The first thing that someone might say is “Saturn has an SUV?”
Which requires a bit of analysis. Yes, it is now launching what it is calling the Saturn “VUE.” It is a compact sport ute, one meant to compete with the likes of the Honda CRV and the Toyota RAV4. Those of you who remember the history of Saturn will recall that when Saturn started its existence back in the late ‘80s, the whole objective was to compete with the likes of Honda and Toyota with products manufactured in Spring Hill, Tennessee. So, in effect, the VUE is another launch from Saturn in keeping with its original objective.
Another aspect of that remark tends to include a slight tonal modification that implies that the question is as much about timing as it is about the vehicle, as in, “Gee, the CRV and RAV 4 are both on their second generations—Saturn has finally gotten around to producing a compact sport ute?”
While there is something to be wondered about vis-à-vis timing, Jill Lajdziak, Saturn vice president of Sales, Service and Marketing, isn’t the least bit apologetic or sheepish when she talks about the VUE’s arrival. She notes that for one thing, there is an expectation that the compact sport ute market has whole lot of growth ahead of it. They see it going from some 730,000 units in 2001 to about 970,000 vehicles in 2005 (a 33% increase), of which Saturn would like to get a piece. So they see that they are getting on an up escalator. What’s more, there is the advantage, in some regards, of being a follower, not a leader, with regard to checking out what the competition offers and then anticipating what they need to do to not merely being at parity with the competition, but actually moving ahead. Having a clean sheet and the ability to collect a vast array of information about the competition (as well as getting the competition’s products) can be advantageous.
If there is one thing that can be said about Saturn it’s that beyond providing an award-winning dealer experience, one paralleled only by luxury marques, and a loyal customer base, one matched only by companies like Harley, the company has been steadfast in maintaining what its research shows is a competitive advantage: It is the only mass manufacturer of vehicles that utilizes polymer vertical body panels attached to a steel space-frame (the debut was on the S-Series ’91 model). And while lost-foam casting of aluminum engine blocks and heads is finding increased application at other vehicle manufacturers, the folks at Saturn have been essentially pioneers in this area, reaping the benefits of achieving intricate designs without the expense of complicated machining.
Upping the Ante.
And with the VUE, they have stayed with their strong suits and even added what are arguably game-changers. Yes, the skin of the VUE has vertical polymer panels; the hood, roof, and liftgate (OK: that’s a vertical panel that goes to the horizontal when in the open position) are steel. But one of the things that is emphasized about the VUE is what’s beneath the skin of the shape that Dan Magda, Saturn lead exterior designer, devised (“We wanted the VUE to be approachable, not intimidating like a lot of SUVs. As a result, the VUE retains the proportions of a sport-utility, but with the clean, efficient look found in leading industrial designs,” he remarks). We’re talking about the space-frame.
Every major structural member of the space-frame is high-strength steel (HSS). In fact, HSS is used for about 90% of the total space frame. The VUE may have a plastic outer, but the inner provides the strength and rigidity that provide benefits in improved ride and handling and minimized squeaks and rattles. And, of course, it improves safety performance. For example, there is a single-piece side frame that starts at the A-pillar and goes all the way to the rear of the vehicle, which is an efficient load path. They’ve used varying steel thicknesses in areas to bolster the vehicle’s strength (e.g., at the A-pillar and front hinge). There is a welded bumper beam to enhance front-end stiffness. There is even a welded-steel tube inside the instrument panel (IP) that supports the IP and the steering column, but is also used as an air duct for the HVAC system while enhancing the vehicle’s structural rigidity and side-impact strength. While the shopping carts still bounce off the plastic door panels (beneath which there are X-shaped reinforcement beams), the occupants of the vehicle are in what is essentially a cage of steel.
Enter the CVT.
