Crossover utility vehicles continue to pour onto the market, giving Americans an array of choices of these popular new family haulers.
The Saturn Outlook was introduced two years ago as one of a new family of large crossovers from General Motors Corp. that now totals four models, including the Chevrolet Traverse, which has been added for 2009.
Others in the group are the GMC Acadia, which arrived in 2007 about the same time as the Outlook, and the Buick Enclave, which made its debut for 2008.
All are built on GM's new Lambda vehicle architecture, which originally was intended to be the basis for the next generation of GM minivans. Because minivans are stagnating in the market, the automaker chose instead to develop the Lambda vehicles as crossovers, the fastest-growing market segment.
The Outlook is the second sport utility in the Saturn lineup; the other is the compact Vue, which was redesigned last year and includes a gasoline-electric hybrid version.
Our test vehicle was the uplevel Outlook XR all-wheel-drive version (base price $36,145 plus $735 freight).
The Outlook offers seating for up to eight people, and GM believes that many consumers who might have considered buying a minivan in the past will choose these vehicles instead.
Ours had the optional seven-passenger configuration, which includes two captain's chairs each in the first and second rows, and a three-person bench seat in the third row.
Unlike most of the Outlook's competitors, there is ample room for three adults in the third row, and behind that seat there is nearly 20 cubic feet of cargo space - about the size of the trunk of a large sedan. In some crossovers with three rows, there's hardly room for a good grocery run in the cargo area.
The Outlook is offered with a choice of two versions of GM's 3.6-liter V-6 engine with variable valve timing, which the automaker says has been designed to deliver optimum fuel economy with low emissions and "exceptional smoothness."
The entry-level XE model (base price $30,320) comes with a single exhaust outlet, and in that model, the engine is rated at 281 horsepower and 253 foot-pounds of torque.
On the uplevel XR, though, the addition of a second exhaust outlet raises the engine's ratings to 288 horsepower and 270 foot-pounds of torque, the same as the Acadia, Traverse and Enclave.
In both Saturn models, the engine is connected to a six-speed automatic transmission.
Both are offered with either front- or all-wheel drive. There is a $2,000 premium for all-wheel drive. In the Outlook, the XE model with all-wheel drive begins at $32,320.
EPA fuel-economy ratings are 17 miles per gallon city/24 highway for the front-wheel-drive models, and 16/23 for the all-wheel drives.
Rather than the traditional body-on-frame truck-style SUV arrangement, the Outlook is built on a "body-frame integral" structure reinforced with high-strength steel, GM says. That's another way of saying that it has unibody construction, the hallmark of crossover utility vehicles, in which body and frame are one.
The Outlook has a long wheelbase with a wide track, something that also is common with sport utilities these days. This helps give the vehicles more stability and lessens the possibility of a rollover.
Truck-based models will remain the choice of off-road driving aficionados. Most crossovers, including the Outlook, have limited off-road capabilities, although they are able to handle many of the dirt roads that might be found in national and state parks.
Besides having lower ground clearance, crossovers such as the Outlook aren't offered with serious four-wheel-drive systems that include low-range gearing.
The all-wheel drive is intended to give the vehicle increased traction on slippery roads, but it's also useful on dry pavement, particularly during cornering. The system is fully automatic and no driver action is required to activate it.
Outlook's front suspension includes McPherson struts, a stabilizer bar and aluminum steering knuckles.
At the rear, the vehicle has a compact, linked 'H' suspension design. Suspension mounting points are isolated to help reduce noise and vibration. This suspension setup goes a long way toward giving these vehicles a soft carlike ride, something you won't find on the truck-style SUVs.
Standard features include power rack-and-pinion steering, GM's StabiliTrak electronic stability control system with anti-rollover technology, and traction control.
Four-wheel antilock brakes are standard as well, as they work with the stability control system to help keep the vehicle on the road during panic maneuvers that might otherwise cause the vehicle to go out of control.
Among safety features, besides the stability-control system, are four-wheel anti-lock brakes, a tire-pressure monitoring system, and six standard air bags: two dual-stage frontal air bags, two seat-mounted side-impact air bags in the first row, and two roof rail air bags that cover all three rows of seating.
GM's OnStar navigation/communications system is standard, and includes a one-year subscription to the basic "safe and sound" package. Audible turn-by-turn navigation is available.
The Outlook can tow trailers weighing up to 5,200 pounds when equipped with the optional towing package.
The second row can be either a 60/40 split bench, which can hold three, or a pair of captain's chairs. GM's so-called Smart Slide feature on the second row allows the seat to move forward or rearward up to six inches to increase legroom for the rear or middle passengers, and to allow for easier access to the third row.
There is a maximum of 117 cubic feet of cargo space if the second and third seats are folded.
Standard or optional on the Outlook are such features as heated outside mirrors, three-zone heating/air conditioning, an intermittent rear wiper, ultrasonic parking assist, a power lift gate, an extended-range remote vehicle-starting system, heated windshield washer fluid, an oversized dual sunroof, a DVD entertainment system, a GPS-DVD navigation system, and a Bose surround-sound audio system.
Our XR all-wheel-drive model came with a convenience package ($1,370) that included a power tailgate, rear park assist, remote start, heated wiper fluid and a 115-volt power outlet. Other options on our vehicle included a Bose audio system ($860) and the middle-row captain's chairs ($495).
Total sticker was $39,605, including freight and options.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at 210-250-3236; firstname.lastname@example.org.
At a Glance:
2009 Saturn Outlook The package: Full-size, five-door, seven- or eight-passenger, front- or all-wheel-drive crossover utility vehicle.
Highlights: This is one of four large GM crossovers on the market based on the same architecture. The Outlook, which arrived for 2007 as Saturn's first full-size SUV, is quite carlike and comfortable, has plenty of power, and comes with a generous list of standard and optional features.
Disadvantages: No serious four-wheel-drive system offered for off-road use.
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6 (single exhaust); 3.6-liter V-6 (dual exhaust).
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.
Power/torque: 281 HP/253 foot-pounds; 288 HP/270 foot-pounds.
Electronic stability control: Standard.
Side air bags: Front seat-mounted; side-curtain, all three rows.
Length: 201.1 inches.
Curb weight range: 4,700-4,905 pounds.
Cargo volume: 19.7 cubic feet (behind third seat); 117 cubic feet (rear seats folded).
Trailer-towing capacity: 5,200 pounds.
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.
Fuel capacity/type: 22 gallons/unleaded regular.
EPA fuel economy: 17 city/24 highway (2WD); 16/23 (AWD).
Base price range: $30,320-$36,145 plus $735 freight.
Price as tested: $39,605, including freight and options (XR model, AWD).
On the Road rating: 8.8 (of a possible 10).
Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.