boston.com   your connection to The Boston Globe

(General Motors Photo)

Outlook: Impressive

Saturn SUV surprises with performance, interior finish

I've been surprised four times by the recent redesign and redeployment of General Motors Corp.'s Saturn brand.

First, a sporty Saturn Sky arrived in my driveway looking like a beefed-up Mazda Miata, with a 177-horsepower engine. Then I rocketed around Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania in a turbocharged (260 horsepower) version of the same car.

I've have also been impressed by the Saturn Aura, the quality sedan voted North American Car of the Year.

And finally, there's today's test car, the 2007 Saturn Outlook XR AWD. Its performance, quality, and interior fit and finish are not usually associated with GM these days, except for the company's Cadillac line.

From the outside, the XR AWD is deceiving. It does not look like an SUV, or at least not like one large enough to comfortably carry seven or eight adults.

It does crouch low, as any modern SUV should, and it comes with a full compliment of standard safety equipment -- traction control, stability control, antilock brakes, front side impact air bags, and side curtain bags all the way back.

Remarkably, considering its bulk -- nearly 2 1/2 tons -- and the fact that it's all-wheel drive, the Outlook got decent mileage at 19.4 miles per gallon in Globe testing. That's not Toyota Prius mileage, but let's be realistic: there are a lot of SUVs on the road and if all of them got 19.4 miles per gallon we would save far more fuel than we do now from people switching to hybrid versions of gas-powered compacts.

The Saturn has a 3.6-liter V-6 that puts out 275 horsepower and 251 lb.-ft. of torque, more than enough for most needs, unless you need to tow a big boat or heavy horse trailer. By contrast, many big SUVs need V-8s to tug them.

The gas-conserving V-6 provided plenty of power to pull out and pass on the highway, for easing down entrance ramps and into the middle highway lane quickly, and for long slogs up hills.

The distinct Saturn front, with its rails-over-greenhouse body from the windshield back, does not look particularly dynamic or large. But inside, accommodations are as spacious as you'll find in cars this size. Part of what makes it so appealing is the easy access to the rear seats, accomplished by sliding middle seats.

But mostly I was impressed by the quality of the fit and finish. Like Cadillac, GM is equipping its Saturns with textured materials for the dash, doors, and even the windshield pillars. Gray slate atop the dash, bisected by wood strips in the XR model, gives way to textured tans below.

The center console stack includes easy-to-use audio, climate, and navigation controls. It also features slate that gives way to wood where the console meets the shifter.

The six-speed automatic transmission can be left on its own, although I found it shifting up too quickly and down too late. It can also be used manually with a flick of a button, giving the driver more specific control.

When engaged, the all-wheel-drive system shifts torque front to rear as needed to counter slippage it detects.

Sitting in this SUV, with its front section feeling like a cockpit, you'll feel as though you are driving something far smaller. Even on the highway it doesn't seem large, though the turning radius in parking lots was lacking.

After a week of testing and after considering the competition, including the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, and Acura RDX, I was left asking: This is a Saturn?

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.


(General Motors Photo)
SEARCH THE ARCHIVES