As a child I used to think that driving north meant that you were going uphill, and you could just coast home on the trip southbound. Later, sometime after graduating college I think, I was told that this was incorrect. Now I'm not so sure.
When I decided to make the trip to New Hampshire's Mount Washington Auto Road for Alternative Energy Day, I knew I needed to bring the right car along with me — a hybrid, at minimum. Anything less would be like showing up at a black-tie affair in a double-breasted pinstripe suit.
The Saturn Vue Green Line fit the bill and offered me the opportunity to make many vue/view puns while telling the story of my visit to the highest peak in the Northeast. You'll be glad to know that I decided not to use any of them, so feel free to continue reading.
•Click here for a video report of the trip.
Sadly, after just a few miles behind the wheel, I decided that I didn't like it, and started suffering pangs of regret for committing myself to making the 14-hour round-trip from Manhattan in less than two days. Despite having the flashy exterior of space buggy, the Vue experience is very down to earth (that's what you get for continuing to read). From flaccid steering to rental-car-chic upholstery, it's one dull drive.
It’s also a mild hybrid, which means you never get to cruise around in all-electric stealth mode like you do in the Toyota Highlander and Mercury Mariner hybrids. The relatively weak electric motor is only able to start the gasoline engine when you first get moving, and pitch in a couple of extra horsepower when needed.
According to the speedometer, the Vue does technically accelerate, but not with the kind of urgency that will get you very excited. In fact, you'll want to take heed when pulling out to pass because it can take so much time to get around the car in front that you'll wonder why you wanted to do it in the first place.
•Click here for photos.
Just to highlight how wimpy the hybrid powertrain is, the Vue Green Line actually weighs less than the standard four-cylinder version. Most hybrids are laden with huge batteries and serious electric motors, tipping the scales at hundreds of pounds more than the cars they are based on.
That said, the Vue is already a heavier platform than many of the small SUVs it competes against. While this doesn't help things out in the get-up-and-go category, the trade-off is a soft, big-car ride, particularly at cruising speed.
This is good, because unlike most of those other hybrids, the Vue gets better mileage on the highway than in the city, 32 mpg versus 25. On the way to Mount Washington I averaged a disappointing 26 mpg, though I’m sure I was traveling at speeds faster than EPA testing takes into account.
It was no more impressive on the climb to the 6,288-foot high summit, returning 7.5 mpg over the course of the 8-mile drive. With the road’s 12 percent grade this is expected, but I’d love to see how far up a different hybrid could make it on electric power alone.
Fittingly, the first automobile to make it to the summit in 1899 was also a hybrid of sorts. Freelan Stanley’s Locomobile used a gasoline-fired burner to boil the water that powered a steam engine driving the wheels.
Along with his wife, Stanley completed the ascent in just over two hours, several years before a vehicle with an internal-combustion engine would do the same. Today about 45,000 cars, trucks and motorcycles visit the top each year.
The Auto Road is a can’t-miss stop on the Great American Road Trip, but be prepared for a gut check if you decide to go. Aside from about a half-mile of the original gravel, the road is paved, but there are no guardrails and barely enough room for cars traveling in opposite directions to pass.
Just to add to the thrills, Mount Washington is infamous for having some of the worst weather in the world and is the location of the highest wind speed ever recorded by man: 231 mph. Thanks, in part, to the apparent danger, everyone takes it slowly and easily, and there have only been two fatal crashes in the history of the road.
On my trip, it went from sun to rain to wind to all of the above several times over the course of the half-hour drive, giving the Vue’s rain-sensing windshield wipers quite a workout.
Where things got really weird, though, was on the ride home to New York. On the same roads, at the same speeds, the Vue averaged a consistent 30 mpg — not counting the time spent on the Auto Road. That’s more than 15 percent better than on the way up.
Whether I caught a strong, 7-hour-long tailwind or my youthful theory of geography is more accurate than the so-called “scientists” would like to believe, it’s a figure that’s more in line with the car’s green credentials, and not the only thing that impressed by the time I made it home.
Not all vehicles are worthy of admiration, but spend enough time with one and oftentimes you come to accept it for what it is, unless of course you hate it so much that you decide never to set foot in it again. After this long drive over a short weekend, the Vue sidled its way into the former category.
Yes, the steering is on the slow side, the tires screech around curves that you’d barely notice in some other vehicles and the seats offer about as much support in sharp turns as a Hippity Hop, but loping down the highway, it’s all very comfortable and I arrived at my destination pain free and ready for a few more miles — if someone greeted me there at gunpoint. 700-plus miles is a long drive in any car.
Between the wind and the tire roar, the cabin is a little noisy all around, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary, and the six-speaker audio system does a noble job of overcoming the racket.
GM’s corporate unit, with available XM satellite radio, is a paragon of simplicity, and I’m particularly fond of the ability to spin through the XM channels as fast as you can turn the dial. Many systems force you to plod through satellite channels one by one, taking forever to get from Fred to Lucy.
Starting at $26,270, the Vue Green Line is the least-expensive hybrid SUV on the market and comes pretty well-equipped at that price. Power and leather seats are available, as is a sunroof, but you’ll have to bone up on your map-reading skills because the navigation system available in other Vues is not an option.
You can always put some of the estimated $600 a year you’ll save on gas toward an aftermarket system, but you might want to save some of that cash to make up for the $4,120 price differential over a base Vue.
Factor in a $1,550 tax credit and at today’s pump prices it will take a little more than 4 years to recoup the investment over the 22 mpg four-cylinder model. You’ll also be emitting around 7 fewer tons of carbon dioxide over the same period, so the next time you head to Mount Washington the weather may not be any wilder than it was this time.
At least that’s what those scientists tell me.
2008 SATURN VUE GREEN LINE HYBRID
Base Price: $24,170
As Tested: $25,720
Type: Front-engine, front-drive, five-passenger SUV
Engine: 2.4-liter inline-4 cylinder with electric assist
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
MPG: 25 city/32 hwy
What do you think of the Vue Green Line?
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