Relay van fills a hole in Saturn's lineup

September 10, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

Is it a sport-utility vehicle that wants to be a minivan, or a minivan that just wants to look a little more rugged?

When it comes to the new 2005 Saturn Relay, you could easily build a case for both, but since this seven-passenger people-mover shares its architecture with the rebranded '05 Chevrolet Uplander, Buick Terazza and Pontiac Montana SV6 minivans, we'll settle on the latter.

Perhaps, however, we should be a little more focused on the fact that until now there hasn't actually been a Saturn minivan to brag about, which begs the question: what's up with that?

The Relay obviously fills a sizeable void in a lineup that currently includes the Ion compact, the larger L-Series and the Vue sport-utility vehicle. Saturn could have just as easily continued without a minivan, but the company saw an opening for the Relay and went for it.


An opening? According to Saturn, 50 percent of minivan buyers are first-timers to the category, and of those, 40 percent wind up buying import-based models. This is where company executives think the Relay will set up shop, and the term "sport van" will be the advertising tag that the General Motors division hopes will do the trick.

You'll have to be the judge as to whether the "sporty" handle truly fits, but the Relay's most noticeable feature is its prominent, broad-shouldered front end that has "I want to be a sport-ute" written all over it. The bumper is also prominently displayed, just like a typical off-roader, and the driving lights are perched high as if to avoid being submerged while fording rivers or smashed to bits by jutting tree stumps.

Of course, Relay owners will mostly contend with potholes, curbs and careless parking-lot door flingers (unlike other Saturns, the Relay does not have ding-resistant polymer body panels), but the effect is attractive, in a tough-truck-meets-urban-commuter sort of way.

The designers have also pushed the Relay's wheels outward and fitted them with 17-inch rubber in an effort to capture a "planted" stance that's typical of most sport-utility vehicles.

Once inside, a more traditional minivan theme is apparent, with three rows of seats and plenty of leg room for all passengers. That's because the Relay is about four inches longer than GM's outgoing extended-length minivans. Both the second and third row fold above the floor to create a flat load surface. They can also be removed to max out the cargo space.

Saturn's stylists have thankfully avoided loading up the dash and center control stack with a confusing array of button-and-knob tinsel. Vital controls, dials and switches are intuitive and logically positioned.

Another point in the Relay's favor is the availability of all-wheel drive. DaimlerChrysler has abandoned this feature on its 2005 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan models leaving the Toyota Sienna as the only other minivan to provide it. Of course, the other new GM minivans will most likely offer it in one way, shape or form.

Anti-lock brakes are standard, while stability control - an anti-skid system for front-wheel-drive models that has never been offered on any GM minivan - will be optional.

Keeping the Relay (as well as all of GM's new crop of minivans) on the go is a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that develops 200 horsepower and an estimated 220 lb.-ft. of torque. That's 15 more horses and about 10 more lb.-ft.of torque than outgoing 3.4-liter motor provides. A four-speed automatic transmission completes the powertrain.

The Relay will arrive in two basic trim levels with plenty of standard equipment plus a lengthy option list. One of the more useful dealer-installed items is a remote control-operated second-row seat that pivots sideways while extending outside the vehicle. This allows, for example, easier transfer of a passenger to a wheelchair.

The Relay, along with the rest of GM's new vans, don't break dramatic new ground in terms of style or content, but their bolder profiles and mechanical content should give them a fighting chance in the ongoing minivan battles as well as a kick-start for increased Saturn sales.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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