Hopping around in a Saturn Vue hybrid

Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 2:08 p.m.
Winter stubbornly refused to come to New England, and the weekend loomed with clear skies, a bright sun and 70-degree temperatures. It seemed an appropriate time to dive into a project slated for early spring: building a terraced garden in the back yard.
It was easy to get to the neighborhood hardware store, located just a mile away at the end of a steep, winding road adjacent to the railroad tracks.
And it took no time at all to pile 2,500 pounds of cut concrete blocks, gravel and soil at the curb. The question was how much of this could be piled into a compact, hybrid SUV - the Saturn Vue Green Line - and how well the relatively small vehicle could handle the load going up and around a winding roadway?
According to General Motors, the Vue should be able to handle a 1,400-pound load without balking at hills or flipping over on sharp curves. I divided the cargo into roughly 800-pound loads, laid the rear seats down to expand the already ample cargo area, crossed my fingers and took off. There was no actual need to worry.
The Vue is a true crossover, with a rigid chassis that is neither a stretched car frame nor the body of a heavy duty truck. It was designed to handle the mid-sized loads I was hauling and the combined gasoline engine and electric motor - if working correctly - would provide an extra boost when accelerating or taking off.
In this case the Vue, which handles like a car, took off just as it had when empty, and easily rolled up the winding hill with no audible engine strain or strain on the steering.
Then, just to make sure, I turned around and drove the load back down the winding hill and found I did not have to fight the added weight to maintain control going around curves.
In addition, the electric motor assists in the braking process, converting the heat normally generated by the brake pads into energy stored in the battery pack under the rear seat and cargo area.
In keeping with GM design chief Ed Welburn's vision of a stylish Saturn line, the Vue is a sleek SUV with the flowing lines and curves you might expect to find on an '07 sedan. But, as with all hybrids, there are trade-offs between price and amenities.
The Vue is not a full hybrid, in that the electric motor cannot drive the vehicle on its own battery power. Instead, it augments the performance of the gasoline engine, providing a boost in power whenever you accelerate by adding its torque to that of the 170-horsepower, four-cylinder engine.
In addition, whenever the car stops or your foot comes off the accelerator pedal, the gasoline engine shuts off and the electric motor takes over the car's operating systems. As a result, the gasoline savings comes from not wasting fuel while idling at stop lights or coasting.
The economics of this system, however, show the savings are less than a buyer might expect from a Green vehicle. The savings from a partial hybrid like the Vue Green Line vary depending on one's driving habits: motorists who are primarily on the highway are not going to save as much fuel as those idling in stop and go traffic or sitting for minutes at stop lights.
GM estimates that the Vue hybrid gets 27 miles per gallon in city driving - five miles per gallon better than the standard Vue - at an extra cost or premium of $2,000 for the combined power system.
The EPA estimates that the average motorist travels 15,000 miles annually. Taking that average, the Vue Green Line would use 555 gallons of gas annually, while the standard Vue would use about 682 gallons.
That increased fuel efficiency would save 127 gallons of gas annually - or about $381 each year at $3 per gallon of regular gas. Weekly fuel costs, therefore, would be about $7 less than they would with a regular Saturn Vue powered solely by a gasoline engine. At that rate of savings, it would take about five years and three months to recoup the $2,000 spent for the hybrid engine.
That is why Toyota promotes hybrids as performance enhancers rather than gasoline savers. The cost premium for a hybrid can be offset by reducing the amenities in the vehicle - buying cloth, manually operated seats instead of powered and heated leather ones, for example.
But one doesn't have to settle for second rate when ordering a hybrid. The Vue Green Line, inside, was more than pleasant: it was almost elegant by the standards of a $23,000 compact SUV.
The seats were manually operated in the test vehicle and could not be heated, but they were soft, supple, stitched leather and could be ridden in all day without back pain or the loss of circulation in the lower legs.
There were thoughtful storage compartments in the Vue, including two small ones designed for cell phones, located in the center console and at the base of the dashboard's control panel.
There was adequate storage space, with a flat center console with a bin for storing CDs, cup holders and two clots for holding cell phones.
In addition, there is a convenient storage slot to the left of the steering wheel, so the driver can conveniently store an electronic toll pass or other small, handy items.
The vanity mirrors are large enough to be useful, though they are unlit, and the rear view mirror provides a compass heading and outside temperature.
View screens on the Saturn's Vue are easy to read, though the yellow on black is a throwback to the early era of computing when that was all that was available on the dark DOS screens.
The Vue had AM/FM radio and a single disc CD and MP3 player. But the sound was more than adequate with a rich bass that clamored for either serious jazz or a convenient block party.
In addition, there are fingertip controls for the entertainment, cruise command and information systems on the leather, three-spoke steering wheel.
And like all GM cars, the Vue Green Line comes with OnStar, the built-in telephone and live concierge system.
If you make the investment in the Green Line, you have a comfortable, attractive car you can take anywhere in style while making an environmental statement and having lower, weekly operating costs.
And that's not a bad way to travel.

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