Last night we got a close-up look at the 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line, GM's first hybrid SUV. Saturn's rationale for the Vue Green Line is "Go green without growing broke," a mission statement that is backed up by the Vue Green Line's relatively economical gas mileage (27mpg city/32mpg highway) and low suggested retail price ($22,995).
Unlike the "full hybrids," such as those that use Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) system, the Vue Green Line will feature a hybrid-lite technology known as Belt Alternator Starter (BAS), which is essentially a low-cost, backdoor approach to getting a coveted "Hybrid" badge on its model line. According to HybridCars.com, "the BAS concept is to replace the belt-driven alternator [Ed: and starter motor] with an electric motor that serves as a generator and a motor. Thus when the engine is running the motor, and acting as a generator, the system will charge a separate 36-volt battery. When the engine needs to be started, the motor then applies its torque via the accessory belt and cranks the engine instead of using the starter motor."
In the Vue Green Line, the BAS system integrates a 36-volt NiMH battery, mounted beneath the rear cargo area (at the expense of a spare tire) with GM's 2.4L, DOHC, in-line, four-cylinder variable-valve-timed engine. The result is a dual-propulsion system that enables the battery-powered electric motor to assist the four-cylinder gasoline engine--via a 12-volt converter--when accelerating from standing and when load demand is suddenly increased (for passing or merging, for example). The BAS system also features regenerative braking that turns the electric motor into a generator to capture the Vue's kinetic brake energy and to convert it into electricity to recharge the battery. Additionally, the system is designed to trigger fuel cut-off during deceleration.
Other economy features on the Green Line include an air-conditioning system that has an economy mode, indicated by a green light, and the vehicles' light weight.
Like many other hybrids, including Toyota'sand and Honda's Civic and Accord, the Vue Green Line makes the most of its hybridness through a number of dedicated gauges in the instrument panel, including an autostop reading on the tachometer, a charge-assist meter, and--most ostentatiously--a green ECO light that comes on when the car is meeting or exceeding its EPA gas mileage. In practice, all these features worked pretty seamlessly: on a fully loaded 7-mile test-drive, the first thing that we noticed was that the 2.4-liter Ecotec engine needed all the help it could get as we floored the accelerator and trundled out of the parking lot. The entry-level gasonline-only Saturn Vue comes with a 143-horsepower, 2.2-liter engine, which doesn't have the luxury of electric assistance, and we can see why Saturn chose to upgrade its powerplant (albeit marginally) to the 170hp Ecotec. On the upside, the engine shutoff and reengagement in the Vue Green Line is not as noticeable as that in the , and the regenerative braking seemed to work well--although it was very difficult to tell if there was fuel shutoff during deceleration.
On the outside, the Vue Green Line adopts some of the upscale accents found on the V-6 gasoline Vue models, including a rear spoiler, alloy wheels, and color-coded door handles. Inside, the Vue Green Line is pretty bland, with little of note from a cabin-tech perspective other than the hybrid instruments.
According to GM representatives, the Vue Green Line will be available in dealers "in the next week or two". GM also confirmed that Saturn is planning to introduce a hybrid-powered version of the Aura in 2007.