2004, 2005, 2006 Saturn Cars

Another in a series of blows to Saturn's pride came in 2004, when GM decided to scrap the still-troublesome CVT option for both the Ion compact and Vue SUV. This, too, seemed strange, as Audi, Ford, Honda, and Nissan all had vehicles with CVTs that worked like a charm. But maybe it wasn't so strange. GM had made many mistakes since Saturn's birth, and it wasn't the company it used to be.

A first-ever minivan should have brightened Saturn's sales picture considerably, but proved another miscalculation. A triumph of marketing style over product substance, the new-for-2005 Relay was basically a rehash of an eight-year-old GM design that had always lagged the class leaders and was no more competitive as a "crossover sport van" with SUV-flavored styling.

It even lacked Saturn's trademark plastic body panels, and had little to recommend it over close cousins Chevrolet Uplander, Pontiac Montana SV6, and a first-ever Buick minivan, the Terraza. Buyers saw through the 1980s-style cloning and mostly stayed away from all four models. Relay, though, was particularly disappointing in light of Saturn's still-strong consumer image, drawing a little more than 17,000 orders from late 2004 through the end of '05.

Reflecting the ho-hum response to both Relay and Ion, overall Saturn sales fell a sharp 21.8 percent in calendar 2004 to just over 212,000. The '05 total was just 640 units higher. The one sort of bright spot was Vue, which edged up to some 87,000 in '04, then to nearly 92,000 in '05.

Like Ion, Vue got unwanted in-house competition: the 2005 Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent built on a stretched Theta platform with different engines. At least tidier size and the available Honda V-6 helped Vue stand apart from that twosome, as well as a thundering herd of class rivals. A modest 2006 facelift and interior sprucing helped keep it looking fresh.

Serving the cause of fresher air was the Vue Green Line, General Motors' first mainstream vehicle with a low-emissions, high-mileage gasoline/electric hybrid powertrain. An early 2007 addition, it employed a 2.4-liter Ecotec four and a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack feeding 10 kilowatts to an electric motor/generator. A four-speed torque-converter automatic transmission channeled a maximum 170 net horsepower to the front wheels.

Like Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system, the Vue's hybrid drive used the motor/battery pack to give the gas engine a kick when needed. The motor would charge the battery pack in coasting or braking, so no plug-in charging was required as on the pure-electric EV1. Also like most other hybrids, the engine would automatically shut off on coming to a stop to save gas, then restart on applying the throttle.

Projected EPA fuel economy of 27 mpg city and 32 highway was mighty compelling at a time when gas had shot above $3 a gallon and looked to go higher still. Saturn eyed a $23,000 starting price, around $4000 less than Ford's year-old Escape Hybrid and a whopping $10,000 below the new Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

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