It's not so far fetched, really, that conditions in the vicinity of Saturn might predispose toward signs of life. After years of planning and crossed fingers, some very clever engineering is finally reaping its rewards. Within a murky, gaseous atmosphere, there might actually be evidence of a living pulse of sorts. Personally, I've always thought that behind Saturn's moony daydreams lies a real, unfulfilled potential.
As for what could possibly thrive in the methane-soaked skies enveloping Titan, Saturn's largest moon, who's to say? While a trans-Atlantic team is preoccupied with instant messages from the Cassini-Huygens space probe, I'm all too happy to exult in my recent discovery of the new Relay minivan from Saturn Corporation. This is, after all, the first Saturn vehicle I've ever actually admired.
It's also the first Saturn vehicle to eschew plastic bodywork for steel panels, and it's the first Saturn vehicle to offer prospective customers more instead of less than they might expect. True, I think it's disingenuous of Saturn's moon-eyed marketing department to resist calling a spade a spade. The press materials describe the Relay as combining "SUV-like exterior styling with [the] functionality of a mid-van." It's a minivan, for crying out loud. Open your eyes and look at it! (Just what is a "mid-van" anyway?)
Semantics aside, the Relay is, for once, a genuine contender for Saturn. It seats seven and totes a bunch of cargo. It's adequately powered, tolerably fuel-frugal and very cleverly supplied with both standard and optional features. Even in terms of the prevailing (i.e., soporific) minivan aesthetic, the Relay is almost eye-catching. Behind the pug-nosed snout is a nearly cubic cockpit that's precisely as tall as it is wide.
Sharing its General Motors pedigree with the Chevy Uplander, Buick Terraza and Pontiac Montana minivans, the Relay depends on a traditional pushrod V6 displacing 3.5 liters. Power is 200 horsepower and 220 foot-pounds, which may be a far cry from Honda Odyssey's 255 hp; but Relay's lighter curb weight helps to compensate. Accordingly, fuel economy is rated 18 miles-per-gallon/city and 24 miles-per-gallon/highway (using regular), which is very near the head of the class among minivans overall.
Saturn fields three versions of the Relay at base prices ranging from $24,485 for an entry-level front-wheel-drive version to $30,570 for a better equipped all-wheel-drive model. My tester represented the third alternative: front-wheel-drive with all the trimmings at a base price of $27,580. The only options were a "power package" ($995) with power-sliding rear doors and rear parking assist; and the "safety package" ($545) comprising StabiliTrak traction control and side airbags up front.
Whereas I question, in this day and age, the wisdom of offering side airbags and stability control as mere options, it's hard to know what to make of other interior features that come as standard equipment. It is, perhaps, a commentary on our times to note that a rear-seat DVD theater, with wireless headphones, is installed in every Relay minivan regardless of price.
Moreover, this DVD player is part of a clever powered-rail system that runs down the center of the cabin. Saturn purveys a variety of optional storage boxes, PDA or cellphone holsters and sunglass bins that clip in and out of these rails. But the masterpiece by far is the optional (and tongue-tying) "Mobile Digital Media Powered by PhatNoise" system that also docks into the rails.
For anybody over 25, a little tutorial is in order: Relay's PhatNoise option is basically a 40-gigabyte hard drive library that networks into the minivan's audio and DVD circuits. It's capable of storing up to 10,000 songs in various digital formats or 40 MPEG movies. Many video games are also compatible, as are audio books transferred from a PC. The PhatNoise unit features "voice browsing" that identifies individual songs aurally by title and artist, which the driver can then select via steering wheel controls. Oh, and don't forget the XM Satellite Radio option. Then, if that's not enough, two different "entertainment sources" can be played simultaneously to pacify different media constituencies during road trips.
Why, then, ever leave the vehicle? It may well be that the only compelling reason to do so is to make way for cargo. The Relay boasts impressive credentials in this regard as well. Not only are there 27 cubic feet of trunk space at one's disposal even when all seven seats are in use but also this volume grows to 74 cubes, then to 137 cubes as rows three and two are folded progressively flat.
And I do mean flat, because the Relay employs an optional under-floor rear storage system whose carpeted lids are flush with the folded third-row seats. The outcome is a panoply of permutations for folding some seats while sitting in others, all the while toting various shapes and sizes of cargo all over town. Or, you can just yank out the second-row captain's chairs and the three-person rear bench altogether and be done with it.
Offsetting all this interior design ingenuity is a driving feel that is competent, if not inspiring. The Relay pairs front independent suspension with a rear torsion axle and four-wheel anti-lock brakes. Handling isn't particularly cat-like, but it is comfy and predictable. The automatic transmission is GM's time-honored four-speed Hydra-Matic. Those of us who like to drop out of overdrive from time to time have to use the shifter; there's no pushbutton cut-out as on so many competing vehicles. Then again, the very fact that Relay competes effectively against rival minivans represents Saturn's chief accomplishment here. Finally, a sensible vehicle from GM's "different kind of car company" and well made at that, catering to real world tastes and needs. Might it be that Saturn and intelligent life are no longer mutually incompatible?