While GM and Chrysler have now offered hybrid versions of their largest SUVs for several months, sales have hardly been overwhelming. Compact and midsize vehicles seem to be the sweet spot for US hybrid sales.

So we’ve eagerly waited for the arrival of the Saturn Vue Two-Mode Hybrid, the full hybrid version of Saturn’s Vue compact sport-utility. HybridCars.com was able to spend almost an hour behind the wheel of the 2009 Vue Two-Mode, with lead vehicle engineer Tom Dye along for the ride.

General Motors will not produce a 2009 version of the Saturn Vue Two-Mode, which was scheduled for release in late 2008. Instead, the company plans to introduce the vehicle in mid-2009 as a 2010 model—although those plans have been thrown into doubt due to GM’s uncertain financial situation.

On a crisp and colorful autumn day on the country roads around Bear Mountain, New York, three Vue Two-Modes sat in a long row of new cars offered for short test drives at GM’s annual fall media preview. We had to check the badges to make sure these Vues were in fact Two-Modes, rather than the mild-hybrid version now known just as the Vue Hybrid (nee Vue Green Line). Once we’d confirmed they were pre-production Two-Modes, we hopped in and twisted the key.

First impression: No sound. Instead, the gauges lit up, and a small green pictogram appeared on the left dial. It’s the international symbol for “power on,” the sign that the hybrid-electric powertrain in our Vue was ready to move off after its silent start.

The Hybrid Vue for V6 Buyers

But before we hit the road, though, a few basics about the vehicle are useful. The Vue Two-Mode Hybrid will be sold alongside the mild-hybrid version, but the two serve very different niches. Saturn feels Vue buyers come in two distinct groups: those who pick the four-cylinder engine, and those who want the power and performance of a V6. The mild hybrid is an option for the first group; the 2009 Vue Two-Mode is aimed at the latter, fitted with a 3.6-liter direct-injection V6 that develops 262 horsepower.

This big V6 is mated to the Two-Mode Hybrid system jointly developed by GM, Chrysler, Daimler, and BMW. The result is a compact crossover that accelerates from 0 to 60 in 7.5 seconds, can tow a 3500-pound trailer, and still returns (projected) mileage of 28 city/31 highway. (By comparison, the slower, less expensive four-cylinder Vue Hybrid returns 25 city/32 highway.)

Highway mileage that high from a beefy V6, Dye says, is the benefit of the Two-Mode setup. He contrasted the Vue Two-Mode to the larger Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which tested out at 27 city/25 highway—returning highway mileage that’s actually lower than that around town. As Saturn points out, the Two-Mode’s city mileage of 28 is not only 65 percent better than the equivalent non-hybrid Vue, but also better than four-cylinder versions of the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, and Nissan Versa, all significantly smaller and lighter.

In our short time with the Vue Two-Mode, we weren’t able to get useful mileage figures on our own; that will have to wait for a longer road test. But we did get an impression of what it’s like to drive in a variety of uses.

First, it’s heavy and solid. The standard two-wheel-drive Vue V6 is already heavy at 3,870 pounds; the Two-Mode package adds another 250 pounds on top of that. (The Vue Two-Mode isn’t offered with all-wheel-drive, unlike the Highlander Hybrid.) We experienced some road roar over the coarse surfaces on the mountain, perhaps due to the high-pressure (38 psi) in the low rolling-resistance tires. (We also felt a slight wind whistle from one window in our pre-production vehicle.) But otherwise, the car felt well-screwed-together, as solid as an anvil, and quiet.

The Vue Two-Mode rides lower than its non-hybrid brethren, for better aerodynamics, which also helps that planted-on-the-road feeling. It cornered well and was eminently comfortable for four, adequate for five. Overall, it filled the mandate articulated by Dye, who said buyer surveys made it clear there was a market for a high-mileage crossover that “wasn’t a wimpy hybrid”.

With swift acceleration and its trailer-towing ability, the Vue definitely fights back any charges of “wimpy”. But like other hybrid crossovers, it’s almost impossible to identify unless you look at the badges on the front fenders and the tailgate. There are also door decals, repeated on the windshield and rear glass, some chrome accents, and a different rear spoiler. But these are all minor embellishments to what looks from 50 feet like a standard Saturn Vue.

But It Doesn’t Seem Like a Hybrid

Inside, things are a bit different. Dashboard and trim are carried over, but the tachometer is replaced with an “efficiency gauge,” which indicates maximum fuel economy and when the car is operating in electric-only mode.

Buyers who specify the optional navigation system get a Prius-like screen showing the power flow among engine, battery, electric motors, and regenerative brakes. Without that, the efficiency gauge gives drivers the basic information needed to economize.

The two toughest parts of vehicle development, says Dye, were blending the regenerative braking with the standard friction braking, and ensuring the engine would switch smoothly on and off in any conceivable circumstance. In both of these goals, Saturn succeeded.

The brakes are excellent, with absolutely standard feel and no rough spots or strange behaviors. The control system seamlessly added friction braking to regen whenever necessary, with no apparent transition except for the telltale dash light that indicated battery recharging. There’s an emergency mode, too; when a driver slams on the brakes, the car dispenses with regen braking altogether and maximizes the standard brakes to stop as quickly as possible.

As for engine switching on and off, it was perceptible, but easily overlooked in the business of driving through the narrow, curving roads of the Shawangunk Mountains. After a short while, it was easy to forget that this was anything but a powerful five-seat crossover—especially for those drivers who ignore their gauges.

And that may define the Vue Two-Mode as well as anything. When it’s running solely in electric mode (Dye estimates e-range at 0.7 or 0.8 miles), it lacks the slight whine that current hybrid owners are used to. Perhaps it’s the compact hybrid crossover for buyers who don’t want to be seen in a hybrid?

Saturn hadn’t revealed pricing as of late October, but said it expects the MSRP to be “under $33,000”—meaning $35,000 to $38,000 with tax, title, and options. The Vue Two-Mode will arrive at Saturn dealerships in January and February 2009.

The Latest Two-Mode Hybrid

The basic Two-Mode technology in this latest Vue hybrid is the same one used in the full-size Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid (see our drive report) and GMC Yukon Hybrid, and Cadillac Escalade Hybrid full-size SUVs, and it will also appear next spring in the Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid and GMC Sierra Hybrid full-size pickup trucks. Chrysler now offers it in the Dodge Durango Hybrid and Chrysler Aspen Hybrid full-size SUVs, and it will soon launch in the BMW X6 Hybrid and a future Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid SUV as well.

The 300-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, which holds slightly more than 1 kilowatt-hour of energy, sits below the rear cargo floor. The cells inside it are made by Cobasys, which was recently in the news for a recall of its smaller packs fitted to the mild-hybrid versions of the Saturn Aura, Saturn Vue, and Chevrolet Malibu. Vehicle line engineer Tom Dye emphasized that the problems with those packs were known about early enough in the Vue Two-Mode’s development that, “We made damn sure we didn’t have the same problem.”

Next up in the growing lineup of hybrid Saturn Vue models will be the Vue Two-Mode Plug-In Hybrid, which will run up to 10 miles on electricity alone, using a larger battery pack that can be charged up from the power grid. That vehicle is expected to launch late in 2010, at roughly the same time as GM’s much-touted Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle.