When I was a college student in 2016, I flipped cars to make ends meet. I mean, I still flip cars now for extra cash. But then I really needed the money to supplement the crappy job I had leasing low-budget, poorly-rated apartments across town. So, after selling a 2004 Pontiac Vibe, I was back on the prowl for something else to turn around and sell. I found a Saturn Vue.
When I don’t have a flip car, I go back to “buy mode” as quickly as possible. For me, that means I’m near-fanatically searching social media and Craigslist (and lately Facebook Marketplace) for a deal. Like every-fifteen-minutes-I’m-refreshing-the-page fanatical.
Well, that fanaticism paid off one particular day.
I saw a listing for a 2009 Saturn Vue while I was pawing through listings in class. This particular car had just over 100,000 miles, and the owner was only asking $1,500. The seller said in the ad that the transmission was broken and needed replacement. These “Opel-Vues” can be somewhat problematic if you end up with the sweet-yet-sour 3.6-liter “high feature” DOHC V6. Those engines are known for stretching timing chains, and the six-speed automatic transmissions they’re mated to are also notoriously fragile. Replacement or repairs for either of those big items usually are worth more than the value of the car.
But the ad said “four-cylinder” which meant this Vue had the 2.4-liter four-cylinder that GM put in a lot of its sedans of the era. Granted, that engine also has its quirks and known issues. But the four-speed automatic that comes with it is generally considered a fairly solid unit. A quick search at my favorite used-part website (car-part.com) (not a paid product placement) showed that replacement transmissions were very cheap, in the range of around $300 for a gently used ‘box. Compare that to the six-speed auto in the V6 cars, which were listed for at least $2,000 for a used replacement with high mileage.
Not wanting to miss a deal, I told my professor I didn’t feel well. Did she believe me? Probably not, but I had enough of learning that day, so I walked out of class to meet the Vue seller. The car had only been listed for 90 minutes, but I didn’t want to take any chances that I would lose out on a score.
The car itself was in great shape – no large dents or scratches. There was some dirt, but nothing crazy, just some small stains on the seats from spilled drinks, and some pink glitter eyeshadow caked on the driver’s door sill. The tires were nearly new, and the rims had no scratches. The owner even had both keys and key fobs with factory remote start, and they worked.
The owner explained to me that the car would not start because “something inside the transmission had failed” and thus the car would need a new transmission. The owner didn’t feel comfortable with me attempting to start the vehicle, either. In the glovebox, an invoice from a local GMC/Buick dealer stated that the vehicle had an “input shaft failure,” which meant that the transmission would indeed need to be replaced. Fair enough.
The man said he inherited the car from an elderly family member, and his wife had been using it for the past couple of weeks to go back and forth to work. He said that his wife was “driving on the freeway, when it suddenly stopped accelerating and shut off.” The car was towed to the Buick/GMC dealer, where it was diagnosed with a faulty transmission, which came with a hefty repair bill of more than $4,000. Rather than pay to fix the car, they decided to replace the SUV, which they didn’t really like all that much, with a Honda Civic.
The Vue was in great shape, and his asking price seemed more than fair, so I gave him $1,500 and had the sensible SUV towed home.
I drafted up an initial pricing estimate, that looked something like this:
- Purchase Price: $1,500
- Tax, title, registration: $162.50
- Transmission: ~$500
- Labor: $500
- Detail: $120
- Total Invested: $2782.50
Kelly Blue Book value put the car at least $5,000, so my potential profit was around $2,200. That gave me plenty of wiggle room, in case something else was wrong with the car.
I usually wait for my mechanic to take everything apart before I send him replacement parts. So, I don’t send him a new engine or transmission until the old one has been removed from the car.
A few days after dropping the car off at his shop, I got a text from him.
“Hey, what did they say was wrong with the car? Did the guy say the car didn’t start, and that it needed a transmission?” he said.
“Uh, yeah,” I replied.
“Well, I put power to the battery, and the car started right up. No codes. The car sounds great, and the transmission is fine. The transmission pan is slightly dented, and the passenger side axle is broken. That’s why it won’t move,” he said.
What a stroke of luck! I should have played the lottery.
So, instead of paying more than $1,000 for a replacement transmission (including labor), I paid around a third of that for a replacement CV axle and transmission pan. After replacing the passenger side axle, transmission pan, and a bulging battery, the car was running. No coolant leaks, no oil or transmission leaks, or anything.
I read a lot of opinions about these cars when they were released back in 2008. This particular design was part of the brief design renaissance that attempted to synergize Saturn and GM’s European division of the time, Opel. This car was primarily developed to sell in Europe as the Opel or Vauxhall Antara. U.S. engineers reworked the car a bit, and then sold it in the U.S. as the Saturn Vue, or “VUE” as it was marketed for some reason. Also, when Saturn died in 2010, the car was reworked again and sold as a fleet-only special, the Chevrolet Captiva Sport.
I’ve always thought this design was very handsome – clean Euro lines paired with a logically laid-out, easy-to-use interior.
Driving the thing isn’t all that great, though. The four-cylinder is a bit overburdened. Although its 170ish horsepower output should be enough in theory, the Vue is actually kind of a heavy car. The four-speed automatic is smooth, but there are not enough gears to mask the lack of power. Also, the 2.4-liter is kind of reedy in its power delivery, lacking both low-end and mid-range torque. The car isn’t that comfortable either, with thin and hard seats. The Vue is very spacious though, with ample room in either row of seats. Trunk’s big, too.
I put more than a thousand miles on the car. That was mostly to ensure the transmission was fine, and the car was good enough to sell.
When the Vue was nearly done, I had just spent $120 for a dealership-level detail. The car looked beautiful – I felt like I could easily reach at least $5,000 I wanted. Until one day, I tried to unlock the car, and only two doors would unlock.
“Hm, did I hit the button wrong?” I thought.
I tried to unlock the car again. This time, only one door would unlock with the fob.
Well, turns out three of the door lock actuators decided to fail at once. What are the odds that three of the same part would fail at once? I tried to troubleshoot; maybe it was a bad “master switch,” or bad key fob battery. Nope, three of the door lock actuators decided to take a dump, all at once. I couldn’t be that upset – I was already way ahead since I didn’t have to replace that entire transmission.
Still, the new price estimate looked like this:
- Purchase Price: $1,500
- Tax, title, registration: $162.50
- Axle, transmission pan, including labor – $360
- Battery: $100
- Detail: $100
- Replacement door lock actuators, including labor: $325
- Invested: $2,547.50
The Verdict And Sale
After detailing, the Vue looked great. Honestly, probably too great. Every person who came to look at it, couldn’t find anything to nitpick on it. And because there wasn’t much to nitpick, I had no reason to lower the asking price from $5,500.
Well, I quickly learned that although the car was definitely worth $5,500, local private-seller buyers were running out of energy at around $4,000. Before the Vue, most of the cars I sold never went more than $4,000, with one car being an exception – a Pontiac Vibe I sold for $4,250. No one could afford my Vue. In my neighborhood, people want to finance a car like that. More than a handful of people interested in it asked if I would take payments, or if I offered financing. Sorry, but I’m just one lone guy buying and selling as a hobby. I’m not a bank, unfortunately.
The VUE was listed for over a month before I found a buyer. In that month, I packed on more than 1,000 miles, took it on outings with friends, and even went apple picking in it. Eventually, a young family offered me $5,000, less than my asking price, but I was happy to be rid of it.
Total Profit: $2,452.50
This was my most profitable flip to date. It also showed me the value of being timely, being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, that fanaticism will pay off.