Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Product Review: Saturn Relay

Two weeks ago, Kyle and I officially became parents.

That's right. We sucked up our pride and bought a mini-van. Actually, leased. We can't afford to actually buy one.

Our previous ride was a chili-pepper red Saturn Vue, which we both loved. The Vue was a zippy little SUV, lots of fun to drive, with a sun-roof and plenty of rear cargo space.

However, there was no third row seating option, and when we put the infant carrier in back between Owen and Stewart, we instantly realized that there was no way were going to fit our growing family into the Vue comfortably.

So we decided to drive down to the Saturn dealership and see if we could exchange our lease on the Vue for the new Saturn Relay, a mini-van that Saturn first released for 2005.

The folks at Saturn were very helpful and after about four hours of signing on the dotted line, we drove home in a 2006 Saturn Relay 2.

So far, the Relay is fantastic. It is extremely roomy, and has all the amenities of higher priced vans like the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, although there are some drawbacks.

The 7-passenger Relay has plenty of room for our family of 5 and guests. It seats three in the back, and has two captain's seats in the middle.

The captain's seats roll up and out of the way quite easily so it's very easy for me to get the boys into the back without climbing, stretching or straining. The dual sliding doors allow me to easily snap the infant carrier in position on one side of the car while Owen and Stewart climb in on the other.

In addition, there is a large toy box between the two middle seats, which holds emergency diapers, toys and wipes so they won't take up all the floor space.

Behind the third row of seats is plenty of additional cargo room into which I easily fit three strollers, an emergency kit, a bag of park toys, and a buggy board.

In addition to the extra room, the Relay includes many of the luxuries that have previously been exclusive to high-end mini-vans like the Toyota Sienna and Chrysler Town & Country.

It has power sliding doors that open on their own with the touch of a button, very convenient when trying to get two little boys inside while holding a baby and perhaps some groceries.

The AC and heat for the front and rear are separate, with vents that close completely in case there's a baby you don't want to spray with cold air.

On the entertainment end of the spectrum, there is a DVD player for long trips (I had to make it very clear to my boys that it's ONLY for long trips), and input jacks for iPods that work for both types of media (movies or music). XM satellite radio is also available, and is free for the first month.

There's also both an AC and DC adapter in the back so you can charge your phone or laptop in the cargo area without buying one of those gay little cigarette adapter things.

As far as safety goes, our Relay came with one free year of OnStar, including 30 free handsfree minutes with the built-in OnStar phone system.

Overall, I would say that expensive models like the Town & Country don't offer much more than the Relay, except maybe leather seats and other status-related amenities- in other words, stuff the average family doesn't care much about.

One drawback to the Relay is that the LATCH child restraint system is only in available in the middle row of the seats, so if you put your kids in the back (as I do), you'll have to install the car seat the old fashioned way, with a seatbelt and plenty of elbow grease.

Another drawback is that because the Relay is a new model for Saturn, the service technicians aren't quite up to speed on all the kinks. For example, I had to drive all the way to Torrance on Monday because the "Low Oil Pressure" message kept appearing on the dashboard, only to be told after they kept the van all day that that is normal for the Relays, so long as it doesn't appear while the vehicle is in motion. The technician apologized for not telling me that from the get-go, saying that she is still "learning the Relays."

Finally, driving the Relay is kind of a strange driving experience. It is totally smooth and quiet inside. We never open the windows because the middle ones don't open and the back ones only crack, so it is always too hot to do anything but the AC. There are cupholders everywhere, and the boys are always asking me to put on The Backyardigans or SpongeBob.

I sort of miss bumping around in the Vue with all of the windows down and the sunroof open, the White Stripes blaring on the stereo, the boys putting their fingers up to the windows to feel the fresh air, hearing the sounds of trucks, sirens, horns, traffic, people. I like how the boys were always pointing stuff out to me- "a doggy!" "a cement mixer!" Now they are so far back from me in their little air-conditioned cocoon that I have to shout to ask Owen how his school day was.

Now, I'm not going to lie. There are a lot of GREAT things about having an entire row of seats separating you from your 2 and 4 year-olds, but in some ways I miss being close to them and having that good old experience of driving on the L.A. freeway on a hot, sunny day with the wind blowing in your hair, and no entertainment options except to look out the window and simply enjoy being in motion.

But the reality is, when you've got three kids, you just don't have room to do it any other way. You've GOT to have the mini-van, and I'm convinced that Kyle and I got a great one for a much lower price than the others out there.

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