Decent fuel economy probably is the main reason that crossover utility vehicles such as the compact Pontiac Torrent are being snapped up by consumers, just as sales of traditional truck-based sport utilities decline.

The Torrent is among the best of the current crop of compacts, but because it comes only with V-6 engines, its EPA ratings are not quite as good as those of some competitors that offer a four-cylinder engine.

There is a choice of V-6 engines, however, and they give the consumer a choice between average and impressive power.

The base model, with a starting price just under $24,000 (including freight), comes with a 3.4-liter V-6 rated at 185 horsepower and 210 foot-pounds of torque.

New for 2008, however, is the GXP performance model (base price $27,995) comes with a 3.6-liter V-6 that cranks out 264 horsepower and 250 foot-pounds of torque, enough to push this vehicle from zero to 60 mph in about 6.9 seconds. That’s not quite sports car performance, but it’s impressive for an SUV.

Surprisingly, though, the more-powerful engine has nearly the same EPA mileage ratings as the smaller one – 16 miles per gallon city/24 highway vs. 17 city/24 highway.

If you take the price difference out of consideration, the GXP model seems to be the logical choice because you get significantly more power without sacrificing fuel economy.

The reason for the slight difference in city mileage is the transmissions. While the base model comes with a five-speed automatic, the GXP gets a six-speed automatic, which also has a manual-shift function for those who want to choose when the gears change. No real manual transmission is offered.

Even with the GXP’s extra power, the Torrent’s highway mileage is decent enough for family weekend and vacation outings, and the city rating certainly beats those of most larger SUVs, especially the ones built on truck chassis.

The Torrent is a near clone of the Chevrolet Equinox and Saturn Vue, and was the replacement in Pontiac’s lineup for the discontinued, ugly duckling Aztek, which had lots of utility, but never caught on with consumers because of its ungainly appearance.

Styling is one of the Torrent’s strong points. It’s sportier than either the Vue or Equinox, in keeping with Pontiac’s mission of offering more excitement in its vehicles, both in appearance and driving.

This is a nice compact SUV that offers a well-designed interior, as well. And for those who live in snow country, or who want the best performance even on dry pavement, the Torrent is offered with all-wheel drive.

It’s not an off-road vehicle, but the all-wheel-drive system is fine for foul-weather driving and light trail duty, and is great even on wet roads.

Our test vehicle, though, came with front-wheel drive, which is fine for most situations.

All three of these General Motors sport utilities are designed to compete against the popular Ford Escape and its Mercury clone, the Mariner, as well as against the two best-selling imports, the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Of that group, though, only the RAV4 V-6 model has power comparable to that of the Torrent GXP.

The Torrent’s relatively low weight of just 3,660 pounds in base form helps the vehicle achieve its decent fuel economy. That’s nearly 1,000 pounds less than the base Chevrolet TrailBlazer and Ford Explorer, both traditional truck-style SUVs.

Even though it doesn’t offer a third row of seating as the RAV4 and Mitsubishi Outlander do, the Torrent is one of the roomiest vehicles in its class. It offers ample legroom for rear-seat passengers. The rear seat is comfortable for two full-size adults, and a third can sit back there for a while without feeling too cramped.

The front bucket seats are about as comfortable as can be found on a compact sport utility, and as comfy as those of most midsize cars.

The vehicle also can be easily reconfigured for cargo hauling. The second seat is on rails and can be moved rearward to create the ample legroom, or it can be moved nearly a foot forward to increase the length of the cargo area.

There is a 60/40 split-folding feature for the rear seat. With the rear seat in place, the cargo area measures 32.2 cubic feet. Folded, the cargo area increases dramatically.

For even more room, the front passenger seat can be folded to accommodate longer cargo, such as skis and ski poles. Of course, you can take advantage of this feature only if you’ll be driving alone.

The rear seat also reclines, a rare feature in SUVs of this size or price. The Torrent and Equinox also have wide rear door openings, making entry and exit easier.

GXP models come with a special sport-tuned suspension not offered on the base model, and in our tester, the suspension performed well on some fun twisty roads. Steering was more precise and predictable than one would expect on a small SUV.

All Torrents come with four-wheel independent suspensions that GM says “allows for the utility and capability of an SUV without sacrificing the precision handling characteristics normally associated with a performance car.”

The carlike handling derives from the Torrent’s unibody design, which is why it’s considered a crossover. The unibody is an integrated body and frame, unlike the body-on-frame arrangement of the truck-based SUVs.

Among standard features on the GXP are power door locks with remote keyless entry and remote start, power windows, air conditioning, rear liftgate with defogger and washer/wiper, AM/FM/compact-disc stereo with six speakers and auxiliary input jack, 18-inch aluminum wheels, four-channel antilock brakes and traction control, electronic stability control, projector-beam fog lights, electric power steering, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel, dual front map lights, manual height adjustment for the driver’s seat, power fold-in outside mirrors, and dual-stage front air bags.

OnStar also is standard, with a year of basic service.

Optional are side-curtain air bags ($395, included on our vehicle), but they are worth the extra money – they help protect the occupants in the event of a rollover.

Our tester came with perforated leather seating inserts ($595); the Sun and Sound package ($1,480), which brought a power sunroof as well as an upgraded Pioneer seven-speaker stereo with six-disc in-dash CD player, subwoofer and amplifier; and XM satellite radio ($200).

The total sticker was $30,655, including freight.

At a Glance:

2008 Pontiac Torrent

The package: Compact, five-passenger, four-door, front- or all-wheel-drive, V-6 powered crossover utility vehicle.

Highlights: This is Pontiac’s first compact SUV, designed to battle the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner. It debuted for 2006, and is based on the same architecture as the Chevrolet Equinox and Saturn Vue. It’s stylish, roomy and adequately powered even in base form, but for 2008, the performance-oriented GXP model was added.

Negatives: There is no base model with four-cylinder engine and manual gearbox for those wanted better fuel economy and a lower price.

Engines: 3.4-liter V-6, 3.6-liter V-6.

Transmissions: Five-speed automatic (3.4); six-speed automatic (3.6).

Power/torque: 185 HP./210 foot-pounds (3.4); 264 HP./250 foot-pounds (3.6).

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Electronic stability control: Standard.

Length: 188.8 inches.

Base curb weight: 3,660 pounds (front drive); 3,776 (all-wheel drive).

Cargo capacity: 32.2 cubic feet (rear seat in place); 68.6 (rear seat folded).

Trailer-towing capacity: 3,500 pounds.

EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city/24 highway (3.4 engine); 16 city/24 highway (3.6).

Fuel capacity/type: 16.6 gallons/regular unleaded.

Base price range: $23,220-$29,445 plus $615 freight.

Price as tested: $30,665 (GXP front-drive model, including freight and options).

Major competitors: Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento, Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner/Mazda Tribute, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Honda Element, Chevrolet Equinox, Jeep Liberty, Nissan Rogue, Nissan Xterra, Saturn Vue, Mitsubishi Outlander, Subaru Outback, Suzuki Grand Vitara.

On the Road rating: 7.8 (of a possible 10).

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at chambers@star-telegram .com

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