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JohnRW1621 PowerDork
4/17/13 9:46 p.m.

My specific goals are that I am looking for an inexpensive and presentable vehicle of model year '00 or newer. Budget is under $3k and closer to $2k is best for a car with 100k to 125k miles. I would like it to be able to reach 200k miles relatively easy with proper maint.
Needs to be able to seat real adults in the back, up to 3, for short trips.
Would like to get 25 mpg in mixed driving.

Please review my logic and share any personal experiences.

I think that a Saturn Vue may be the answer.
The Vue like this was offered from '02 to '07. The automatic on the 4cyl was a CVT that seemed like an experiment for GM. Clearly, the experiment failed. Tons of Vues can be found cheap with bad trans. The trouble being that there is no improved design or repair and therefore the trans can only be replaced with another CVT that is sure to fail. This well known failure seems to keep the prices down.
But... The most basic models were 2.2L ecotech 4cyl mated to 5 speed manuals. This combination seems to be a reliable combination, essentially a Chevy Cavalier/Cobalt drivetrain. MPG is 23/25/28.

The cars of this era are plastic side panels which I like for the idea of hiding the appearance of rust (sure it may be rusty underneath.)

My suspicion is that there may be a perfect storm where buyers stay away from CVT models (which dives down the prices) and buyers do not go looking for or disregard manual trans cars which results in slow selling cars.

Are my suspicions correct?
Sure, they may not be dynamic and exciting machines but is a Saturn Vue, fwd, manual trans, 4cyl a reasonably reliable vehicle?
What are the points to be on guard from?
What are your experiences?

I have recently watched this specific listing go from $3,800 to $3,300 and today to $2,600. If still available, I may look at it this weekend.

mtn PowerDork
4/17/13 10:37 p.m.

There was one with a Vtec honda engine available. That is all I know.

belteshazzar UberDork
4/17/13 10:42 p.m.

the early 3.0 V6 examples were also terrible.

the ecotec manual trans VUE's are under appreciated and under priced. this has been true since they were new. they were well equipped for 17,500 out the door.

The0retical Reader
4/17/13 10:57 p.m.

In reply to JohnRW1621:

I owned a 2003 FWD manual version of that exact car sold it with 188k miles on it and bought it with 140kish.

I had varying issues with it, though overall it was a pretty reliable car. Keep in mind that with the 4 cyl it is an econobox. I always felt like it was anemic when accelerating but I suppose that's to be expected.


The most significant issue I had with it was the rear suspension. At 170ish the car started to make a squeak when I hit a bump. Eventually I got up underneath it and found the isolators were shot. Pulled the springs and found that they were rusted through. The way the LCA's are designed the isolator fits over 3 1/8th inch drain holes which eventually filled with crud from winters in the northeast and rusted them out.

The other problem I had is that the car ate rear swaybar endlinks like they were candy. Those were replaced with Moog endlinks at the same time as when I pulled the springs and I broke them 6 months later.

The car is a bit of a rattletrap. The cover for the rear hatch squeaked incessantly.

I also found it to be sort of loud at 70 mph compared to my wifes 2006 X-Terra.

The other thing it did that I was never able to track down was tick when accelerating after starting it. It would tick until about 45 mph then stop and never do it again until I turned the car off and it cooled. Never caused an issue just made me wonder what it was.

Supposedly they have a problem with the ECM where it blanks the mileage to x's. That part costs about 400 dollars and you can only get them refurbished. I never had that issue but I'm aware of it because when my turn signal column shorted out (interesting experience) and the dealership tried to blame it on that. Googlefu and actually being able to read a wiring diagram coupled with knowing how a multimeter worked lead to the stalk rather than the ECM.

Overall it was a pretty good car. Not real exciting to drive but got about 26 mpg no matter how I drove it and I pulled a loaded 10x12 trailer from Columbus Ohio to San Bernardino California with it. That thing didn't owe me a dime by the time I traded it in.

daytonaer HalfDork
4/17/13 11:03 p.m.
belteshazzar wrote: the early 3.0 V6 examples were also terrible. the ecotec manual trans VUE's are under appreciated and under priced. this has been true since they were new. they were well equipped for 17,500 out the door.

