NORTHVILLE, MI – The Saturn Vue cross/utility vehicle undergoes an impressive metamorphosis as it emerges from its chrysalis as an all-new for ’08 model.

The result is worth the wait: a CUV that delights the senses, from its striking good looks to its fun-to-drive quotient.

Built on General Motors Corp.’s Global Compact Crossover Architecture, the new 5-door Vue was co-developed in North America and South Korea, with engineering input from GM’s Australian and European subsidiaries, and is being built at GM’s Ramos Arizpe plant in Mexico.

GM Compact Crossover Vehicle Chief Engineer Bob Reuters says the more than 500 engineers who participated in the Vue program over the course of time used the “best and brightest execution practices.”

The freshly emerged CUV reflects its international DNA admirably, including a softer, more-cleanly sculpted profile than the previous-generation’s boxy utilitarian look and boasting a stiffer suspension with handling characteristics worthy of Europe’s autobahns.

Especially noteworthy is the tight wheel-to-body relationship, providing the Vue with a compact, muscular stance. Also outstanding is the attention to detail paid the large headlights and taillamps, which stand out like jewelry. A vertical repeater turn signal along the front door line, required in Europe, adds one more distinguished design cue.

Additionally, All V-6 models include dual exhaust with chrome tips.

Another nifty feature, not generally found in the segment, is the canting of the large side-view mirrors, providing the driver a more sweeping view of surrounding traffic.

The well-appointed cabin includes rich materials such as chrome accents; bolstered seating and front articulated armrests; precise fit and finish; an optional 8-way power driver’s seat and 14-degree reclining back seats; navigation and voice recognition; and an optional package that includes automatic rain-sensing wipers and heated windshield washing system.

The navigation system is particularly kind to the eyes with its colorful, detailed and easy-to-follow road map. The instrument cluster is cleanly laid out, albeit lacking a temperature gauge, and climate-control knobs are large and simple for the driver to adjust. The small radio dial is the only control lacking user friendliness. However, the elegantly designed handbrake handle is particularly inspired.

An oversized glove box easily accommodates large objects, such as a purse, as does a sliding storage bin under the front passenger seat. A small custom pullout bin to the left of the steering wheel holds an easy-to-access cell phone, while dual front cupholders are deeply set behind the gearshift lever to prevent liquids from accidentally being spilled.

Wind noise is pretty much non-existent, with chief engineer Reuters calling it the “best in the segment.”

Safety improvements include standard dual-stage airbags, front-seat side thorax airbags, head curtain airbags front and rear and GM’s rollover sensing systems, which applies brake force to the outside front and rear wheels to reduce lateral force in the vehicle. It also activates roof rail airbags when sensors determine an impending rollover.

Saturn officials say the new Vue has a National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. 5-star rating for side and front impact and a 4-star rating for rollover, among the best in the segment.

Among other standard safety features are front-row dual seatbelt pretensioners, disengaging collapsible pedals, active head restraints, a tire pressuring monitoring system and automatic power door locks.

As with all Saturns, the Vue comes standard with GM’s OnStar safety and security system, including a 1-year subscription to the auto maker’s Safe & Sound plan.

The result is an impressive package sure to position the Saturn brand as a serious player among a slew of newly introduced and refreshed contenders in the segment that include the Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe and Toyota Highlander and RAV4.

Even without the sophisticated makeover, the ’07 Vue was no slouch in the sales department, delivering 22,668 units in the year’s first quarter, according to Ward’s data, as the previous-generation was nearing build out at the company’s now mothballed Springhill, TN, plant. The ’08 models launched production in April.

The new Vue is the fourth Saturn model to showcase the brand’s bold rejuvenation, joining the Sky roadster, Aura sedan and the larger, 3-row Outlook CUV. An all-new Astra hatchback joins the lineup in the fourth quarter.

By the end of the year, the company will have brought five new models to market in just 20 months, after years of languishing without new products.

Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak says conquest sales have been off the charts, and she expects that trend to continue with the new Vue.

Car buyers with an annual household income of $60,000 or better are the average demographic for the brand, she adds, noting more than 65% of Outlook buyers are in the $75,000-income range, while the Sky roadster is attracting customers with household earnings of more than $100,000.

Following the pace set by its siblings, the new Vue keeps it simple, with only two trim levels, the XE and up-level XR, distinguished by specific fascias, rockers and wheel-opening trim. The XE gets standard 16-in. alloy wheels, while 17-in. alloys accompany the XR.

However, a wide range of powertrains are offered that includes a more powerful 4-cyl. engine and two V-6 choices.

The 2.4L Ecotec 4-cyl. with variable valve timing powers the front-wheel-drive XE and Vue Green Line hybrid models, producing 169 hp and 161 lb.-ft. (218Nm) of torque. The engine is mated to GM’s Hydra-Matic 4T45 4-speed electronically controlled transaxle.

The all-wheel-drive XE gets a 3.5L V-6 generating 222 hp at 5,900 rpm and 219 lb.-ft. (297 Nm) of torque at 3,200 rpm, with a broad torque curve that Saturn says provides good low-end thrust for quick acceleration.

