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The Saturn Relay is styled to look like an SUV, with a long, square nose, exposed C-pillars, and heavy-duty roof rails. It is a minivan, however, with the valuable virtues of sliding side doors and comfortable seating for seven.
The Relay's cabin is clean and contemporary, and some neat features are available. OnStar is standard. A new integrated navigation system is available. A rear-seat DVD entertainment system comes standard, and the available PhatNoise entertainment system can play video games, digital music and movies through the vehicle's existing sound system. It's pretty Phat.
The Relay gets down the highway well, and the driver enjoys a commanding view of the road. It's smooth and quiet and the steering is light and easy. Brakes are powerful and easy to modulate for smooth stops. The standard 201-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 is relatively smooth and quiet, if not particularly muscular. A new 235-horsepower, 3.9-liter V6 engine is optional on 2006 models.
All-wheel drive is available, and GM's Versatrak provides excellent traction and stability for wintry driving.
The Saturn Relay was launched as a 2005 model. For 2006, it gets more safety features and more entertainment features. Side-impact airbags are now available on selected models for improved crash protection. Relay received a five-star safety rating in the federal government's frontal crash tests and, although it does not offer side curtain airbags, it earned a five-star rating for rear-seat passengers and a four-star rating for front seat passengers in the government's side-impact tests. In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's 40-mph offset-impact test, Relay rated good.
Saturn dealers are renowned for their attention to customer service, and the Relay is priced aggressively against its competition.
The Saturn Relay's standard 3.5-liter V6 is relatively smooth and quiet, but not particularly powerful, so you have to leave extra time and space for passing maneuvers. By modern standards it's an old engine, with a cast-iron block and pushrod-operated overhead valves in an aluminum head. Currently rated at 201 horsepower at 5600 rpm, and 216 pound-feet of torque at 4000, it still gets the job done, but isn't exactly rippling with musculature.
The AWD model uses the same engine, but returned to deliver more torque at lower rpm, sacrificing peak horsepower and peak torque slightly, to 196 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 213 pound-feet of torque at 3200 rpm.
The optional 3.9-liter V6 is newer and more powerful. It will still be an iron-block, pushrod, overhead-valve design, but with more displacement and variable valve timing it is expected to develop 235 horsepower at 5600 rpm, and 239 pound-feet of torque at 4400.
The four-speed automatic transmission works flawlessly, though some of the competition now has five-speed automatics that are more responsive and efficient.
The steering has a nice, light, easy touch and effort, making it easy to maneuver in crowded parking lots. The Relay feels substantial, and it is, weighing in at nearly 4300 pounds. The ride in the Relay is pretty quiet, though it's not as quiet as the Buick Terraza. The suspension allows a fair amount of body roll (lean) in fast corners, which is nature's way of telling you to slow down. When you need to do that, the four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are powerful and progressive. Anti-lock brakes allow the driver to maintain control of the steering in an emergency braking situation.
The Versatrak all-wheel-drive system on the Relay 3 AWD model works full time. The driver need do nothing, with no buttons to push or levers to throw. It's quiet and efficient and, because it's lightweight, there's little downside. All-wheel drive can help the driver stay on the road in adverse conditions. If one or both front wheels lose grip, the system automatically transfers power to the rear tires. Versatrak also apportions power from side to side between the rear wheels, an ability not found on most all-wheel-drive systems.
Front-drive Relay 3 models come standard with electronic traction control, which limits wheelspin during acceleration on slippery surfaces.
StabiliTrak electronic stability control maximizes handling and braking on a variety of surfaces, and is particularly useful in slippery corners. An array of sensors monitor steering wheel angle, wheel speed, brake pressure, longitudinal and lateral acceleration, and yaw rate; a computer uses the data to compare the driver's intentions with the actual direction the Relay is headed. StabiliTrak then adjusts engine torque or the brake pressure to individual wheels to help steer the vehicle back to the path the driver intended. It's optional. We strongly recommend StabiliTrak as it can help the driver avoid an accident.
Though it sports SUV styling cues, the Saturn Relay offers the functionality and convenience of a minivan: sliding doors, seven-passenger seating, cargo-carrying flexibility, and low step-in height. Introduced as an all-new model for '05, the Relay gets significantly upgraded safety systems for '06. Saturn has a reputation for providing a friendly sales and service experience. Relay offers value and a broad price spectrum, with the availability of a strong set of interesting features.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Pellston, Michigan.
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