Just in time for all the backslapping of a brand new model year, a quick toast to GM for doing something we once thought impossible: They made an Aztek appealing.

Don't drop your glass, or your jaw.

All new for '02, the Rendezvous doesn't exactly look like the Pontiac Aztek, and it doesn't lull you to sleep like a Buick - even though it's a rough model of the Aztek built by Buick.

You remember the unveiling of the Aztek, don't you? Pontiac, despite its heavy push in the incentive game (and its giveaway as a grand prize on "Survivor 2") would probably rather forget its last attempt at cross-pollination - the high-stakes game of melding car-like drives with high-in-the-saddle rides.

Strike one, GM. The Aztek's sales numbers were as ugly as its back end and funky design, a mix that turned off more buyers than it turned on and had GM rethinking, and redrawing, barely a few months into its release.

Given a second crack, Buick's Rendezvous comes out swinging - a hybrid that's not hiding from jokes.

Call it the crossroads of crossover cars - an SUV souffle of one part minivan, one part sport-ute, a little sedan. Serves seven.

Car companies apparently just can't stop trying to satisfy. Just when you thought you'd seen the high point of crossover fever - neither a car, truck nor minivan - along comes a ride that is destined to be everyone's pal. It's roomy, rugged, sporty and solid. Left anyone out?

Like the Aztek, its distant, people-hauling cousin, the near-luxury Rendezvous is based on the GM minivan platform, except it's nothing like its predecessor. It shares the platform, but not much else. That's a good thing.

The Rendezvous is a stylish, sophisticated trip into modern suburbia. It's actually also a slightly longer Aztek with a living room-like third seat, it accommodates up to seven nicely and has the most interior room when compared to non-minivan competitors. And it's not a bad price, especially as a base.

Available in the base CX, or the upscale CXL, the front-wheel-drive Rendezvous starts at $25,499, a modest sum these days for all you get. And what do you get in this steroid-induced Buick?

For starters, you don't get a typical Buick.

In all fairness, for years Buick has been known as the lumbar wagon of luxury - a perfect ride for a Sunday afternoon with a carton of eggs and a Muzak CD - and not exactly the first name you associate with performance. After all, the average Buick buyer is about 65 years old.

Consider the Rendezvous a reconnection with a more youthful, dare we say, wilder side? That's if you can call a crossover without a low-range transfer case for off-roading a wild ride. And if you can call the Aztek engine that is used in the Rendezvous a wild powerplant. Actually, in that way, the phrase doesn't quite fit. Both share the same 3.4-liter V6 engine rated at 185 horsepower and 210 foot-pounds of torque and in that way both still fall short - less pull, more drag for a coupl e of vehicles that drive heavy (about two tons).

But that's where the similarities end. The Rendezvous gets a spruced up suspension (another plus) tweaked more to make it ride like a LeSabre instead of a truck, especially with a smooth independent rear suspension in the base and upscale models. And the Rendezvous gets a stretch of about 4.2 inches, all-new interior materials and no exterior sheet metal similarities.

Inside, it's all Buick. The Rendezvous is smoother, classier and more well-rounded than the Aztek, a true Buick with cloth seating in the base model and smooth leather in the CLX. The dash has been created from scratch and carries a nicely-muted two-tone with attractive, analog gauges that are big and round, platinum-colored and easy to read. They remind you you're not roughing it, even if you still can.

A couple of tucks and folds and the Rendezvous' second-row seats are removable or flip against the front seats to create extra cargo room. Buick's made it easy opt between a three-passenger, split-bench seat or two captain's chairs - which limits total passengers to six, but still with room for extras.

And there's plenty of room all over the place - lots of cargo bins and storage spaces, including a center console that can swallow a laptop computer - and the third-row seat that is a real third-row seat. And it even folds forward with a flip of the lever. Very versatile.

One drawback: If you keep the third row in, you lose a lot of cargo room - not a good thing when you're hauling six or seven people and their stuff.

So what do you get for $25,000? Try a solid standard list, including rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and front and side airbags. There are even some added extra touches, like side windows that have been lowered to keep little ones in the back from getting car sick.

And it's a ride that will conjure more images of soccer-mobiles than SUVs. The Rendezvous is at its best on the open road, where it's stable. But rough surfaces trigger a jiggly wheel bouncing. At its worst, it gives a lot of bounce over potholes and railroad tracks. Steering is on par with GM's minivans, more vague than tack-sharp and body sway and lean is sometimes excessive.

The biggest drawback might be the powerplant. No secret here. The V-6 engine is the same one that powers GM's minivans, and it comes with a few shortcomings. There's good fuel economy (about 18 mpg city/26 highway), towing capacity and quick throttle acceleration, but the highway was not one of our favorite places with the Rendezvous. Stomp on it and it whines and wails. Search for power and it strains to get you moving right away.

Price is another issue. Although the base (five person) Rendezvous is a decent buy at $25,000, pump up to the all-wheel-drive version and you are into the mid-27s. Check out the top- end luxury CLX and you're driving away $33,367 lighter - a lump sum that may push the target audience toward a Lexus for the same money.

But bottom line, what Rendezvous gives you is a spiced-up luxury car with lots of space for lots of different things - people, cargo, etc. - and the ability to battle bad weather with all-wheel drive.

Not to mention it makes that Aztek a distant memory.

That's priceless.

Jason Stein's column appears every Monday in Business. Each review is based on a one-week test of a vehicle supplied directly from the manufacturer. Jason can be reached by email at jstein@jg.net.


Rating: 3

High Gear: With the utility of a minivan and the security and look of an SUV, the Rendezvous is Buick's contribution to the all-everything market. It holds as many as seven, comes available with all-wheel drive and a list of standard features that will compete well in the near-luxury market.

Low Gear: The third-row seat is great but, when installed, doesn't do much for cargo space. The V6 engine is a GM sta ndard and doesn't bode well for highway merging. The liftgate is also heavy and (annoyingly) locks every time it closes.

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel-drive, front engine, four-door, six- or seven-passenger sport-utility vehicle.

Standard equipment (CX): Four-speed automatic transmission; dual front airbags; front side airbags; antilock, four-wheel disc brakes; air conditioning; tilt, power steering; cruise control; second-row split-folding rear seat; power mirrors, windows and locks; remote keyless entry; AM/FM/CD player; automatic headlights; theft-deterrent system; roof rails.

Competition: Competition: Lexus RX300, Acura MDX, Oldsmobile Bravada, Mercury Mountaineer

Engine: 185 horsepower, 3.4-liter V6

Torque: 210 foot-lbs. @ 4,000 rpm

Wheelbase: 112.2 inches

Length: 186.5 inches

MPG rating: 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway

Manufactured: Mexico

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 mils ody corrosion is six years/100,000 miles and roadside is three years/36,000 miles.

Base price (CX): $24,924

Price as tested (CLX, including options, destination and delivery): $34,042