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2004 compact suv buyer's guide - comparison shopping for women, sport utility reviews
by Martha Hindes

Saturn VUE
Saturn VUE  SUV

It isn't often the tail wags the dog, or in this case the consumer wags the automaker. In Saturn's case, it sort of did.

Saturn buyers, thoroughly accustomed to hands-on coddling from GM's unique Saturn dealer system, asked for and eventually got a sport utility of their own. The result -- birth of the compact Saturn Vue two years ago.

Like all things Saturn, the five-passenger Vue has its own characteristic look, suggestive of the somewhat toyish look of its early, polymer-bodied autos. But this sport utility has definitive sculpted lines. You can almost envision someone cleaving edges, then smoothing them off for softness.

The front- or all-wheel-drive Vue for '04 is serious business for loyal Saturn followers. A new "Red Line" limited edition, confirms that statement, with improved, sport-calibrated power steering for a performance hit that's spiffed up with 18-inch wheels and touring tires. A lowered and stiffened suspension, rather surly ground effect cladding and stainless steel exhaust add emphasis. So much for juvenile comparisons.

Anticipated power improvements are welcome changes. A 250-horsepower 3.5 liter V-6, from Japanese auto maker Honda, is the main engine offered, although a 2.2 liter four cylinder, generating 143 horsepower, is still around. The front-drive, base model with an Inline 4 engine keeps the entry level price in the modest $17,000 range.

Individuality is another Saturn concept. As a palette for some 40-available accessories not including aftermarket add-ons, it allows options such as an MP3 player to replace the dreaded, dated cassette, and XM satellite radio to soothe one driving double digit hours from coast to coast.

From the rear, it's clearly a Saturn, with the name cast in chrome in what's termed the liftgate's "eyebrow." Just that term alone should intrigue the curious. But "unique" is part Saturn owners culture. (Who else would travel by the thousands to a homebase reunion in Tennessee every few years or so?)

With comfort, good handling and ample space for families -- plus that dent-resistent skin -- Vue is here to stay. And after all, where else can you find 2004's new "electric lime" as a color choice for a sport utility?