Terrible is relative. I convinced a family member to buy a L300 with the 3.0 DOHC, now I'm stuck doing the maintenance. If you watch for the problem areas it is a strong and rewarding engine. You can catch faults before it blows up. It does not however return great fuel mileage.

The transmissions, and CAN BUS voodoo, however, are what I would call "terrible."

Honestly I have never seen a 4cyl manual trans vue. I would bet it is a nice vehicle. I have noticed parts supply has dried up some with the collapse of saturn. Also, I would be cautious if you are not comfortable with an OBDII scanner and a multimeter if you want switches and lights and stuff to work all the time.

patgizz UberDork
4/18/13 7:33 a.m.

with the cheap supply of sub $600 really nice bad trans ones, you can afford to keep a parts vehicle around at all times.

i would only buy a manual only because of the trans issue

93EXCivic MegaDork
4/18/13 7:34 a.m.

My fiance has a V6 AWD version (Honda motor which I would recommend over the Saturn motor since it has better gas mileage and motor power then the Saturn motor). As far as I can tell it doesn't suffer the same Honda V6 transmission problems as the Oddy. It doesn't drive terrible and has a pretty decent ride. The V6 will get it out of it's own way. Gas mileage isn't great but not terrible (17-18 around town). Her's is an '05 with 105k miles on it. So far the only issues have been the alternator belt breaking and needing to have the A/C compressor replaced. Also it holds up pretty well in a wreck. We got rear ended by a Crown Vic and pushed into a Lexus. The Crown Vic was totaled and the Vue was repaired and is still going well.

1988RedT2 UberDork
4/18/13 7:46 a.m.

Back when they were new, I remember thinking that they were probably one of the best-looking SUV's ever made. Clean looking, reasonable size. That's all I've got to contribute.

petegossett UberDork
4/18/13 8:00 a.m.

My ex-inlaws have owned one of the AWD CVT 4-cyl models(in the "special edition" yellow) since new. They still have it and drive it frequently, so I know it hasn't been a total POS for them, or it would have been traded off long ago.

aussiesmg UltimaDork
4/18/13 8:33 a.m.

I helped push a manual off the road after what sounded like a timing belt failure Tuesday. That`s the extent of my knowledge

JohnRW1621 PowerDork
4/18/13 8:56 a.m.

I thought the 2.2L ecotech engine was a chain not belt? Anyone know?

Curmudgeon MegaDork
4/18/13 9:14 a.m.

Allegedly the 5 auto speed box from the ION 4 door is a bolt in replacement for the VUE CVT as long as both have the 2.2 Ecotec. You also need the ECM and the transmission wiring harness. AFAIK the CV axles are the same.

There's a whole bunch of info on the ION swap out there but not much on the VUE. Seems that a lot of people have done the manual swap, though.

The Ecotec is definitely a chain. Some of the earlier versions had an oiler issue which could lead to timing chain failure, otherwise the Ecotec hangs together pretty well. I think the chain in my kid's '03 ION has been replaced, but I'm gonna d a preemptive replacement just in case. A Cloyes kit from Rock Auto (chain, gears, cam bolts, updated oiler, tensioner and guides) is ~$130.00.

JohnRW1621 PowerDork
4/18/13 9:26 a.m.

Good info so far...thanks guys.

patgizz wrote:

with the cheap supply of sub $600 really nice bad trans ones, you can afford to keep a parts vehicle around at all times.

i would only buy a manual only because of the trans issue

I agree that the JYs should be full of bad CVTs to lend body and interior parts.

I have read a little about auto to manual swaps but since prices are reasonable, starting with a real manual seems the way for me.

Curmudgeon MegaDork
4/18/13 9:34 a.m.

At the bottom of this page is a post about a guy's regular geared A/T swap, he used a Malibu transmission.


JohnRW1621 PowerDork
4/18/13 8:16 p.m.

