GREENVILLE, SC — This is BMW country. Or at least you'd think it should be. The German automaker has been churning out sports cars and sport/utility vehicles at its nearby Spartanburg plant for the last several years.

Since BMW's arrival in the mid 1990s, there's been an influx of manufacturing and good-paying jobs into the region, which historically has been agrarian and poor. But we're driving General Motors Corp.'s all-new Saturn Vue, not an X5 — and that's appropriate.

Saturn likes to play up its import-busting reputation, but the brand has in fact become popular with country folk and acquired more of a down-home image, rather than the cosmopolitan status awarded to most foreign nameplates.

Trendy, Saturn is not. Until now.

Being chic, Saturn's entry into the cute-ute segment could be called fashionably late. And better late than never. Vue gives GM a legitimate entry — after years of hawking the hopeless Chevrolet Tracker — in a segment that is expected to grow 33% by 2005. Vue actually is stirring up excitement about Saturn among many automotive journalists who have come to associate the brand with underpowered engines, forgettable design cues, loud cabin noise, cheap looking interiors and a general harsh driving experience.

Vue does a fine job of erasing most of those correlations (confirmed by a drive on a chilly fall day in the Blue Ridge Mountains here), while impressively maintaining Saturn's aggressive pricing strategy. The price range for Vue is $16,835 to $23,085, and this isn't a vehicle made from the parts bin like the beleaguered L-Series.

Vue is all new, built on its own platform, Saturn claims. And it is the first product to feature GM's continuously variable transmission (CVT). Branded VTi, it's available with the front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive models equipped with the automaker's Ecotec 2.2L DOHC I-4.

The new VTi tranny is the first high-volume CVT to be mated with an all-wheel-drive configuration, in fact; GM expects 50% of the 50,000 Vues to be delivered in 2002 to have the CVT. The VTi adds some complexity to the drivetrain lineup that includes two engines, three transmissions and either front- or all-wheel drive, though, so here's the rundown:

  • 2.2L I-4, FWD, manual transmission.

  • 2.2L I-4, FWD, VTi transmission.

  • 2.2L I-4, AWD, VTi transmission.

  • 3L V-6, AWD, 5-speed automatic transmission.

So if you want the VTi, it's available only with the 4-cyl. engine, athough with either the FWD or AWD setup. If you want the V-6, the only driveline configuration is AWD coupled with GM's 5-speed automatic.

Climbing the Appalachian foothills west of Greenville, the VTi performs well. The lack of “shift drop” while driving was noticeable at first, but one forgets about it soon enough. Automakers have been asked for years to minimize downshift jolts, and Vue's VTi provides an almost tranquil highway atmosphere. But it also arguably sterilizes the driving experience even further. Vue buyers need to be well-educated about VTi by Saturn dealers, or else some might think something is wrong with the transmission. “We've been very sensitive to that,” says Karl Janovits, chief engineer for GM's CVT.

Moreover, VTi will require a special mineral-based fluid and possibly unique service intervals.

The 2.2L engine didn't perform as well as the CVT on the hill-topping excursions. Ecotec works fine in Saturn L-Series, but is overwhelmed by the heavier Vue. An upgrade to the 3L V-6 is recommended, although as you see, opting for the V-6 limits the driveline choice.

Meanwhile, electric power steering makes handling Vue a snap. Missing a turnoff to a fish farm for a rest stop, a hard u-turn is made easily. Can't miss a chance to fish.

Interior features and appearance run the gamut from below par to above-average. The dashboard looks cheap, but the seats are comfortable. Visibility is fine, except for the blind spot over the driver's left shoulder. Instrument panel controls are packaged nicely on a central pod. And a fold-down passenger-side front seat permits carrying of extra long cargo — such as a fishing pole.

Saturn smartly steers away from giving Vue a true SUV stance. Instead it seems like a distant cousin of a Volvo wagon. The conservative styling is reminiscent of Toyota — and Saturn should expect consumer feedback to be, too.

2002 Saturn Vue
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger, 5-door sport utility vehicle
Engine: 2.2L (2,198 cc) DOHC I-4; aluminum block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net): 143 hp @ 5,400 rpm
Torque: 152 lb.-ft. (206 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio: 10:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 86 × 94.6
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
Wheelbase: 106.6 ins. (271 cm)
Overall length: 181.3 ins. (461 cm)
Overall width: 71.5 ins. (182 cm)
Overall height: 66.5 ins. (169 cm)
Curb weight (auto): 3,236 lbs. (1,469 kg)
Market competition: Ford Escape; Honda CR-V; Jeep Liberty; Toyota RAV4