Here's a good choice for those who want a sport utility vehicle that is both affordable to buy and to operate.

It's Pontiac's first SUV, the compact Torrent, which was introduced just last year. With EPA fuel-economy ratings of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway (for the front-wheel-drive model), this crossover is a good alternative to the larger, truck-based SUVs whose fuel economy ratings are stuck mostly in the mid-teens. The Torrent ($23,000, including freight, for front-drive models and $24,510 for all-wheel drive) was the replacement in Pontiac's lineup for the Aztek, which was a crossover SUV that never caught on with consumers.

A bit ahead of its time, the Aztek probably would do better in today's market where crossover sales are outpacing those of traditional SUVs.

But probably where the Aztek failed was in its styling, which many people thought was just plain ugly. Ironically, underneath was a very good car, but only stalwart consumers saw past the car's looks. Those who did, and who actually bought the Aztek, liked it just fine.

Replacing it with the Torrent, though, was a no-brainer. This is a nice compact SUV that offers decent exterior styling, along with a well-designed interior and the utility of an SUV, especially when equipped with the optional 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 while this vehicle is new to the Pontiac line, it's not new to General Motors. It's a version of the Chevrolet Equinox, which was introduced two years ago, and the Saturn Vue, which debuted four years ago.

While the Torrent and Equinox look a lot alike, the Vue - although on the same chassis -- is quite different (including its Honda V-6 engine). Another big difference is that for 2007, Saturn offers a gasoline-electric hybrid model, the Vue Green Line, which is not available in the Torrent or Equinox models.

All three of these compact sport utilities are designed to be competitors to the popular Ford Escape and its Mercury clone, the Mariner. Both of those are now offered in hybrid models as well as traditional gasoline-engine versions.

As gasoline prices stay above $2 a gallon, and continue to inch higher, the Torrent will have a good chance of becoming a star in the Pontiac lineup. Having decent fuel economy for an SUV is a real plus - even the all-wheel-drive model achieves ratings of 18 city/25 highway.

Powering the Torrent is the same 3.4-liter V-6 engine used in the Equinox. It has 185 horsepower and 210 foot-pounds of torque, so it's quite peppy for a small sport utility such as this.

There is no four-cylinder version of the Torrent or Equinox. The Vue does come in a four-cylinder model, with even better fuel economy (23 city/28 highway), but most consumers opt for the 248-horsepower Honda V-6 that is exclusive to the Vue.

The Torrent's V-6 engine is connect to a smooth-shifting five-speed automatic transmission; no manual gearbox is offered (again, a departure from the Vue, which offers a five-speed manual with the four-cylinder engine).

Its relatively low weight (for an SUV) of just 3,660 pounds in base form helps the Torrent achieve its decent fuel economy. That's nearly 1,000 pounds less than the base Chevrolet TrailBlazer and Ford Explorer.

It takes more fuel to push a heavier vehicle down the road. Taking weight out of a vehicle gives it better fuel economy, but that's hard to do with a huge SUV. That's why the compact SUVs like the Torrent are still selling well even as overall sport utility sales have fallen.

Even with the low weight, though, the Torrent is one of the roomiest vehicles in its class. Pontiac says it offers segment-leading 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.

It has 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.

And 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 the widest rear door openings in their segment, making entry and exit easier, GM says.

Torrents come with a specially tuned four-wheel independent suspension system that allows for the utility and capability of an SUV without sacrificing the precision handling characteristics normally associated with a performance car," GM says.

It's as easier to handle than most truck-based SUVs, thanks to its origins. It's a car-based crossover, with unibody construction (integrated body and frame), rather than having a body-on-frame arrangement like traditional truck-based SUVs.

Such a setup gives the Torrent carlike ride and handling, although the driver still must keep in mind that this is a sport utility vehicle with a higher profile and center of gravity than a car. It still can't be driven around curves as fast as a low-slung car.

Among standard features are power door locks with remote keyless entry, power windows, air conditioning, rear liftgate with defogger and washer/wiper, AM/FM/compact-disc stereo with six speakers, 16-inch aluminum wheels, four-channel antilock brakes and traction control on front-drive models (antilock brakes on all-wheel-drive versions), luggage rack, projector-beam fog lights, electric power steering, 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.

Optional are side-curtain air bags, but they are worth the extra money - they help protect the occupants in the event of a rollover..

Other options include leather-trimmed seats and steering wheel, heated driver and front passenger seats (for cloth and leather seats), six-way power-adjustable driver's seat, 17-inch aluminum wheels, CD/MP3 stereo with six-disc CD changer and subwoofer, steering-wheel radio controls, power sunroof, multi-tier rear cargo system, cruise control, OnStar and XM satellite radio.

Included on our test vehicle, the front-drive model, were three options packages:

The "Preferred" package ($1,750) added the power driver's seat, deep-tinted glass, premium cloth upholstery, cruise control, self-dimming rearview mirror with compass and outside-temperature readout, the steering-wheel audio controls, luggage-rack crossbars, leather-wrapped steering wheel, carpeted floor mats, and a cargo convenience net The "Sun and Sound" package" ($1,455) brought a tilt/sliding sunroof, as well as an upgraded Pioneer seven-speaker stereo with six-disc in-dash CD player, subwoofer and amplifier. And the "Security" package" ($1,090) gave us those side-curtain air bags an OnStar with one year of service.

Other extras on our tester included XM satellite radio ($199) and 17-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires ($295).

Options totaled $4,924, bringing the total sticker on our car to $27,924, including freight.

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.

At a Glance: 2007 Pontiac Torrent

The package: Compact, five-passenger, four-door, front- or all-wheel-drive, V-6 powered sport utility vehicle. Highlights: This is Pontiac's first compact SUV, designed to battle the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner. It debuted last year, and is based on the chassis architecture of the Chevrolet Equinox and Saturn Vue. It's stylish, roomy and adequately powered. Negatives: Only one engine offered; no base model with four-cylinder engine and manual gearbox for those on a budget. Engine: 3.4-liter V-6. Transmission: Five-speed automatic. Power/torque: 185 hp/210 foot-pounds. Brakes, front/rear: Disc/drum, 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: 19 miles per gallon city/26 highway (front drive); 18 city/25 highway (AWD). Fuel capacity/type: 16.6 gallons/regular unleaded. Base prices: $23,000, including $615 freight (2WD); $24,510 (AWD). Price as tested: $27,924 (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 Xterra, Saturn Vue, Mitsubishi Outlander, Subaru Legacy Outback, Suzuki Grand Vitara. On the Road rating: 7.8 (of a possible 10).