The anti-SUV, anti-minivan utility vehicle By Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor Date posted: 12-11-2006 Standard three-row seating - 3.6-liter 275-hp V6 - $30,290 base price General Motors thinks its newest crossover, this 2007 Saturn Outlook, is the next big thing: the anti-SUV, anti-minivan utility vehicle. Although we're not so sure every mom in America is going to trade in her Hummer H2 for an '07 Outlook, we do think this full-size up-to-eight-passenger vehicle is the closest any automaker has come to creating the ideal crossover. Here's why. Unlike some crossovers, the 2007 Saturn Outlook, which is already on sale, is not based on an existing car, truck or minivan platform. Instead General Motors used its brand-new Lambda unibody platform to underpin the Outlook and its two sister trucks, the 2008 GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave. Because the Outlook was designed and engineered from the outset as its own kind of people mover, it doesn't display any of the intrinsic short cuts or bandages that other crossovers usually do. Cramped built-from-a-car seating, trucky body-on-frame drivability and compromised cargo proportions are not part of the Outlook's repertoire. Instead, to really get the best of all worlds, it has a truly useful package, reasonable fuel economy and pleasing dynamics at a realistic price. Open range Despite what you might think, there's still more cargo room than this photo shows — 69 cubic feet with the second-row seats still up. The 2007 Saturn Outlook is offered in two variants, XE and XR, either of which is available with front- or all-wheel drive. A wide range of prices reflects the Outlook's array, from $27,990 for a base-model XE FWD up to almost $44,000 for an absolutely loaded XR AWD with all the family-friendly amenities you could imagine. Every Outlook includes three rows of seating, the second and third rows of which fold flat easily for a whopping 117 cubic feet of total cargo room. Also standard is GM's highly flexible 3.6-liter DOHC V6, tuned to either 270 horsepower in single-exhaust XE form or 275 hp in the dual-exhaust XR models. Three-row side curtain airbags, traction and stability control, rollover sensing system, tire-pressure monitoring and OnStar Generation 7 (with one free year of the Safe and Sound plan), which features a crash-notification and 911 dispatch system, are also standard equipment. Our front-wheel-drive Outlook XR test vehicle was fitted with $4,509 in worthwhile extras, which increased its $30,290 base price to $34,799. Not inexpensive, but we think it represents an acceptable combination of essential options (leather, second-row captain's chairs, power liftgate and upgraded audio, among others) for a realistic price. If you fancy navigation, rear-seat DVD entertainment, twin glass-panel moonroofs (only the front one slides) or HID headlamps, they're available. Yoga flexibility The Outlook's driving position and good ergonomic qualities are enhanced by its attractive interior and admirable material choices. The real story is inside the Outlook. All three rows of seating are suitable for adults, which comes in handy when the grandparents are in town. It's not perfect, though. Head- and legroom are generous, but that third row is dimensionally wide enough only for two rather than three. Third-row access is also class-leading. With the pull of one obvious lever, either of the captain's chairs (or 64/40-split bench halves), tilt, slide and sandwich up against the first-row seats. Combined with the low floor (relative to SUVs but not minivans), the result is easy access to the rearmost seats, even for those grandparents. With all seats occupied, the 20 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the third row is quite useful because the almost vertical rear glass doesn't slope into the space. We're not sure if that supplied figure includes the Outlook's modest underfloor storage (which we actually used in a pinch for space), but suffice it to say that it's larger and more easily accessible than a car's trunk. When not in use, the third row stows flat to offer 69 cubic feet of volume behind the second row, and we found that our tester's optional captain's chairs allowed second-row passengers to simply reach between their seats, rather than over a bench, to grab items in the cargo area. When all seats are folded flat, the 117-cubic-foot cargo-carrying ability of the Outlook is ginormous — even greater than the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe's 109 cubic feet. In fact, each of the seating configurations' corresponding cargo volumes is greater than a Tahoe's despite exterior dimensions that are within inches of one another. The one measure where the Outlook falls short of the Tahoe is in overall height, where the Outlook is about 4 inches lower because it's not a body-on-frame vehicle. Interior faults The front-seat passenger has access to this small footwell pocket. We can't quite determine what might fit in there, though. As spacious as it is, we have a couple gripes with the Outlook's interior, but they're minor. Most of the important switches are Playskool simple, but some of the high-frequency-use