2008 Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid, Part OneS"That's a hybrid but you can't drive it on all-electric power?" No, you can't. And I got pretty good at explaining why not by the time the sixth person asked. The least enjoyable part of spending a week with the 2008 Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid was telling inquisitive folks how it worked. And how it didn't work. GM bills the Vue as a hybrid, which it is; however, thanks to marketing and hype, most folks assume a hybrid vehicle can be powered by straight electric, straight gas, or a combination of the two. And the Saturn Vue hybrid isn't that kind of hybrid.
GM makes hybrid vehicles that can run in pure electric mode: The Tahoe and Yukon Hybrids both use the company's Two-Mode Hybrid system. We'll make the logical leap and call the Saturn system the One-Mode Hybrid. Using a combination generator/motor attached to the engine, the Vue Hybrid provides sort of an electric turbo-boost effect when needed to complement the relatively frugal Ecotec four-cylinder under the hood. It also uses regenerative engine braking to charge a small 36-volt battery pack behind the rear seats. The Vue Hybrid cannot cruise on electricity alone, though it does shut down the engine during stops. So what good is a hybrid if you can't drive on straight electricity? It all depends upon what kind of driving you do most. If you're running errands in stop-and-go situations around town, the Vue Hybrid could provide you with significant fuel cost savings, since the engine will shut off at lights and give you an electric boost when you accelerate away. Similarly, on wide-open freeway driving, the Vue provides an estimated 32 MPG thanks to its electric assist — even better than the more-advanced Escape Hybrid's 31 MPG highway. If, on the other hand, you tend to creep along in gridlocked interstate traffic, the Vue Hybrid will provide fewer benefits: Since the Vue's engine will remain on while crawling at low speeds, a true two-mode system like that found in the larger Tahoe/Yukon SUVs or the Ford Escape Hybrid would allow you to move at low speeds on pure electric power, saving more fuel. The disadvantage for the Saturn here is easily apparent when you compare the Vue's 25 MPG city rating with the Escape Hybrid's 34 MPG city mileage. Why would a buyer choose the Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid over an Escape Hybrid, then? While the GM system is less advanced than the Ford hybrid powertrain, it's also significantly less expensive. A Saturn Hybrid starts at about $26,200, more than $3,000 less than the lowest-priced Ford Escape Hybrid. Unfortunately, it's also about $4,000 more than a comparably equipped non-hybrid Vue XE; that money buys you about a 6 MPG improvement both city and highway. Actually, that money buys you the mileage improvement and a really nice driving experience for a small four-cylinder SUV, with the electric motor assist making up for what would have been a modestly powered ride at best. The system did an excellent job of seamlessly starting the engine after a stop, and I was never able to "beat" the motor, hitting the gas before the engine was running and ready to go. To be sure, compromises have been made in the quest for economy numbers. The Vue is downright loud on the highway, with tire noise competing with wind noise; blame low rolling-resistance tires at high inflation combined with a lack of weight-adding sound deadening. But apart from the noise, the Vue's cabin is a pleasant place in which to get from place to place, nicer than its competition and in a totally different class from the previous-generation plastic-paneled Vue. Viewed in light of the Vue lineup itself, which has matured into one of the most attractive small utes on the market today, the Vue Green Line Hybrid makes a compelling case for itself. That is, if you can find one — GM loves to disclaim its hybrid offerings as "limited availability," and that's truer than ever with the recent rush to economical vehicles. Of course, availability might not be a problem when you consider that the Vue Hybrid's most logical competition may be the straight-gas Vue XE; one-stop shopping, turning customers curious about the Vue Hybrid on to a four-cylinder XE, might be just what GM had in mind.