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GM's Saturn Vue: finally, a winner

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I would like GM executives to grab hold of something so they don't hurt themselves when they fall down.

GM is my new favorite car company.

You know, I've been so infuriated by the lack of progress in GM products, so unrequited after years of empty promises that fuel efficiency, design, build quality and competitiveness are about to turn that damn corner they keep talking about, I might have been rather uncivil. I might have said something about stripping the two top executives naked and launching them off the company headquarters into Canada by way of a large slingshot. I forget the specifics right now.

Please understand, I was just frustrated. In recent years the Big Three have made it insanely difficult to praise good automobiles and root for the home team. But, little by little, slowly but surely, things are getting better. And not in the sense that things are getting better in Iraq. Really better.

I know you have questions. Yes, I will submit to a drug test. No, far from fixed. GM still has huge and dynamic problems and a raft of boring, awful products in North America, where market share is doing what lemmings do. But the company is prospering in international markets, investing in new technology and generally managing the chaos of becoming a smaller company better than Ford or Chrysler, which is the damnedest of faint praise, I'll grant you. The best analogy is a man sinking in quicksand: Instead of working itself ever deeper in North America, GM has distributed its weight around the world in such a way as to eventually extract itself.

I'll tell you what else I like: GM is hungry again. And that brings me to the 2008 Saturn Vue.

Is this the best product in the North American portfolio, with the perennial exception of Corvette? Yes, I think it is. Handsomely sculpted, generously equipped (particularly in the safety category, where six airbags, anti-lock/traction/stability control with trailer sway control and active head restraints are standard) and infinitely more refined than the dog of a trucklet it replaces, the 2008 Vue easily clears the bar set by arch competitors Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V. The Vue, a re-badge of the Opel Antara, has such a sense of consolidated wholeness (tight, well-damped, rattle-free), such a rewarding tactility (upscale interior materials, controls and switches) and such a frisky, road-loving nature, it's hard to believe it's made by the same company that so recently offered us all those chintzy, clumsy, death-by-polystyrene penalty boxes.

And I suppose it wasn't.

The back story: Saturn is now GM's conduit for Opel products, and vice versa (Opel is GM's European subsidiary, and has been since 1929, with a timeout during World War II). The well-regarded Aura sedan, for example, is a North American riff on the Opel Vectra. The coming-soon Astra is a bolt-for-bolt clone of the Opel Astra, the bestselling car in Europe. The gate swings both ways too: The American-built Saturn Sky sells in Europe as the Opel GT.

The Vue compact sport-utility was developed in Germany for global markets, and it reflects the higher expectations of those markets. Take, for example, its looks: clean, sophisticated, athletic, with a steeply raked windshield, bowed roofline and a racy mesh vent behind the wheel arches. Had this vehicle been designed at another time in the GM regime, I can easily imagine product planners insisting on boxier proportions to achieve some irrelevant superiority in interior cargo cubes.

As it is, the low-roofed Vue does give up some interior space to its competitors -- the Vue offers 29 cubic feet of luggage space compared to the RAV4's 36 cubic feet -- but it's still plenty big enough (our tester had a well-engineered cargo organizer that locks into slots in the floor). Meanwhile, second-row passengers have ample space to stretch out. Second-row doors also open plenty wide to ease installing and removing child-safety seats.

Our test car, a Vue XR with all-wheel drive and 17-inch alloy wheels, was delivered in the official "launch color," which is sunburst orange. It looked terrif.

The other eureka moment in Vue comes when you park yourself behind the wheel. The interior surfaces and materials are all very rewarding: the dense, rubberized covering on the dash-top and doors, the faux wood-grain wainscoting and the satiny alloy-like finish on the shifter and steering wheel. Also, the leather on the seats (part of a $1,075 premium trim package) was a supple and fine-grained hide, a major improvement on the old Nellie leather of the recent past. The handbrake lever is a cool stirrup shape trimmed in leather and alloy finish, matching the gear-shifter and steering wheel. The Vue interior bests the benchmarks in its class.

One of GM's major problems has been the value proposition: Brands like Acura and Toyota/Scion have just offered more gear for the dollar (this phenomenon occurs at the end of a long funnel that begins with GM's higher labor costs). And yet, our test vehicle was crowded with goodies, including a smart navigation system, satellite radio, a trailering package, audio upgrade and more. This seems like an awful lot of stuff for $31,295.

The base model Vue, the front-wheel XE, is powered by a 2.4-liter, 169 hp inline 4 with four-speed automatic, priced at $21,395. This is the same engine/tranny package as in the mild hybrid Vue Green Line, coming this fall (pricing to be announced).

The AWD version of the XE is powered by a 3.5-liter, 222 hp V6 paired with a six-speed automatic. The XR and Red Line (performance package), in either front-wheel drive or AWD configuration, have a 3.6-liter DOHC V6 spinning out a smooth and sonorous 257 hp and 248 pound-feet of torque.

Maybe this is the biggest surprise of all: The Vue XR is a real pleasure to drive. It's a tall, five-seat sports tourer, actually. There's lots of power, keen and accurate steering, solid brakes and a superbly balanced chassis that treats the compromise between ride quality and road holding as if it were no compromise at all. This is where the Vue's European provenance really makes itself felt. Five years ago, GM's chassis wonks would have dumbed-down the suspension to the point of incontinence.

So, am I running out and buying one? No, or rather, not yet. For all the Vue's fine qualities, it has one glaring problem, which is its fuel economy. Our V6 tester has an EPA rating of 16/22 miles per gallon, but I was only averaging about 18 mpg.

These numbers are the direct result of the Vue's scale-bending weight, 4,150 pounds, about a quarter-ton heavier than its competitors. This poundage, I suspect, is due to the longer list of features -- after all, content has got to weigh something -- but also to an overlay of structural reinforcements required for the vehicle to ace safety tests in different global markets.

Fortunately (and at long last), GM is aggressively pursuing its hybrid program. The Vue, we're promised, will be available as a dual-mode hybrid sometime next year, which will likely double the fuel economy. To which I say: Sold!

There is also the even more tantalizing prospect of a plug-in hybrid, a technology to which GM has hitched its wagon, and its credibility.

So, I'll wait. If such vehicles actually do materialize, I will throw rose petals at the feet of GM execs.

If they don't show up, watch out. I know where to get a very big slingshot.

dan.neil@latimes.com

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