Catch him on a bad day, and Kermit will tell you, it isn't easy being green. But automotively speaking, that's about to change.
Turn the key in the 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line hybrid and it drives like a well-sorted, peppy crossover. That's exactly the point. GM Powertrain engineers weren't trying to save the world with technology that takes a postgraduate engineering degree to appreciate or operate. People like Steve Tarnowsky, the assistant chief engineer of GM Hybrid Systems, simply wanted to build a hybrid that made sense to buy and drive.
Balancing technology and value
"We think we've hit a real balance between technology, fuel economy and price," said Tarnowsky. The Vue Green Line promises to deliver a 20-percent improvement in fuel economy over a standard Vue with a four-cylinder engine. Additionally, the Green Line shaves about 1 second from the 0-to-60-mph time. This added performance and economy can be yours for about $23,000, easily making the Green Line the least expensive hybrid SUV on the market.
From the outside, looking at the Green Line is like looking at any other Vue. Only the Hybrid badge on the fender identifies this tree-hugger special.
Inside, the story is similar. Close inspection of the instruments reveals a charge gauge that indicates when power is being added to or sucked from the onboard battery pack. Once under way, a telltale light illuminates "ECO" (for economy) when you're driving in a frugal manner -- beating the EPA's fuel-economy figures. For those who pay attention to the tachometer, it has a position below zero rpm. Interesting, eh? The needle points there when the gasoline engine is not running in situations such as being stopped at a traffic light.
A different kind of hybrid
In contrast to the "I'm not shouting to the world I'm a hybrid" exterior, the engine bay immediately indicates that this is no standard Vue. First clue? The enormous trim panel with the large Hybrid badge. This panel covers the hybrid-specific controllers needed to make the Green Line so green. Left of the panel, you'll see a specially tuned 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder and a nondescript mass of additional hardware. And while you can't see it from above, there's also a modified Hydra-matic four-speed automatic transmission underneath.
The star of this engineering show is the motor-generator. Hung off the side of the engine in plain view, the unit looks like an oversized alternator. It not only performs the function of an alternator, but has the ability to deliver torque back to the gasoline engine. Like most other hybrids, the gasoline engine shuts down when the Vue is at rest.
Electric power for the power steering, climate control and other accessories is driven by a modest battery pack. As the driver's foot releases the brake pedal, the motor-generator spins the engine's crankshaft up to speed in order to assist the gasoline engine with a smooth launch from a stop. The motor is also capable of providing additional torque when maximum acceleration is called for.
The package produces 170 horsepower and 164 pound-feet of torque, with another 115 lb-ft of torque from the electric motor. Official EPA fuel economy numbers aren't in yet, but GM estimates 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, with a combined figure of 29 mpg. Although that's a solid 20-percent gain over the standard Vue's 25 mpg, it's well below the fuel mileage of the Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner hybrids (36 city/31 highway).
Driving the Green Line is an exercise in the normal. Most drivers won't notice anything unusual until they've stopped at a red light. In most situations, the engine completely stopsas in turns off. The feeling is not one of an engine stall -- the engine just smoothly shuts down. Of course, all the interior features remain operational, such as the climate control, radio, etc. Lifting off the brake engages the electric motor-generator and smoothly restarts the gasoline engine so you're under way again with no fuss or muss.
Unlike other current hybrids, however, the Green Line does not run any distance on pure electric power; the motor-generator is a hybrid "helper." The net result is that saving fuel has never been more painless.
A new Vue of the market
The Green Line is the fourth Vue model. The standard Vue is powered by a 2.2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder and is front-wheel drive. Vues with a V6 engine come in FWD and AWD configurations. The sporty Vue Red Line tops the range. The Green Line is FWD only. As an additional point of interest, the Vue experienced a major freshening for 2005, and rolls into 2006 as a compact crossover worthy of consideration.
The market will determine whether GM has a hit when the Green Line goes on sale later this year. It's priced thousands below the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and the popular Ford Escape Hybrid, while coming close to matching the fuel economy of their more complex single-mode hybrid systems.
With few exceptions, being an automotive greenie has meant driving vehicles that were slower, more expensive and quirkier than the norm. GM is helping to change that with the 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line. And as time goes on, it will keep getting easier to be green. The Green Line's powertrain will appear in the Chevrolet Malibu for 2007.