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.
Styling cues may suggest a sport utility vehicle, but the Saturn Relay looks like a minivan with a long nose. The sliding-door slots are a dead giveaway, as are the rear door handles, which are in the wrong place for an SUV. The Relay is also too low to the ground to pull off the masquerade; its 5.5-inch ground clearance and 17.5-inch step-in height are about 3 inches lower than a typical SUV stance.
However, sliding doors and a low step-in height are good things. These are some of the key features that make minivans more practical than SUVs for most on-road duty.
Relay shares its pseudo-SUV facade with the Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander, and Pontiac Montana SV6. All four are nearly the same under the skin, sharing a single powertrain with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Only minor styling and equipment differences distinguish them from each other.
Relay's outer skin is steel, not plastic like other Saturns, although its horizontal-bar grille and big red logo give it some Saturn identity. And the grey cladding that runs all around the lower perimeter of Relay suggests a kinship with the Saturn Vue, a compact sport utility. Another SUV styling cue: Instead of trying to blend the side windows into a single visual element, the designers designed them as three distinct windows on each side.
All models ride on 17-inch tires and wheels, but while Relay 2 comes with steel wheels, Relay 3 gets painted alloy wheels.
The Saturn Relay provides plenty of space for family use inside, a commanding view of the road, and plenty of outward vision in all directions. The standard interior layout is four bucket seats and a split/folding rear bench. The available second-row captain's chairs are roomy and comfortable. Relay 3 models have a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls.
The interior styling is clean and contemporary, with good quality, but not adventurous, materials, and good fit and finish. Much of it, however, looks like standard GM fare. The Relay uses an unconvincing maple wood grain around the center stack and door switch plates. Upholstery is available in only gray or tan, whether cloth or leather.
The Relay's cabin is functional. 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 other GM interior schemes to the letter, as do the operation, adjustment, and stowage of the seats.
The roomy interior features an overhead console and an overhead rail system that integrates rear HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and audio controls, lights, and rear-seat DVD entertainment system into a single unit. Three storage modules can be ordered that snap into this overhead system; each storage module is 12 inches wide and 10 inches deep, with job-specific shapes.
The Relay works well for hauling small, medium, and long cargoes. There's 27 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row. Fold it away and there's 74 cubic feet behind the second row. The 50/50 split third-row bench seat can be folded to create a level load floor when combined with an available rear storage bin. The second-row bucket seats can be folded and tumbled against the front seats, providing 136 cubic feet of cargo space. The second- and third-row seats can be removed for additional cargo space and utility.
The PhatNoise entertainment system is 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 standard eight-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 sound system sounded good to us, and the DVD system was easy to use, even for us.
XM Satellite Radio is great to have when traveling because the stations don't change as you drive across the country. It's nice to have around town for listening to the 24-hour news and sports broadcasts, comedy clubs, or for staying tuned into your preferred type of music (country & western, classical, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, etc.).
OnStar works well as a navigation system because there's nothing to program. Press the button and a human operator responds, to provide directions and other assistance. OnStar always knows the location of your vehicle and OnStar operators direct the rescue squad to you if your airbag goes off and you do not respond to their calls. Or you can press the emergency button. OnStar can unlock your doors if you lock your keys inside. They can direct you to the nearest gas station or help find a good restaurant or motel. If your vehicle is stolen, OnStar can pinpoint its location and direct the authorities to apprehend and recover.
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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