2005 Saturn Relay Expert Review:Autoblog
As you can see we've gotten a bit of snow the last few days. This is a snow covered 2005 Saturn Realy minivan. Don't let the GM PR machine fool you these vehicles (including the Chevrolet Uplander and Pontiac Montana) are nicely designed minivans. There is no SUV DNA here.
I’m putting in this stock image from Saturn of the front end since our test vehicle is currently covered in snow. I
might have put down the looks of these vehicles before but at least the Saturn in person is quite handsome on the
outside. The front end’s block shape is reminiscent of the current Volvo look. Only from a strict profile does the
Relay look a little like the nose suffers from Pinocchio syndrome.
I’ve driven the Relay around town for two days but haven’t gotten extensive drive time because of the bad weather. On one bad side street the front tires spun a few times before the traction control kicked in. That meant when we ventured out Saturday in between eight-inch snowfalls we took the family Jeep Cherokee and its four-wheel drive. There is an AWD option for the Relay and I highly recommend it for winter climates.
Of course these snowfall aren’t normal and I’m sure the Relay is as safe as any other minivan out there. The ride sans snow was solid, very quiet and exceptionally smooth thanks to a “soft ride suspension.”
So far I’m pretty impressed with the Relay as a minivan. There are all kinds of goodies in this mid-level tester including a DVD player, XM satellite and leather trim that is exceptionally well-done. Unfortunately the wood trim is very cheap to the touch and there is one fit and finish flub on the passenger door where the plastic is rising up off the leather trim. Ugh.
Tomorrow we’ll look at all the convenience of owning a minivan and how the Relay stacks up.
There have been a lot of questions about the interior quality of the Relay so I'm going to address that for much of today's entry. This minivan is really interesting because some of the materials are surprisingly nice and others seem very cheap. It's an odd mix but the average comes out ahead for the most part.
The gauges are very nice looking. They’re clean and modern looking and very crisp at night. Offset by the large yet substantial feeling steering wheel, the driver’s view is not that bad. Then you have the center stack. If it weren’t for the wood trim being so flimsy to the touch there wouldn’t be much to complain about. Yes, the dials aren’t anything spectacular but they do their jobs, have a nice weight and ease of use to them etc. I just wish they had used the same faux steel from the steering wheel instead of this really lame wood trim. For some reason it has a tight fit and feels expensive on the wheel, while the wood does not.
What I really, really like is the black dash molding and leather trim on the doors. These are really top-notch materials for a minivan of this caliber.
Everyone is really ripping the Relay apart for not being a Honda or Toyota but it isn’t. For a GM product to have this nice a dash I’m pretty impressed.
There are clunky plastics on the cupholders and cubbies that I’ll show tomorrow but like I said, Saturn gets it half right for the most part. And I haven’t even tackled the two automatic sliding doors, nice captain chair seats and other niceties. Nor have I detailed the really horrible column shifter, poor visibility and other annoyances.
Today I figured I should tackle driving the Relay since it seems severely overlooked in the review so far. Mainly that's because I don't feel the actual ride of a minivan is its number one attribute. Most folks want to count the cupholders (there are at least twelve here). However no one will buy any vehicle unless it holds up somewhat on the road.
The Relay is actually handles the road quite well. Turning is very sharp. I’m not quite sure why the minivan feels as tuned in to the road as it does, but it is a welcome surprise. The ride is also exceptionally pleasant and there is minimal road noise even with all this glass. That glass doesn’t help the abysmal visibility and drivers will learn to rely on their sideview mirrors for almost all backing up maneuvers. There’s also a detector that chimes as you get close to obstacles. Unlike other systems in more expensive sedans I don’t mind it as much in the Relay because it is such a large van and it isn’t easy to judge the back end’s location as it is in some SUVs. And it works well considering I didn’t bump into anyone.
Tackling the snow was a major obstacle for the Relay this week. I had to park on poorly shoveled streets and around the office got stuck in really deep slush. It took a number of maneuvers and use of the traction control system to get out. That also brought out the worst feature in the driving department, the annoying column shifter. I hate column shifters. But when I was a kid I learned on one and found myself an expert that could flip it in and out of gear in a flash. The Relay’s shifter never seemed to get into the right gear on the first try. I can certainly count and know one click is R and two is N and 3 is D. Yet I was constantly in neutral or third gear instead of where I wanted to be. This led to very frustrating attempts at parallel parking.
Sorry for the lack of images today. Tomorrow we’ll finish up with shots of the roof track system and assorted other doodads.
The week with the minivan is over and all my self-doubt about how I'll handle life married with children has washed away. That's mainly because I didn't mind driving the Relay that much. But I think in the back of my mind I plan on having a Mustang, RX-8 or old Porsche stashed in the garage.
Of course the reality of it is, there will probably just be room for the minivan and the second car will most likely be a sedan, sigh.
