One year after the introduction of the 2007 Vue Green Line, Saturn has brought out a significantly revised version of the model. The 2008 Vue Green Line may share most of the tech features of the original model, but its exterior design shows that Saturn has spent a busy 12 months at the drawing board. Gone is the square-cut back end and unsightly plastic grille treatment up front, replaced by a curved profile and color-coded paintwork. Dazzling as-standard 17-inch alloy rims complete the picture. Under the stylish sheet metal, things remain largely unchanged: The 2008 Vue Green Line retains a tweaked version of the belt-alternator starter system that we saw in its predecessor and most recently in the Chevy Malibu Hybrid, giving it an impressive on-paper fuel economy. In keeping with its budget image, the updated Vue Green Line boasts precious few advanced technology features outside of its hybrid-lite drive train, although the inclusion of OnStar navigation on the options sheet is a welcome addition.
Test the tech: OnStar on trial
One of the major differences between the 2008 Saturn Vue Green Line and its predecessor is the availability in the most recent model of OnStar turn-by-turn navigation. As we have seen on numerous GM models in the past, OnStar acts as a catchall subscription-based replacement for major cabin tech components such as navigation and hands-free calling. We have had mixed experiences with OnStar in the past: In our test of the Saturn Aura Hybrid we were given some less-than-accurate directions, while more recently in the Chevy HHR, we fared a little better. For our test in the Vue Hybrid, we decided to get ourselves deliberately lost, request directions home, and see how far we got.
We started out driving south on U.S. 101 and then turned off when we got bored. Then we kept driving for a few more miles and turned onto another highway (I-237) and took that until we found yet another highway (I-680). After a couple of miles, we came to a residential area, where we pulled the car over to the side of the road. While OnStar does have its fair share of drawbacks relative to in-dash screen-based navigation systems (seeing where you're going on a map being possibly the biggest), the system does allow drivers to program destinations with relative ease. Instead of navigating through onscreen menus and using a rotary dial or a touch-screen keypad to select all elements of the destination address, OnStar enables drivers to speak to a real person, who enters the destination on a computer and then sends the directions to the car. In our case, we got through to an OnStar assistant within 5 seconds of pressing the roof-mounted activation button, told the nice lady where we wanted to go, and waited a further 10 seconds after hanging up as the directions found their way over a cellular network to our car's in-dash head unit.
The OnStar navigation is activated by pressing a button on the roof.
Without a map, the navigation directions are restricted to being displayed as text instructions and related turn arrows. Drivers can preview upcoming directions by pressing the Preview button and then Next to see each stage of the journey--a nice touch if you're curious about the route that you're about to embark on. In parallel with the text and graphics, the OnStar system provides turn-by-turn voice guidance. In our test, we found the system to be extremely accurate. As there is no map to give the driver a visual reference of where and when to turn, the OnStar navigation system must provide very precise directions, especially at congested intersections. It succeeds in doing this with the help of an accurate distance meter, which counts down as the car approaches the relevant turning. On a number of occasions, we found ourselves briefly confused about which turning to take, only to be reassured by the distance meter. Spoken directions are clear and concise, and we like the way in which the system gives each command once and then reminds the driver to turn with a chime, rather than repeating the whole command. For those who do want to hear the whole command over again, there is a useful designated soft button.
The Vue Green Line's monochrome display is surprisingly good at displaying OnStar navigation directions.
The one niggle that we had with the OnStar navigation system was its slowness to recalculate its route when we (intentionally) strayed from the suggested directions. Instead of automatically recalibrating like nearly every other navigation system, OnStar asks if you want it to recalculate a route. Having replied in the affirmative, we then had to wait between 20 and 30 seconds for the system to refind its bearings--far too long for our liking. With our route recalibrated, we found our way back to the CNET garage without any further incident and with our faith in the OnStar navigations system restored. For those who only need navigation infrequently and who don't mind not having the luxury of an LCD screen, OnStar's nav system is a useful compromise between an in-dash system and a map. It does, however, come with a pretty hefty price tag: OnStar's Directions and Connections subscription package, which includes the navigation system, all of OnStar's diagnostic and remote support (emergency services, remote door unlock, roadside assistance, etc.), and setup for hands-free calling (excluding calling minutes) costs $28.90 per month.
In the cabin
The interior of the Vue Green Line in its entry-level trim is something of a mish-mash of materials. Matte-charcoal plastic covers the central stack, accented by faux carbon-fiber strips and soft molded plastic for the top of the dash, while the door coverings consist of beige plastic panels, black plastic panels, cloth panels, soft molded plastic on the tops of the doors, and silvery plastic trim for the door handles. From the front (manually-adjusted) seats, the ride position is high and forward visibility is very good, although rearward, three-quarter sightlines are impeded somewhat by the Vue's stocky D-pillar and raked rear roofline.
