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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 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.
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