Whittling down the pros and cons of the Relay isn’t that hard. There are lots of interesting features but all the “innovative” ones seem to be the least effective while the simplest make the most impact. The middle roof track for example is a great idea but only the optional storage bin can be moved around. While that’s a decent option it sure doesn’t hold much and I kept bonking my head on a light module above the driver’s seat that couldn’t be moved. At least the storage bin thing detaches easily enough.
The simplest features like dual automatic rear doors were the most useful. They opened easily from the key fob, driver’s seat, rear seats and exterior handles. Every time I’ve been in a minivan I had trouble opening the rear doors. The Relay’s were a snap. The rear seats folding flat were also one of those simple features that worked perfectly. They don’t fold into the floor but they create a flat bed that offers decent space with lots of height. I didn’t really think the space with them up was adequate as the medium sized trip to the grocery shows. This was about six or seven bags plus some beer and a pack of paper towels that wouldn’t fit.
The bins underneath the rear cargo area are nice but their size didn’t fit any groceries besides a bottle of wine that squeezed in snugly and didn’t move around while driving. But the bin itself, along with the headphone compartments on the back of the front seats, are made of extremely clunky and cheap plastic and the rear bins were impossible to close. I had to actually move the metal support bar to close them instead of just slamming shut or using the release latch. I could imagine someone getting their finger caught in these. For large families the seats would definitely need to be folded flat for a grocery/Costco run.
I mentioned in a previous post that the cheapness of some aspects and the almost rich feel of the leather on the rear doors, shown here, and front doors was a huge contradiction in the Relay. The looks just need the slightest tweaking regarding the faux wood trim and an updated center stack, but otherwise I thought the Relay was an attractive hauler. Saturn should work on the quality issues around the plastics and I think they’ll have a real winner. The ride is perfectly fine as is but sure another 20 horses wouldn’t hurt. And then guys like me will almost be happy driving a minivan.
New Car Test Drive
New family utility vehicle is a well-mannered minivan.
A brand-new member of the Saturn family has hit the streets. Saturn calls its new Relay a 'family utility vehicle,' and it plays this role well.
The new 2005 Saturn Relay is designed to look like a sport utility vehicle. To this end it uses SUV styling cues such as its long nose, exposed C-pillars, and big roof rails. Indeed, the Relay looks like an SUV. But it drives and operates like a minivan. It has sliding doors, seven seats, and other practical features that are hallmarks of the minivan. The Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna are listed as its direct competition.
As a minivan, the Relay does a fine job. It gets on down the road with no muss or fuss. The driver gets a commanding view of the road and the interior styling is clean and contemporary, with good fit and finish. The V6 engine is relatively smooth and quiet and the Relay rides smoothly and quietly. The steering is light and easy, the brakes are powerful and easy to modulate for smooth stops. All-wheel drive is available as an option, with the Versatrak system providing excellent traction and stability for wintry driving. Saturn dealers are renowned for their attention to customer service and the Saturn Relay has been priced aggressively.
The Relay family will have one name and two numbers: Relay 2 and Relay 3. Both are powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine mated to a four-speed automatic. Front-wheel drive is standard, but all-wheel drive is available. All have seven-passenger seating, with four bucket seats and a three-across split folding rear bench seat.
Relay 2 ($24,485) comes with manually operated sliding doors on both sides. Standard features include ABS, OnStar with a one-year subscription, air conditioning, tilt wheel, remote keyless entry, cruise control, power driver's seat, power locks, power windows, a roof rail system, a nice-sounding six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 entertainment unit, rear-seat DVD entertainment unit, rear seat audio controls, heated mirrors, 17-inch wheels and tires. A power sliding door for the passenger side is optional ($450).
Relay 3 ($27,580) has quite a list of additional standard equipment, including a six-way power driver's seat, rear air conditioning, power vent windows, headphones and remote control for the DVD system, more overhead storage, rear storage bins, a universal garage door opener, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, and other features.
Relay 3 AWD ($30,570) is the performance truck of the family, with Versatrak all-wheel drive, its own rear suspension and steering, an inflator kit, 17-inch tires and wheels, and a raft of additional touches like front-row seat-mounted side air bags.
Options include dual power sliding doors with ultrasonic rear park assist ($995); a Safety Package ($545) with seat-mounted side-impact airbags and traction control; StabiliTrak chassis control ($450); XM Satellite Radio ($325) which includes a one-year subscription; remote starter ($175); heated front seats ($295); Touring suspension package ($360); and a trailering package for up to 3500 pounds ($165). Leather seating ($1,350) is available as is a new entertainment system that features a 40 gigabyte hard drive that can store 10,000 songs in MP3, WMA or WAV formats. (Saturn's prices are MSRPs and include destination charges.)
Safety equipment is below average for the class. Dual frontal airbags are standard. Front-seat side-impact air bags are optional. Curtain air bags are not available.
The exterior designers have made the Relay look like an International Harvester minivan, about as bland and neutral a look as you can get, with its horizontal-bar grille, and a big red logo stuck in it so it sort of looks like a Saturn product. (Rumors has it that this was to be the Oldsmobile version, but was switched over to Saturn late in the program.)
