Friday Fleet Notes: 05.25.07

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We’ve got a healthy list of staff reviews this week, as we’ve been flooded with some particularly interesting cars, such as the 2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel and a couple of new models from Saturn. Senior reviewer Joe Wiesenfelder gives his take on the Audi RS 4 and 2008 Saturn Vue that we recently posted full-length reviews of earlier this week.

2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel

I’m not sure who would buy this car. A florist in Malibu? A contractor in the Hamptons? Purely as a delivery skiff, it didn’t impress me. I hauled my mom and her luggage to the airport one morning, and the rubber floormats could’ve used some dividers to keep things from shifting around. We didn’t mess with the dual storage bins behind the front seats, but they seemed large enough to swallow a bag or two.

Not that anyone looking for serious storage would choose this. With a starting price north of $18,000, you could easily ramp up to a Dodge Caravan cargo van — it has more than double the room in back, and with the current discounts the outgoing 2007 model starts in the same price neighborhood.

Granted, the HHR panel has a higher cool factor than the Caravan, but some of its features have more style than substance. The two rear doors unlatch with the push of a dashboard button, but that requires you to climb up front first. I wish the buttons had made it onto the key fob, or — imagine this — Chevy had left the handles on the back doors. The paneled windows, meanwhile, make for a wicked blind spot. My advice: Change lanes reeeaaal slow.

  • Kelsey Mays, assistant editor

To play the part of wise old man, or perhaps old wiseass, I’ll give what’s probably a different perspective on the HHR Panel — ignoring the obvious question about whether this model was worth Chevy’s effort at all. Anyone considering buying this has accepted its styling and the fact that it’s a two-seat cargo carrier. If you get this far, then it’s not bad at all. If you’ve ever driven a full-size panel van, this one’s limited rear visibility isn’t extraordinary; it’s part of the deal.

And though it’s not a quiet car overall, it doesn’t have the booming or echo of the old-style cargo van. The rear side doors bug me, though. Perhaps the goal was a clean side with no handles; if so, they should have put release buttons on the keyless transmitter. It also looks like a lot of cargo volume is wasted under the front section of the load floor where a backseat would be. There are two lockable storage compartments up top, but they’re too shallow to explain the deep bulkhead.

  • Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor

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2007 Cadillac SRX

My first car, back in 1995, was a high-riding, truck-like Ford Explorer that I loved, so I’ve always been slow to warm up to luxury crossovers, with their lower stance and cushy amenities. The Cadillac SRX, however, has made me reconsider this attitude.

The first thing I noticed about the 2007 SRX was the comfortable driver’s seat. The side bolsters on the seatback were supportive and snug, whereas in some SUVs I feel as if my 5-foot-4-inch frame is overwhelmed by the roomy interior. In fact, my sole complaint about the sleek, updated interior of the SRX is that the center armrest was placed too far back for me to reach with more than a little bit of my elbow.

I was fortunate enough to drive the SRX on a warm sunny day, so I took advantage of its enormous sunroof that extends over the backseat. It’s going to be tough for me to go back to my car and its puny, regular-sized sunroof. It also includes a power sunshade, which was a nice touch.

The car offered a smooth ride, and the V-6 seemed perfectly adequate both on and off the highway. As I suspected, though, the thick rear pillar made it extremely difficult to check the blind spot on the driver’s side.

  • Amanda Wegrzyn, Advice editor

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2007 Hyundai Tiburon V-6

This car is the opposite of the Volkswagen GTI. That car insulates you so well you have no idea how fast you’re really going. The Tiburon sounds like you’re going 100 mph even when you’re really not. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly fast, or even light and toss-able (like a Mini Cooper) — it’s more of a cruiser. As such, it was comfortable over some pretty rough Chicago roads.

The manual shift had OK (for a press car) shifts, with short-ish throws. The pedals were nicely spaced, even for my large feet, and visibility was OK for being such a low-slung car. I really enjoyed the exhaust note: Deep, but not flatulent in that “I’m-a-boy-racer-and-I-don’t-know-how-to-tune-exhaust-systems” sort of way. Also, the steering didn’t feel overly boosted to me — nice.