Mid- morning, I was here in town at a gas station (not my usual place) and noticed that the Buy Here-Pay Here Lot next door had two Vues. At the end of the day, I stopped by.
They had an '03 V6 auto and an '05 4cyl manual. I faked enough interest to get a test drive.

I looked past the dirty interior, ripped seat, and CEL light on. The lot owner told me he had been driving the vehicle himself which then explains the empty paper coffee cup and food wrapper.

I am a fan of Saturn SL's and this very much felt like a what a SL SUV should. Like the SL, the Vue was not as nicely appointed as the Toyota and Honda counterpart. Their real attraction to me is their "value" when priced against those rivals.
Like a SL,the interior was a sea of plastic and the seat cloth was cheap-ish. The driving position worked well for me and I was impressed with the amount of rear leg room. I felt it provided more than the Ford Escape that I had as a company car a few years back.
The engine bay is rather spacious considering that other models got as much as a 3.5L engine, this little 2.2L does not take up much space. Typical work did not look miserable.

In no way was the car powerful but the manual also allowed for some "row your own" power if needed. The manual seemed to "work as intended." Notice I did not write work well or work great. In retrospect, it very much felt like I might expect a manual to work in a SUV. Not as long a throw or as notch-y as a full size pickup but nowhere near the tight toggle switch of a Miata. Driving it would not be described as "the joy of a well connected manual trans" but more, "the necessity of changing gears, manually."

Verdict: If the price is right, this could work.

Speaking of price, this unkempt and unprepared '05 w/ 128k miles was being offered at $5,999 which could be paid at $150 every two weeks with something down. I did not have enough interest to find out how this really worked.

The0retical Reader
4/18/13 10:17 p.m.

How'd you like the window switches arranged around the shifter? I never managed to roll down the passenger side windows without having to hunt for them while driving. It's a minor gripe but god damn that was annoying.

Forgot in the initial post to add that if you need to access anything behind the center stack you have to be very careful taking it off. The 4 way blinker button is held in there by a couple of clips and for some reason GM wired it with almost no extra wire. You have to do some careful work to detach the 4 ways in a tight area otherwise the clips snap and the 4 way button falls into the stack constantly.

Probably a detail that doesn't matter too much in all honestly but there it is.

dculberson SuperDork
4/19/13 8:07 a.m.

My good friend and neighbor has the manual tran 4-cyl version. Low on power but good/great gas mileage for an SUV. Very practical useful car and he's put around 150k miles on it (bought new) with very little in the way of repairs. I think he put sway bar end links and a starter in it and that's about it. I've driven it a few times and while it's not going to put a huge grin on your face it doesn't feel like a penalty box and it gets the job done. It got rear ended and held up well, the only repairs were the bumper cover and tail light which were readily available in the junk yard. A couple minor accidents and the car could be a money maker for you. ;-)

Definitely poke around underneath, the Vue isn't known for rusting out but Saturns of that era have subframe rust issues that have totaled more than one of them.

Mostly, drive it and see if it feels good to you. If so, get a good one and I think you'll be happy with it.

JohnRW1621 PowerDork
4/20/13 12:33 p.m.

Checked it out.
Last night I called. I asked only a few questions because generally, I believe little of what sellers actually say. He also came off as the not talkative type. Of the few things; clutch recently replaced, tires should be good for another year.

Also, here is the brief text of both the two most recent CL ads:

No rust what so ever . interior spectacular. Low miles
Very Clean 105,000 miles this car will take you any where it is stick shift very good on gas No rust anywhere if your interested

Body is okay, as expected. Underhood is dirty but not really unusual. Rear tailgate shocks are blow; wont stay up (easy fix.) Edges of tires so bald you could not see a line between tread line 1 & 2.
The interior is trashed. The back floor seat carpets are soaking wet. My wife sits; the passenger seat is wet. The entire center stack is installed incorrectly. I mean really incorrectly, installed is not even the word, like the exterior trim is just set there and nothing is screwed down. In the double din radio opening there is a single din factory type radio that appears to be just set there (not really attached.)