Our heart did not skip a beat, nor did we mistake it for an SUV. The sliding-door slots are a dead giveaway, as are the rear door handles, which are in the wrong place for an SUV. It's also too low to the ground to pull off the masquerade, with a 5.5-inch ground clearance and a 17.5-inch step-in height, about 3 inches lower than a typical SUV stance. These are not bad things, they're just not SUV things.
The long-wheelbase Relay's flanks have a uniform gray lower panel, like the one used on the Vue, all the way around the vehicle, and only a single strip of body-color trim down the side, with six discrete side windows. Both models ride on 17-inch tires and wheels; Relay 2 comes with steel wheels, Relay 3 gets painted alloy wheels.
The Relay has a steel body, not a plastic one like the Saturn coupes and sedans.
GM's new minivans, the Saturn Relay, Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander and Pontiac Montana SV6, feature some styling and equipment differences, but are very much alike under the skin, sharing a single powertrain with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
There's plenty of space for family use inside the Relay, plenty of outward vision available in all directions, and a nice, commanding view of the road. The standard Relay interior scheme is four captain's chairs and a split/folding rear bench, with a right-side power sliding door. Everything inside the Relay looks like standard stuff from GM's various suppliers, from the captain's chairs to the overhead entertainment system to the hard materials and absence of chrome bits. It feels like we've seen it all somewhere before.
The roomy interior features an overhead console and overhead rail system that integrates rear HVAC (heating) and audio controls, lights, and rear-seat DVD entertainment system in a single unit. Each of three additional storage modules is about 12 inches wide, 10 inches deep, with job-specific shapes.
Relay's optional and removable rear storage system provides a level but high load floor for carrying cargoes secured behind the second row. Second-row bucket seats can be folded and tumbled against the front seats. As the seats are stowed back to front, you get 27 cubic feet, then 74 cubic feet, and finally 136 cubic feet of cargo space. All but the front seats are removable.
The interior styling is clean and contemporary, with good, but not adventurous, materials, and good fit and finish. The Relay uses an unconvincing maple wood grain for its radio and HVAC trim and door switch plates. Two interiors are available, in ebony/gray and ebony/cashmere combinations. Relay 3 models have a leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant audio controls built in.
The gauges in the central cluster are large, with large numerals, easy to read and use. The instrument panel, center console and door panels are well integrated, and follow GM interior schemes to the letter. Most of the materials look good and are soft to the touch. Likewise is the operation, adjustment, and stowage of the seats. The second-row captain's chairs are roomy and comfortable. The hidden rear area cargo organizer on our Relay 3 test truck was well thought out for small, medium, and long cargoes, though not very deep.
The standard eight-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 sound system sounded good to us, and the DVD system was easy to use, even for an adult. One of the most interesting options on the Relay is the new PhatNoise entertainment system, a 40-gigabyte hard drive that installs in the overhead rail system. It can store up to 10,000 songs in MP3, WMA or WAV formats, store and play up to 40 movies, or a combination of songs and movies. It can play video games, and has a voice-browsing interface. It can transfer digital photos through a USB port in the cartridge and play them back on the DVD screen.
The Relay's V6 engine is relatively quiet and relatively smooth, but not particularly powerful so you have to leave extra time and space for passing maneuvers. The 3.5-liter V6 is rated at 200 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque, a cast iron engine with a long pedigree of continuous improvements. This ancient V6, dating from 1980, still gets the job done, but isn't exactly rippling with musculature.
The automatic transmission worked flawlessly. GM's high-capacity 4T65-E transaxle has only four forward speeds, not five like some of the competition.
The Relay has a nice, light, easy touch and effort at the steering wheel, making it easy to maneuver in crowded parking lots. The four-wheel disc brakes with ABS were powerful and progressive at the pedal. The suspension provides a good amount of body roll in fast corners, which is nature's way of telling you to slow down. It's smooth-riding and quiet. There's clearly not as much sound insulation in the Relay as there is in the Buick Terraza, but the ride in the Relay is still pretty quiet and it feels substantial at nearly 4500 pounds.
The Versatrak all-wheel-drive system on the Relay 3 AWD model is lightweight, quiet and efficient. It works full time. The driver need do nothing. If one or both front wheels lose grip, the system goes into action, with no buttons to push or levers to throw. Whenever the front wheels lose grip, the system transfers power to the rear tires. But it also apportions power from side to side between the rear wheels, an ability not found on most all-wheel-drive systems.
The Saturn Relay is the first family transporter available at a Saturn dealership, which should mean a lot to a lot of growing families that already like the Saturn way of doing business. It offers broad flexibility in its pricing across a band of more than $10,000, with lots of options, and it excels in its family entertainment systems.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Pellston, Michigan.
Saturn Relay 2 ($28,825); Relay 3, ($31,885).
Options As Tested
dual power sliding doors ($995), side curtain air bags ($395), StabiliTrak chassis control ($450), XM satellite radio ($325), remote starting ($175), heated front seats ($295).
Saturn Relay 3 ($31,885).
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