Both the new Vue XR and Vue Red Line high-performance model have done away with their former Honda Motor Co. Ltd.-sourced V-6 and instead are powered by GM’s new high-feature 60-degree DOHC 3.6L VVT that delivers 257 hp at 6,500 rpm and 248 lb.-ft. (336 Nm) of torque at 2,100 rpm.

All V-6 models are mated to GM’s new Hydra-Matic 6T70 6-speed automatic transmission featuring manual shift mode.

If there’s one complaint, it’s that the ’08 Vue’s new transmission is not as willing at highway speeds as some of its competitors. It’s not glaring, but the slight lag in downshifting is noticeable, resisting the driver’s message to hurry acceleration.

A sure-footed goose to the throttle, however, rapidly propels the CUV’s 257 ponies forward with thoroughbred quickness. All the same, a lower gear ratio might be helpful.

Our XR AWD V-6 model’s handling is especially crisp on the winding 2-lane blacktop that flows like a ribbon from this bucolic burb west of Detroit, looping its way through horse country and curving around a chain of inland lakes.

On this terrain, the Vue’s attention to engineering shines. The stiff, steel unibody structure allows for surefootedness without subtracting from riding comfort, while handling is augmented by one of three levels of specific spring rate and wheel-travel tuning, depending on the powertrain choice. The suspension is compliant without being mushy, firm without being harsh.

Standard hydraulic power-assisted steering provides a sports car feel, with plenty of road feedback to inspire confidence. Front and rear stabilizer bars, MacPherson strut independent front suspension and double-isolated engine all add to a specifically tuned ride.

Four-wheel antilock disc brakes make sudden stopping an act of precision, aided by the vehicle’s traction control and GM’s StabiliTrak electronic stability control, which holds body roll in check.

’08 Saturn Vue XR AWD
Vehicle type Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger compact cross/utility vehicle
Engine 3.6L (3,564 cc) 60-degree V-6 VVT cast aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 257 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 248 lb.-ft. (336 Nm) @ 2,100 rpm
Bore and stroke 3.7 x 3.37 (ins.) 94 x 85.6 (mm)
Transmission Hydra-Matic 6T70 6-speed transverse electronically controlled automatic
Wheelbase 106.6 ins. (270 cm)
Overall length 180.1 ins. (457 cm)
Overall width 72.8 ins. (185 cm)
Overall height 67 ins. (170 cm)
Curb weight 4,325 lbs. (1,962 kg)
EPA Fuel economy, city/highway mpg 16/22 (15/11 L/100 km)
Market competition Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe, Toyota Highlander and RAV4

This is especially helpful in the towing department, where the Vue is capable of pulling up to 1,500 lbs. (680 kg) with 4-cyl. models and 3,500 lbs. (1,587 kg) with V-6 versions.

Saturn is pleased with the Vue’s new electronic trailer-sway control, a feature integrated into the standard StabiliTrak system that detects the occurrence of trailer sway caused by improper weight balance or vehicle speed. StabiliTrak begins to apply the brakes, independent of the driver, to assist in stabilizing the CUV.

A telltale yellow flash signals the driver to slowdown. If the trailer sway continues, StabiliTrak then reduces engine torque to slow the vehicle.

Saturn says the ’08 Vue’s fuel economy numbers use the new 2008 Environmental Protection Agency’s rating system, so they can’t be directly compared with competitors’ 2007 numbers.

The new Vue’s EPA city/highway ratings are: XE FWD L4 19/26 mpg (12/9 L/100 km); XE AWD V-6 15/22 mpg (16/11 L/100 km); XR FWD V-6 16/23 mpg (15/10 L/100 km); XR FWD V-6 w/Tap Shift 16/24 mpg (15/10 L/100 km); and XR AWD V-6 16/22 mpg (15/11 L/100 km).

The ’08 Vue’s sticker price starts at $21,395 for the XE 4-cyl. FWD and $24,515 for the XE AWD. The XR FWD begins at $24,895 and the XR AWD at $26,895. The Vue Red Line FWD performance model bases at $27,395, while the Red Line AWD starts at $29,395. All prices include a $625 destination charge.

Basic prices are noticeably up from ’07. But a Saturn spokesman says the new model is less expensive than the previous-generation Vue if comparably equipped. He also notes there is significant standard equipment on the ’08 Vue that was not available on the ’07 model.

Saturn officials predict a 60% take rate for the AWD on the XR model. They initially expected to see the same take rate on AWD models throughout the new lineup. Instead, FWD accounts for 60%-65% of the brand’s overall mix, “the right level of performance and value” for today’s market, executives say.

Production of the ’08 Vue in Mexico has been ramped up to full speed and models are trickling into showrooms, says the Saturn spokesman, noting all dealerships should have the new CUV within the next two weeks. While declining to provide specific numbers, he says builds will meet demand.

The ’08 Redline performance and Greenline hybrid models will follow in the fourth quarter. A 2-mode Greenline hybrid is on tap for next year, with a future plug-in hybrid version squarely on the drawing boards.

bmcclellan@wardsauto.com