At this point, I am most certain that I will pass but I will still take it for a drive since overall, I am curious about these cars. Start the car; service soon light on, CEL on, brake light on (hand brake off). Reverse to pull away and for a new clutch, this was the highest grab point I have ever experienced (maybe not new.) It had a crazy high rev and then did the oddest things. It sounded like it was over reving but the tach seemed normal. The sounds were gruesome. We did not make it to the end of his street and turned around. I told my wife that I did not even want to be associated with the car for fear that the owner was going to try to blame us (given his glowing description.) I was kind and just said that it was not going to be the right car for me.
Honestly, I did not want that car at any price.

I will continue to search for another example.

JohnRW1621 PowerDork
8/11/13 8:02 a.m.

Bringing this thread back to life with an update; I have bought one.

Knowing I was looking for a Vue, a friend told me of a college buddy of his that had bought this Vue with the intention of flipping it. His CL ad asked for $3,999. I commented that it was only a $2,500 car but agreed to call him anyway.
He bought it with a bad engine at 140k. Had documentation to a LKQ motor with 35k on it (from an auto trans Vue with bad trans - no surprise.) I liked most of what the seller had to say but his price. I told him that I had another to look at but he was second or third on my list.
Just days later, I found that he had put the car up on ebay. I am sure he was finding just how hard it is to unload a manual trans cute-ute (nobody goes looking for them.) I won the auction at $2,426. I was happy. Bought site unseen. Drove home for 2.5 hours with shake at speeds over 70 mph but otherwise uneventful.
'03 Saturn Vue with 146k on body (35k on engine) and recent clutch. Sunroof, power windows, power locks, 6 disk CD. So far, $200 for 2 new tires and $100 for 2 front rotors and pads to eliminate warped rotor shake in braking. Edit: oh yeah, as forewarned above, it also needed a front sway bar link; $22. Also, will need hatch struts to hold up hatch.

At a local junkyard, I have sourced two additional front seats which I got for $35 each. I bought them because the seats I have has one little seem rip on the driver's seat. I was also concerned that the front seats were not going to clean well. I spent and afternoon on the original seats and was ultra happy with the results I got. I cleaned them with my Bissell Little Green Machine and a spray cleaner recommended by the junk yard, Tuff Stuff Foam Cleaner. With the help of a scrub brush, it did wonders on the light grey fabric.

The seats shown in these pictures are the original ones that I though would not clean well.
I bought Tuff Stuff at Meijer's but also available at WalMart and likely many other retailers.

patgizz UberDork
8/11/13 8:56 a.m.

nice score. i've been using tuff stuff for years with insane results on stuff other people thought was trash.

dj06482 Dork
8/11/13 8:49 p.m.

One of my friends has one and I've helped him do some work on it. His is an '02 FWD 2.2L/5spd manual. I actually drove it for the first time today, and even with all that mileage came away impressed.

So far I've changed the oil and replaced a radiator with him, no major surprises other than the oil filter is topside. Even with 275k, it's a quiet motor! Overall, for what it is, and what you can find one for, I think they represent a great value. The one you got looks great!

JohnRW1621 PowerDork
8/11/13 9:04 p.m.

Wow, 275k. That gives me hope!

ProDarwin SuperDork
8/11/13 9:10 p.m.

I'm jealous. That is an extremely practical, solid car for the money. I paid more than that for my S-series.

JohnRW1621 PowerDork
8/11/13 9:19 p.m.

Don't be jealous, they can be had everywhere. Unlike vehicles such as the Mazda5 or CX-5, it seems that Saturn sold quite a lot of manual versions. For most the years, the lowest trim model, which is what you had to take to get a manual, only came in Black, Silver or Red. There are two interior colors, light tan and light gray with gray seeming more popular.

Pbw New Reader
8/11/13 9:22 p.m.

We had a 2003 v6 auto awd for couple of years. I think we sold it at 80k it was a pretty solid only issue I had was transmission cooler line leak.

Averaged 27 mpg on highway.

A coworker had a 2003 4 cylinder manual fwd with over 300k on it with only normal maintenance and replaced struts.

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