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February 23, 2009

So Cal Mom Car Review: Saturn Vue Hybrid

Baby_you_can_drive_my_car This is another in a series of posts I'm writing about my search for a new car to replace my current leased Volvo, which I have to give up in June.

Catch up with the entire series here.

One of the standout low-mileage models at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November was the hybrid version of the Saturn Vue, and I was disappointed when the show rep told me I wouldn't be able to test drive one until Spring 2009.

Saturn_vue_front So you can imagine my delight when GM contacted me just before Christmas and asked if I'd like to drive one around for a week. (This is proof that folks at the good companies actually READ what we write about their products!)

As it turns out, the Vue I saw at the Auto Show was GM's new 2-mode model with a V6 engine. That's the one that will be coming out in the spring.

The Vue I drove was kind of a mini version of the Chevy Traverse I fell in love with last fall. It wasn't as large or as loaded, but it included enough luxury touches to make me feel like I was driving something special (i.e., those heated leather seats I've decided I cannot live without). Combine that with a more maneuverable size, hybrid gas mileage and a smaller price tag and you've got a vehicle that's going to remain near the top of the list of cars I'm considering for purchase.

Saturn_vue_interior The first thing I noticed about the Vue is its sleek, curvy silhouette (courtesy of the designers at GM's European company Opel). This is a big improvement over its initial boxy incarnation.

Its government safety ratings have also improved: It gets five stars for front and side crash safety in both front and back seats; four stars for rollover.

The old Vue only had a 3-star rollover rating and the 2003 model was actually recalled for a suspension problem that could result in rollovers. This was a factor in my decision to cross it off my list the last time I shopped for a car. This is ironic because at the time, I was driving a 1996 Saturn SL1 that I'd purchased precisely because it was considered to be such a safe vehicle -- and for most of the ensuing 10 years, I hadn't considered replacing it with anything BUT another Saturn.

GM was going to have to work hard to get me back to the Saturn line.The improvement in safety ratings is a step in the right direction.

The Vue's interior is well designed and roomy. The floor of the large cargo space lifts up to reveal a couple of nifty compartments, allowing you to stash a laptop computer or other gadgets out of sight. The second row comfortably seated my daughter and her long-legged carpool buddies on our daily trek to gymnastics. The vehicle has plenty of little pockets and compartments for storing small items, as well as power outlets in both the front and cargo areas.

I had never driven a hybrid vehicle before (at least, not for more than a ride around the block), so I was a little worried about this one's performance. I needn't have been. The Hybrid Vue is a zippy little thing; it picks up speed quickly and handles very well. It really doesn't feel any different from a small SUV with a traditional engine - even with all the "comfort" features going full-blast.

It was my luck (or something like that!) to have the Vue during the coldest week of the year here in SoCal, beginning with the day it snowed in parts of Los Angeles County. Our gymnastics carpool didn't have to deal with any of the white stuff, but it was only 33 degrees in parts of our 35-mile trek that day -- and we had to do it in low-visibility, hard driving rain and blustery winds that made it tough to stay in our lane. I felt safe driving the VUE. I also felt warm, because we had both the heater, the heated seats and the heated side mirrors on full blast.

However, I did notice that the Vue lacks rear-seat vents, which could be a problem for back seat passengers on hot days -- which are more the norm here in Southern California. For instance, it was over 80 degrees the other day - in JANUARY. So you can imagine what it's like here in July. Therefore, before I make my purchasing decision, I will need to try the vehicle out on a hot day with the air conditioner blasting.

Of course, the big question regarding the hybrid Vue is: How's the mileage?

The EPA estimates for this vehicle range from an average of 25 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. My Vue's onboard computer reported that I got 27.4 mpg during my week of driving (about half of each kind).

However, the hybrid engine doesn't give you all that much of an advantage over the standard Vue (19/City - 26/Highway) and the base price is $5,000 more. GM estimates that the Vue Hybrid will save me over $2000 per year in gasoline prices (at 12,000 miles and gas costs $4.00 per gallon).

Then again: I am averaging a dismal 19.7 mpg in my Volvo S60, which is a smaller car than the Vue. The Volvo's turbo-charged engine probably has a lot to do with that. At any rate, I would be reducing my gas consumption (and my own contributions to global warming) in the Vue - hybrid or otherwise.

What can I say? It's still on my list. I'll need to try it again when the weather heats up.

Donna_Schwartz_Mills Donna Schwartz Mills is a Los Angeles-based writer, who blogs about the challenges of raising a family in crazy Southern California at SoCal Mom ( This post originally appeared on her review site, SoCal Stuff  ( 


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