Like its predecessor, the 2008 Vue Green Line comes with a single choice of stereo in the shape of a basic single-disc stereo head unit with the ability to play MP3 discs and regular CDs. Our car also came equipped with an optional XM Satellite Radio connection. As we have noted in previous reviews, we like the functionality of these standard GM rigs--particularly its interface for navigating folders and files on MP3 discs. An "i" button on the left of the head unit enables drivers to cycle through artist, track, and folder information for ID3 tags on MP3 discs, while hard buttons along the bottom of the monochrome display are an intuitive way of tabbing between folders, artists, and albums. We are also big fans of the stereo's six pages of presets, which can be assigned to a mix of XM, AM, and FM stations; as well as six pages of categories, which gives drivers a quick means of accessing their chosen genre without trawling through dozens of XM channels. The Vue Green Line's stock stereo also includes an auxiliary input jack, enabling drivers to play their MP3 players through the car's speakers. For sound tweaking and customization, the stereo offers six preset EQ settings as well as basic bass and treble controls. All audio sources play out via the Vue Green Line's six speakers, with audio output sounding generally flat with little separation in the high range and a conspicuous absence of a subwoofer at the low end.
The stereo's "i" button brings up useful information for XM Satellite Radio tracks.
As part of the trial Directions and Connections OnStar package mentioned above, we got a limited number of phone minutes to play with in our review of the Vue Green Line. Unlike the OnStar navigation system, hands-free calling via OnStar does not require the aid of an off-board agent. Instead, drivers just have to push the phone button on the roof liner and follow the straightforward prompts with voice commands. Calling options include dialing a specific number one digit at a time, or calling a stored, voice-tagged contact. In our experience, the OnStar calling system works very well. The system has an impressive ability to recognize spoken phone numbers--even when spoken at full speed. For calling by name, the system requires drivers to preprogram contacts, and (unlike the Ford Sync system) will not accept entries that sound similar to each other. As the OnStar calling system is not paired with your cell phone, the car will have its own phone number, which means yet another number to hand out to family and friends. But we were generally impressed with the call quality both through the vehicle's speakers and from the other end of the line.
The only other notable features in the cabin of the Vue Green Line are the instruments related to the hybrid drive train. These consist of: a charge/assist gauge, which indicates whether the hybrid system's electric motor is assisting the gasoline engine or whether the battery is being recharged; an ECO light, which shows when the car's instant gas mileage is meeting or exceeding the average EPA rating; and an Autostop readout on the tachometer, which indicates that the engine has been cut during idling.
Under the hood
Unlike "full hybrids" that can run entirely in electric mode, the Vue Green Line features a simple, low-cost hybrid technology known as Belt Alternator Starter (BAS). The BAS concept works by replacing the belt-driven alternator and starter motor with an electric motor that serves as a generator and a motor. In the Vue Green Line, this motor/generator is hooked up to a 36-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery, and is used to assist the Vue's 2.4-liter, four-cylinder Ecotec engine. The result is a dual-propulsion system that, in theory, enables the battery-powered electric motor to assist the gasoline engine when accelerating from standing or 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 kinetic energy from braking and convert it into electricity to recharge the battery.
The Vue Green Line makes use of GM's BAS hybrid system.
In practice, the BAS in the 2008 Vue Green Line works better than it did in its predecessor. The lag that we felt because of the regenerative braking in the 2007 model is largely gone, and the new Vue Green Line's around-town driving benefits as a result. In urban environments, the Vue Green Line is an adequate all-round performer: handling is tighter than that in the 2007 model, while throttle response at low speeds is passably brisk. GM's addition of Stabilitrak as standard for the 2008 model also gets our vote of appreciation.
On the freeway, the story is less impressive. While the ride itself is smooth and well insulated from road noise, throttle response is disappointing, even with the assistance of the electric motor. In fact, aside from the brisk swing of the needle in the charge/ assist meter, we were hard pressed to detect any effect of the electric motor on the car's acceleration at all. Given the Vue's relatively small-displacement engine and low-tech four-speed transmission, this lack of performance is not too surprising, but we were somewhat relieved to see a manual shift option on the side of the shifter, which gave us the chance to add some juice to our passing maneuvers by holding the gears longer.
Drivers can shift the four-speed transmission themselves using two buttons on the side of the shifter.
Most disappointing in our time with the Vue Green Line was its gas mileage, and for a car that promotes itself primarily on its superior fuel economy we were far from impressed. In our time with the car, we observed an overall gas mileage of 22.8 mpg--below both its city (25 mpg) and highway (32 mpg) EPA estimates.
The 2008 Saturn Vue Green Line comes with very few available options. Our stripped-down test car came with a base price of $24,170, to which we added only a destination charge of $625 for a sticker total of $24,795. The only things that we could have added to this would have been the Comfort & Convenience Package (eight-way power driver seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, outside heated power-adjustable mirrors, lighted vanity visor mirrors, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated windshield washer nozzles, and Universal Home Remote) for $925; or the Premium Trim Package (leather-appointed seats, leather-wrapped shift knob, three-mode heated driver and front passenger seats) for $1,075. In its base configuration, the Vue Green Line is still technically the cheapest hybrid SUV, just beating out the 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid to the title. Saturn has done a good job of restyling the exterior of the Vue Green Line and the addition of Stabilitrak and OnStar navigation are welcome additions. But the cheapest hybrid on the market shows its cheapness in its drive-train tech and its lack of cabin options, and gas mileage is disappointing. For the 2009 model year, Saturn will offer the Vue Green Line with its two-mode hybrid system, a full hybrid system that should give the Vue much better city fuel economy and allow it to drive under electric power at slow speeds. The two-mode Saturn Vue Green Line is one to watch out for.