buttons on the dash and center console are identical to the touch, too small, and sometimes not in a place where the driver's hand or eyes easily find them. Both the audio and climate controls are guilty of this foible. Also, the now-ubiquitous GM trip/vehicle configuration buttons are obscured by a spoke on the steering wheel. Finally, there's a shortage of medium-sized storage locations. Yes, the center armrest opens to reveal a coal mine-deep dark cavern, but utilizing the provided divider cuts off its easy access. All of the door pockets are curiously small and oddly shaped for such large doors. Perhaps as a consolation, there is a dash-top bin, but we'd be reluctant to put anything but heat-resistant goods in there. There is a personal audio player slot in the base of the center console and that's about it for a vehicle with the interior scale of a Tahoe. Performance testing With a body like this, nobody will ever suspect you're really driving a terrific minivan. Dynamically, the Outlook offers performance comparable to any competitive minivan, and that's a good thing — considering our XR's seven-passenger capacity and porky 4,723-pound test weight. The front-drive Outlook demonstrated ample giddy-up with a run to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 16.6 seconds at 84.5 mph. We appreciated the engine's variable-valve timing for its ability to offer a good shove of torque in the low-rpm range and found the high-revving characteristics and double-overhead cams provided a surprisingly sporty engine note — a welcome surprise. We were also very pleased with the Outlook's six-speed automatic transmission. Forgive the unsolicited comparison to the Ford Edge, but the pair's similar hardware and dissimilar software compelled us. Like the Edge, the Outlook offers only two forward gear selections: D and L. However, unlike the Edge, the Outlook also allows manual up/down shifting with a thumb rocker switch on the shift lever itself. That may seem like a small detail, but an important one to us. Not only does the Outlook offer the option of bypassing the electronic transmission's frugal brain with manual shifting, it also does a much better job of knowing how and when to downshift according to the driver's desire — at about 20 percent throttle application rather than the 50-75 percent we observed in the Edge. Like many modern people movers, the Outlook has a standard (non-defeat) stability control system. Yet even with its safety handcuffs firmly tightened, the Outlook provides lively, precise, rack-and-pinion steering up to the 57-mph slalom-test limit. On the skid pad, the story is similar, with a modest 0.72g lateral acceleration figure. These handling numbers are surprisingly close to those of a similarly sized Mercedes-Benz GL450, but we'd also point out that the $55,000 V8-powered Benz is quite a bit quicker and much thirstier. The Outlook's four-wheel ventilated-disc brakes offered excellent feel, feedback and heat resistance. Despite the Outlook's high curb weight, we recorded three ABS stops from 60 mph in under 140 feet, with the best being 135 feet. In the real world The 3.6-liter V6 in the Outlook makes 275 hp in our XR, or 270 hp in the base XE. Combined with a pretty smart and frugal six-speed automatic, it'll earn more than 20 mpg on the highway In everyday driving, away from the computerized test gear, most people would say the Outlook was "a good driver," even when loaded to near capacity. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, one staffer drove his family more than 500 miles in the Outlook and reported, "The ride was as supple as a luxury SUV's, the acceleration more than ample for merging and passing and the fuel economy was far better than expected." Rated at 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, our Outlook returned a best-tank fuel economy of 19 mpg and an overall week's average of 15.5 mpg. Try that in a V8-powered three-row SUV. Trust us, it won't come close. Maxivan Unlike some of the primordial crossovers, like the Chrysler Pacifica and Ford Freestyle, the Outlook effectively delivers all the goodness of a minivan — price range, seating flexibility, fuel economy, standard safety and available options — with the SUV looks so many minivan-averse families are seeking. Unless you really need a true off-roader, or have to tow more than the Outlook's 4,500-pound rating, this Saturn is also the perfect alternative to a traditional truck-based SUV like the Ford Expedition or Chevy Tahoe. General Motors might be about a decade late with its V6-powered, SUV-silhouetted, unibody people hauler, but GM got it right. The full-size 2007 Saturn Outlook really is the world's first anti-SUV, anti-minivan utility vehicle, and it just might be the next big thing. MSRP of Test Vehicle: $34,799 What Works: Supple ride and steering; interior size and configurability; attractive styling inside and out. What Needs Work: A couple interior design details lack the thoughtfulness displayed in the rest of the vehicle. Bottom Line: As a seven-to-eight-passenger people mover with rugged good looks and continental cargo capability, the Outlook is a success. It just might be the next big thing.