Aside from the fact that I don’t think it’s as quick as others in its $23,000 price range, the other issue is that it doesn’t suit taller drivers so well. Ours had a sunroof, but even without one the Tiburon would force a more laid-back, arms-straight-out seating position than I’d prefer.

Even so, it was wide enough to hold two large, 6-foot-plus guys while still allowing for gearshifts that didn’t result in the dreaded “driver-guy’s-hand-hits-passenger-guy’s-leg” syndrome.

It’s not the type of car I look for, but after several hours of both highway and stop-and-go driving, I left happy, and that’s more than I can say for some cars I’ve been in.

  • Bill Jackson, Buying Guides editor

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2007 Saturn Outlook XR AWD

I got a jump on the Memorial Day weekend driving ritual with a trip earlier this week from Chicago to Detroit and back in Saturn’s all-new eight-seat Outlook. The jaunt across southern Michigan gave me an opportunity to observe the full-size crossover’s long-haul fuel economy, which, analyzed over a 350-mile portion of the trip, was about 20 mpg. That’s lower than the EPA’s highway estimate of 24 mpg for the all-wheel-drive Outlook, but bear in mind that most of the highway driving was at a brisk 75 mph with the air conditioning on and a strong headwind at times. Slow the pace a bit, and the EPA estimate seems within reach.

What else did I learn on the nearly 600-mile trip, other than the fact that Interstate 94 is packed with semi-trucks during the workweek? The Outlook’s carlike steering is responsive and precise, and the suspension effectively damps rough spots in the road to give you a smooth ride. It’s also quiet inside, and the front leather seats proved comfortable even if they were a bit soft and lumpy.

Small annoyances did crop up. The buttons for the dual-zone automatic air conditioning are tiny and located low on the dash, and the power-steering system makes a low-pitched whine at slow speeds and all the way on up to 50 mph or so. Also, the crossover’s gearing is such that when using the cruise control, the six-speed automatic transmission downshifts at slight inclines to maintain the set speed. Still, I’d take the Outlook for another long drive without hesitation, especially if I had a few passengers in tow.

  • Mike Hanley, reviewer

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2008 Saturn Vue

What I can’t get over is how freakin’ nice this thing is … in decked-out XR form, at least. Everyone I showed it to was impressed and — let’s just say it — shocked. Weighing hundreds of pounds more than the competition, though, the Vue’s gas mileage is likely to be disappointing.

One major problem I experienced was torque steer — where the powered front wheels (ours lacked AWD) jerk the steering wheel when you accelerate hard. Granted, all powerful FWD cars have some degree of this, but most minimize it or at least employ traction control to keep the car going straight. Our Vue, though it had traction control, would jerk the wheel considerably to one side and keep it there (if I didn’t control it) throughout hard acceleration, sustaining a turn.

I’m glad to see the electric power steering (which GM never got right in any car) replaced, but something’s not right with our test car. We’ll see if anyone else experiences it….

  • Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor

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2007 Audi RS 4

Here, the leading question seems to be: Why would someone buy this instead of an S6? To me the answer is simple. Some people value performance over size. For that matter, one could argue that the A4’s smaller size plays a part in the S4 and RS 4’s appeal. The S6 is my favorite S, but it’s a larger car and can’t help but feel that way.

Mike nailed it in his review when he noted how fun it is in normal driving. Even though the torque peak comes high on the rev range, there’s more than enough from the big V-8 for invigorating launches. I particularly like how understated the RS 4 can look if you choose (that would rule out our test car’s yellow paint and some of the optional “flair” that can be added). Granted, it costs twice as much, but for certain buyers the RS 4 is a substitute for the likes of the Subaru WRX STi, which is big fun but too silly-looking for someone who wants to look like a grownup — or simply to go stealth.

  • Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor

2007 Audi RS4 Expert Review (
2008 Saturn Vue Expert Review (
2007 Saturn Outlook Expert Review (
The Urban DINK: 2007 Audi RS4 (KickingTires)

Photo of David Thomas
Former managing editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David Thomas

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