom and generous legroom under the raised front seats. It’s wide enough for three adults, but better-suited to two, and features a useful two-position recliner.

I found the second-row cushions and seatbacks firmer than the front seats, and not quite as comfortable.

Second-row passengers have two pull-out cupholders at the back of the centre console, a 12 volt power outlet, and a small storage bin – there’s also a map pocket on the back of the driver’s seat.

For safety, there are two height adjustable head restraints, and three three-point seatbelts (the middle lap belt is conveniently integrated into the seat.)

Interior lighting is very good: there are two large dome lights above the cargo area and the second row seat, and two map lights over the front seats.

The rear hatch has an outside handle and lifts up easily, supported by two sturdy-looking gas struts. The VUE’s cargo area has a carpeted floor, but the rear shock towers are covered by plastic which can be scratched by cargo objects. The cargo area is quite roomy – it’s more than 914 mm (3 ft.) wide between the wheelwells and 127 mm (50 in.) wide at its widest point. From the rear hatch to the back of the rear seat is 81 mm (32 in.), and with the split folding rear seats folded down, the cargo floor is 162 mm (64 in.) long. As well, the right front passenger seatback will fold flat and has a hard surface, bringing the total loading length to about 245 mm (8 ft.). Liftover height is a comfortable 74 mm (29 in.).

Under the rear cargo floor is a unique flip-up divider which creates a secure place to store grocery bags. I found it useful, but I noted that if you have more than four or five grocery bags, you should store the first bags in the forward part of the cargo area first, and then assemble the rear cargo organizer – otherwise you have to lift the extra bags over the cargo organizer.

The cargo area also includes a 12 volt power point on left side of trunk, and two plastic bins on either side for milk jugs and bottles.

I recommend you visit GM Canada’s web-site where they have ‘3-D Tours’ of the VUE’s interior and exterior. These ‘moving pictures’ show how the rear seats fold down, how the grocery holder works, and so on. Go to www.gmcanada.com and click on ‘Saturn VUE 3-D Tours’.

Safety features

The VUE is built on the ‘next-generation’ Saturn space-frame construction, constructed almost entirely from high-strength steel, incorporating full-length frame rails and a rugged steel safety cage in a single welded unit. Front and rear crush zones to help absorb crash energy while protecting the integrity of the safety cage.

Aside from standard front airbags, the VUE is available with optional head-curtain air bags which provide protection in the event of a side-impact collision, but only for the front occupants. The Saturn VUE also features four outboard adjustable head restraints, three sets of child seat anchors for the rear seat, and three-point safety belts for all 5 passenger positions.

Competitor overview

Compared to other compact SUV’s, I found the VUE’s V6 engine and 5-speed automatic transmission offered best-in-class acceleration although I experienced some mild torque-steer. I found the VUE easy to drive with a comfortable ride and easy steering, and the VUE’s interior and cargo area are roomy – I especially liked the unique cargo organizer. However, I thought the VUE’s interior fit and finish was not as good as some of its competitors, and little things, such as a rattling door and the quality of the seat cloth, caused me to have lingering quality concerns.

Price and features

As mentioned above, the VUE’s base MSRPs (including destination freight charges and air conditioning tax are: VUE 4-Cylinder, FWD, Manual $22,495; 4-Cylinder, FWD, VTi $23,715; 4-Cylinder, AWD, VTi $26,055; V6, AWD, automatic $30,155.

Major options are anti-lock braking system $750; Head Curtain Air Bags $515; Power sunroof (requires Power Package) $945; 16″ x 6.5″ alloy wheels $520; AM/FM stereo with CD, cassette, custom 6-speaker system $285; AM/FM stereo with 6-disc CD, cassette, custom 6-speaker system $650.

A ‘Power Package’ includes power windows, Saturn Security System (power door locks with remote keyless entry, content theft, anti-lockout and theft deterrent system), auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and temperature, power remote control side mirrors, cruise control and overhead console light for $1,770

The VUE comes with a complete 3 year/60,000 km warranty, and a 5 year/100,00 km powertrain warranty. As well, the warranty is transferable to subsequent owners at no cost.

Built in Spring Hill, Tennessee, the VUE is sold at 64 Saturn dealers across Canada. Additional info on the VUE can be found at GM Canada’s web-site, www.gmcanada.com

Technical Data:

2002 Saturn VUE V6 AWD
Base price $29,225
Freight $830
Options $650
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $30,805
Type 4-door, 5 passenger compact sport utility vehicle
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 3.0 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves
Horsepower 181 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 195 lb.-ft. @ 6000 rpm
Fuel Regular unleaded
Transmission 5-speed auto
Tires P235/65R16 all season
Curb weight 1578 kg. (3471 lb.)
Wheelbase 2707 mm (106.6 in)
Length 4605 mm (181.3 in)
Width 1817 mm ( 71.5 in)
Height 1689 mm ( 66.5 in)
Cargo capacity 858 litres (30.3 cu. ft.) behind rear seat
  1785 litres (63.5 cu. ft.) rear seat folded
Towing capacity max. 1136 kg. (2500 lb.)
Fuel consumption City: 12.6 l/100 km (22 mpg)
  Hwy: 8.6 l/100 km (33 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

Connect with Autos.ca