DETROIT – General Motors Corp. is unveiling for journalists, the '07 Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid, its first high-volume hybrid-electric vehicle, this evening at the North American International Auto Show.

The auto maker has been lambasted for being pitifully late to the HEV party, and the Vue Green Line already has been attacked because it is a “mild” HEV that lacks all the capabilities of full-blown HEVs in the market, such as the Toyota Prius sedan or Ford Escape Hybrid cross/utility vehicle.

Mild HEVs typically do not have the capability to propel the vehicle at lower speeds solely on electric power.

To some, mild HEVs are not even “real” hybrids but a half-baked solution at best. And the Saturn HEV will not be in showrooms until this summer.

Is GM already too far behind to catch up in one of the industry's hottest new segments?

Saturn Vue Green Line stresses value.

Ward's had the opportunity to test drive several pre-production Vue Green Line prototypes in Phoenix in mid-December, and if the regular production models are as good the ones tested, the answer is “no.”

It is just too bad GM could not introduce this little gem sooner.

What this small CUV lacks in technology and political correctness it makes up in practicality and value.

It promises better performance than the standard 4-cyl. Vue and “full” HEV-like fuel-economy for a cost premium of about $2,000 - about half what HEV technology normally adds to a vehicle's cost.

In short, it gets the job done: 20% better fuel economy than the conventional 4-cyl. front-wheel-drive Vue while improving acceleration and keeping the usual annoying HEV driveline fussiness to a minimum.

At stoplights, the 4-cyl. gasoline engine shuts down and then starts up again almost unnoticeably as soon as you lift your foot off the brake.

The brakes are a tad grabby, as most regenerative brakes are, but less so than most others. A small green light-emitting diode on the instrument panel lights up when the car is being driven most economically.

What's not to like? Starting at less than $23,000, it may become the unassuming HEV for economy-minded consumers who do not wear their environmentalism or politics on their sleeve.

My driving partner, a grizzled veteran of the automotive beat, was even more impressed than me after our 70-mile (112-km) drive. “This is the first hybrid I'd actually consider buying,” he declared after piloting the Vue Green Line with me for a half-day.

A lot of other potential buyers may feel the same way.

The Vue Green Line's mild hybrid layout will not allow you to chug through stop-and-go traffic under full electric power as with an Escape Hybrid, Prius or hybrid version of the Toyota Highlander CUV. But its less costly components still deliver excellent fuel economy.

The Green Line does not have electric motors that power the wheels or a motor assist for the engine crankshaft.

Its sole electric-motor assist comes from what GM calls a motor/generator and is essentially an extra-powerful starter motor.

Its main purpose is to start the engine swiftly and smoothly after it automatically shuts down at stoplights and to provide added torque under load or during hard acceleration.

Because this motor is not required to do much heavy lifting, the Green Line's nickel-metal-hydride battery pack is much smaller, lighter and takes up less space – and is accordingly less expensive.

The CUV is expected to be rated at 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway (8.7L/100 km and 7.4L/100 km). That is 20% better than the standard 4-cyl. Saturn Vue.

GM's Bob Reuter, global vehicle chief engineer-Compact Crossover Vehicles, says it also is 1 second faster from 0-60 mph (97 km/h). In comparison, the base FWD Escape Hybrid starts at slightly less than $27,000 and is rated at 36/31 city/highway (6.5L/100 km and 7.6L/100 km).

Mark LaNeve, GM North America vice president-vehicle sales, service and marketing, already is bragging it will be the lowest-priced hybrid SUV in the market. And GM will tout its slight advantage in highway mileage over the Escape.

Larry Nitz, executive director-GM Hybrid Systems, says the vehicle reduces fuel consumption by shutting the engine off when the vehicle is stopped, minimizing idling and enabling early fuel shut-off during vehicle deceleration.

Also helping save fuel are regenerative braking and intelligent battery charging.

The Vue Green Line is powered by GM's Ecotec 2.4L DOHC I-4. It produces 170 hp, compared with 143 hp from the 2.2L mill in the standard 4-cyl. Vue.

Clearly smarting from criticism of its initial skepticism of HEVs and its late start into consumer-oriented products, GM now says the Vue Green Line is one of 12 HEVs it plans to launch in the next several years that will be available in a wide array of vehicles and price points.

dwinter@primediabusiness.com