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GM Turns to German Engineering to Boost Saturn - With Jekyll & Hyde Results: Pete DeLorenzo

Date: Sept 5, 2007


Author: Ninety Eight Regency

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GM Turns to German Engineering to Boost Saturn - With Jekyll & Hyde Results


Author: Pete DeLorenzo


GM turns to German engineering to boost Saturn - with Jekyll & Hyde results.
Pete DeLorenzo

Detroit. Driving the new Saturn Vue XR is a revelation. Taut, competent, exquisitely detailed - and superbly capable - the Saturn Vue is clearly one of the stars in GM's burgeoning product arsenal. Based on a vehicle from GM's Opel in Germany, the Vue feels Germanic, imparting that over-the-road confidence and solidity that German vehicles have long been known for.

Saturn has gone from being the forgotten division languishing in GM's product limbo to undergoing a complete transformation in just three years, with the Aura sedan, the full-size Outlook crossover, the Sky roadster, the new Vue, and the upcoming Astra sport compact making up one of the most impressive vehicle lineups in the business.

Saturn is one of the most glittering examples that the Bob Lutz-led product renaissance is finally bearing fruit for General Motors, and GM's strategy of taking advantage of existing world-class German Opels to flesh-out Saturn's product portfolio is looking to be a brilliant stroke. But as good as the Opel engineering is in the Vue (and the upcoming Astra is purported to be), one serious drawback is emerging that gives me reason to pause. And that is the fact that the Vue, for all of its goodness, is heavy. As in seriously heavy. As in 4,325 pounds heavy (for the AWD XR we've been driving).

That's a lot for a "small" sport utility-crossover vehicle.

And that weight results in an EPA estimated 16 MPG in the city and 22 MPG on the highway. The mileage you get may vary, blah-blah-blah, but as we can attest, the real world mileage we achieved around town on our top-line VUE left a lot to be desired. It's clear that the solid composure that the Saturn Vue displays at speed comes with a steep price.

Where is this weight coming from? That's easy. It seems that by leaning on its compatriots at Opel, GM has not only dramatically shortened the time it takes to boost the Saturn portfolio, it has also signed-on for the downside of contemporary German engineering - and that translates into bloated curb weights.

Somewhere along the line, the halo of "German engineering" and the air of superiority that German automakers have enjoyed (and lorded over their competition over the years) has devolved into vehicles that are overgrown, overweight, overwrought and overcomplicated. It seems that in their zeal to load up their vehicles with every hi-tech gizmo available - combined with their fundamental belief in engineering structures that bristle with vault-like solidity - they have lost their way. And now, virtually every German manufacturer is guilty of churning out shockingly heavy vehicles.

Probably the most graphic example of this phenomenon? The all-conquering Corvette Z06 is actually lighter than the Porsche 911. I've written about this before, but it's still hard for me to comprehend, and it is evidence that the automotive world has truly been turned upside down. But it's not just Porsche. Mercedes-Benz has pioneered the bigger is better, gadget-laden Techno Wonder movement, with VW hard on its heels - the new VW R32 being a perfect example of the rampant weight gain plaguing the German manufacturers. BMW seems to have reined it in more than the others, but they still have instances of eye-popping curb weights in their product lineup. And even Audi - a brand that's decidedly on the upswing around the world and one that touts its aluminum-intensive construction whenever it can - has suffered from this German-engineered weight-creep over the years.

Who would have thought that the 50s Detroit mantra of longer, lower, wider - and heavier - would become the rallying cry of the heretofore unassailable German auto manufacturers? But it has, and now GM is wrestling with this in its quest to jump-start Saturn.

On the one hand, the new Saturn Vue is an excellent vehicle, there's no question. It drives right, looks right, feels right, its detailed fit and finish is exemplary, and it's a strong value in the market.

On the other hand, its mediocre mileage performance is going to be a red flag to consumers shopping this class of vehicle.

And that's too bad, because the Vue truly is worth a close look.

Thanks for listening, see you next Wednesday.

Publisher's Note: It has been pointed out to me several times today that the Vue was actually engineered by GM Daewoo in Korea and that Opel had only limited involvement. To that I say, then GM Daewoo has the whole overweight, overwrought "German Engineering" thing down to a "T." - PMD


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