Probably the biggest change is the availability of what Saturn is calling the “VTi,” which is the GM Powertrain-developed continuously variable transmission (CVT). The VTi is based on the Van Doorne metal belt. The belt consists of bow-tie shaped alloy steel metal pieces, over 400 of them, that are held together by 10 spring-steel retention bands. The metal belt runs on two variable-diameter pulleys. One side of each pulley is fixed, while the other is moved axially by an internal hydraulic piston; the hydraulic pump that moves the bands supplies some 700 psi of pressure to make the moves. As a result of this setup, low gear is when the belt is at the innermost radius of the driving pulley and the outermost surface of the driven pulley; high gear is when the belt is at the top of the driving pulley and the bottom of the driven pulley. One of the benefits of the belt versus the conventional step-gear design is that there is a far greater ratio range provided: a 5.92: 1 ratio versus a 5.2: 1 ratio of a five-speed automatic. (A good analogy is to think about the way a chain moves between the sprocket and gears on a 10-speed bike.)
The VTi has three major components in line with the engine crankshaft in a three-axis layout. There is an electronically controlled torque converter supplied by LuK, a forward-reverse clutch and planetary gear set, and the input pulley on one axis. There is the output pulley on the second axis. And the final drive differential linked to the output pulley with a pair of transfer gears is the third. Overall, the unit is said to be one of the most compact automatic transmissions available (it is comparable in size to a five-speed manual with similar torque capabilities); compact size is important not only in terms of body design, but also because the VUE is offered with all-wheel-drive, which means there are additional components that need to be accommodated under the hood.
One of the things that makes the VTi effective is the powertrain electronics. There is an electronically controlled throttle that works in combination with a torque converter clutch so there is good response without buzzing and busyness. What’s more, the transmission’s performance can be modified through software changes, not mechanical changes, so there is the possibility of using the VTi in other applications without the penalty associated with having to manufacture new components. (The CVT program actually was underway for a European vehicle when the VUE program came to the fore. Look for the use of CVTs in other GM vehicles in the not-too-distant future.)
While there are driver benefits like no shift points and an estimated 8% improvement in fuel efficiency compared with a four-speed automatic transmission, there is a manufacturing benefit, as well: there are 45% fewer parts in the VTi than there are in a four-speed automatic. (This transmission, incidentally, is produced at a GM Opel plant in Szentgotthard, Hungary.)
The VUE is available with an on-demand all-wheel-drive system. Ordinarily, the vehicle runs in a front-wheel drive mode, but if wheel slippage is detected, power is automatically delivered to the rear wheels. (Like offerings from Honda and Toyota, the VUE is not meant to be a vehicle for serious off-roading.)
Changes. As noted, the VUE is being produced at Saturn’s original site in Spring Hill, where a 445,000-ft2 addition was put on the Powertrain building for the production of the 2.2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine that is available for the VUE (as is a 3.0-liter V6. And while on the subject of powertrain, the VTi is available on the four-cylinder engine in both front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive setups; there is a five-speed manual available for the four, as well; there is a five-speed automatic for the V6.). Spring Hill is where the S-Series cars are built. There are now two lines in General Assembly, one for the cars and one for the VUEs. The Paint Shop handles panels for both vehicles (realize that in the case of the Saturn, the entire vehicle doesn’t go through paint; the exterior panels—both steel and polymer—are painted as a set on moving fixtures that move through the paint booths).
Inside the VUE, there’s seating for five. One interesting feature is that the rear seat has a 70/30 fold-down design and the front passenger seat can be folded down, as well. What this means is that if you were to have the 30% portion of the rear seat folded down and the front passenger seat folded down, it is possible to carry an 8-ft long object (like a 2-x-4 board) inside the vehicle with the tailgate closed. Yes, there is utility in this sport utility.
One advantage of polymer panels: there’s no need for all of the body cladding that some manufacturers resort to protect against dings. The protection is, in effect, built-in. Consequently, the lines are clean.
This is the VTi, a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that is available in the VUE. This is the first CVT in a sport ute. This is the first CVT in a GM vehicle. But while first and only, it won’t be the last application by the vehicle manufacturer.