Room for One More? By John DiPietro One of the things that makes America great (and sometimes frustrating) is the vast amount of choices we have. Even if we're talking about something as mundane as soft drinks, the selections are staggering, even within one brand. Years ago, when you wanted a Coke, you picked either regular or diet. Simple, right? Now you must decide between regular Coke, diet Coke, caffeine-free Coke, caffeine-free diet Coke, Cherry Coke and now even Vanilla Coke. And don't get us started on sneakers! The same could be said of the SUV market. Saturn's Vue is the latest choice, positioned as an alternative to established players like the Honda CR-V, Toyota's RAV4, the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute twins and the Subaru Forester, not to mention Hyundai's Santa Fe and Suzuki's XL-7. Last year, we conducted a comparison test of six small SUVs and since then, a few of the familiar nameplates, such as the CR-V and the Forester, have been redesigned. With this segment growing faster than an acne outbreak on a 10th grader, who can blame Saturn for wanting to join in? So how does Saturn expect to get its piece of the mini-ute pie? By promoting its traditional strengths, namely a pleasant, low-pressure dealership experience, a reputation for reliable vehicles and a sound, no-nonsense design. Although their vehicles won't excite enthusiasts, Saturn has built a large and loyal customer base due to these attributes. Take a gander at the Vue and its bloodlines are clear. The pug-like and grille-free nose has Saturn's trademark elongated headlights, and the clean profile has the upswept character line that Saturn refers to as a "swoosh" (And you thought only Nikes had swooshes.) As with other Saturns, the Vue's flanks are made of dent- and rust-resistant polymer — no worries about runaway shopping carts inflicting harm on your Vue. With a wheelbase of 106.6 inches and an overall length of 181.3 inches, the Vue is one of the bigger "mini-utes." By comparison, the newly upsized Honda CR-V measures in at 103.1 and 178.6 inches, respectively. Cargo capacity specs out at 30.3 cubic feet with the split/folding rear seat up and 63.5 cubes with it flipped down. As with some of its chief competition, the Vue offers a choice of powertrain configurations. The base front-wheel-drive Vue comes with a 2.2-liter inline four-cylinder mill, an engine that's shared with the L-series but rated slightly higher in the Vue application due to a bump in compression. The 2.2 supplies 143 horsepower and 152 pound-feet of torque and can be had with either a five-speed manual or a CVT (continuously variable automatic transmission) that Saturn calls VTi. Next up the ladder is the all-wheel-drive Vue with the 2.2-liter engine and CVT. Topping the range is the AWD V6 (181 ponies and 195 lb-ft of torque), which comes standard with a five-speed automatic. For 2002, Saturn is the only manufacturer to offer a CVT as well as a five-speed automatic in a small SUV. With the AWD versions, power is normally sent just to the front wheels, which optimizes fuel economy and minimizes wear and tear. If slippage is detected at the front wheels, power is then delivered to the rear wheels, as well. The operation is fully automatic and requires no driver input. The Vue is geared more toward handling slippery driving conditions and light-duty offroad work than terrain resembling that of the Paris-Dakar rally, and as such there is no "Lo" range. Those who are into serious boulder-bashing would be better served by a Jeep Liberty. Holding up the Vue is an all-independent suspension consisting of struts and coil springs up front and a multilink setup out back. The base front-wheel-drive model gets 16-inch wheels with 215/70R16 Bridgestone Duelers, while the four-wheelers get slightly wider tires (235/65R16s). Alloy wheels are standard on the V6 Vue and optional on the four-cylinder versions. Braking is by front discs and rear drums, with ABS as an option. In addition to having user-friendly showrooms with no-haggle pricing, Saturn makes it easy to choose a Vue to suit one's needs by having just the three trim levels mentioned earlier. Both four-cylinder Vues (front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive) come with air conditioning, a rear wiper, three power points (including one in the cargo area), a folding front passenger seat (that allows an object up to 8 feet long to be carried inside) and a stereo that has just an AM/FM radio. Go whole hog with the V6 AWD and you'll enjoy features such as power windows, door locks and mirrors; a keyless entry and anti-theft system; an auto-dimming rearview mirror; and an upgraded audio system featuring a CD deck and six speakers. Though most of us liked the no-nonsense interior layout that featured large, easy-to-read gauges and simple controls, we had sharp criticism regarding the materials and assembly. We don't expect the cabin to be lined in Connolly leather and burled walnut — hard plastic interior trim is a given in this vehicle class. But compared to most other mini utes, the Vue is a step behind. The doors have no soft trim on them, and we noted some uneven panel gaps on the center console and around the glovebox door opening. A few other gripes included the lack of interior grab handles and the power window buttons' location on the center console that requires the driver to reach around the tranny's gear shift lever to operate the right-side windows. Partially offsetting this minor annoyance is the fact that those switches are illuminated at night. Folding the 70/30-split rear seat is a snap and can be done with one hand, as there's no need to remove the headrests or flip up the bottom cushion. A handy flip-up cargo organizer is standard and is ideal for holding grocery bags and the like securely. As far as seat comfort, the front buckets are well-shaped and supportive, and we appreciated the fold-down armrests on the seats' inboard sides. Although it provides a generous 36.4 inches of legroom (the same as a Ford Escape), the rear seat didn't rate as highly, due mostly to a flat backrest and a low bottom cushion that doesn't provide enough support under one's legs. Saturn claims that it has tuned the Vue's engines for low- and mid-range power, and this was evident with our V6 tester. Throttle response was crisp, with no flat spots detected. Although we weren't able to run the Vue through our usual battery of tests (due to weather), we did manage to run some informal 0-to-60 mph times (as recorded by a passenger's stopwatch). The Vue responded with a mid-8-second performance for the dash, a reasonably quick time for an SUV. Most of the time, the five-speed automatic did a fine job of changing gears, upshifting right at redline under full throttle and stepping down a gear (or two if need be) smartly when a burst of power was needed. In essence, it felt as if the automatic were permanently programmed in a Sport mode, so adroit was its response. We did notice some gear hunting when the Vue was confronted with a combination of twisting turns and increasing grade. During our test loop that involved freeway, twisting two lane, chewed-up pavement and bare dirt roads, the Vue performed admirably. Handling was composed, and even when pushed, the Vue never felt tippy in spite of its generous ground clearance of 8 inches. We heard no complaints (that is, squealing) from the Bridgestones during our spirited romp on the sinuous blacktop. The electrically assisted power steering (which is less taxing on the engine and more space efficient) manages to feel natural, thanks to even weighting and progressive resistance when bending the Vue into the turns. However, some of our drivers observed torque steer under hard throttle. This characteristic (pulling to one side when the gas is nailed) is usually a malady of a powerful front-wheel-drive vehicle, so it was surprising considering our Vue was an all-wheel-drive version. When we pounded over the rough section of the loop, the Vue didn't bottom out once, in spite of the ride-biased suspension calibrations. But we did hear some squeaks from the dash when we subjected the ute to this unfriendly environment. Back on the pavement, we gave the brakes the panic-stop test from 60 mph and were pleased with their strong and steady performance, with the ABS coming into play only briefly toward the end of the stop. As a few of our editors noted, had Saturn brought out the Vue five or so years ago, it might have been a smash success. The basics are covered with a fine powertrain, capable handling, a pleasant ride, user-friendly ergonomics, a solid reputation for reliability and a low-stress buying experience. Saturn loyalists who are ready to make the transition from a car to an SUV would probably love the Vue. But folks in the market for a small SUV have plenty of good choices; the Vue is just one of them. We recommend trying all the flavors to see what suits you best.