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"Well-designed inside and out, the new Outlook crossover may be the best vehicle that seats seven that GM has ever made"

The Saturn Outlook, General Motors (GM) hopes, will be one of four "trick" vehicles. The Outlook, along with the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, and a yet-to-be-named Chevrolet, are GM's full-sized crossover sport utility vehicles. Because they seat eight, GM is positioning the vehicles to replace two entire categories of vehicles—minivans and midsized sport utilities—for GM. That will be a neat trick.

The Outlook, priced from $27,255 and climbing to about $38,000 with entertainment and trim options, and going on sale at dealerships this month, is the first of the new SUV family to go on sale. The exterior design of the SUV is clean and inoffensive, if not sporty (and how many SUVs can claim sportiness?). The only really bad view is from the stern.

As I approached it in a parking lot, the Outlook appeared to have throw-pillows stuffed in its rear pockets. But that is a very minor niggle for an otherwise, dare I say it, sensational package. The design proportions from the side and quarter views are attractive and give the vehicle a confident stance. The 18-in. wheels are nicely pushed to the outer corners. The rocket-shaped headlamps are beautiful.

It's worth noting that GM sales and marketing chief Mark LaNeve says the company used the Honda Pilot as a benchmark for pricing and value. Indeed, the vehicles are priced side by side. But the Outlook is far and away a better package and performer than the Pilot. It's a bigger vehicle than the Honda (HMC), yet it gets better fuel economy courtesy of a new 3.6-liter V6 engine.

Saturn executives say they also looked at the Toyota (TM) Sequoia, Toyota Sienna, and Honda Odyssey for customers they hope to win over. That demonstrates how much GM feels it has spearheaded a new segment.

Behind the Wheel

The first thing that hits you about the Outlook when you open the door is a very classy, pristinely executed interior. The instrument panel looks as if it were fitted on Savile Row. The whole interior is clean and functional and full of the little niceties that change a customer's like to love. The cup-holders were perfectly set for small takeout coffee cups, as well as large ones. The dead pedal was engineered to comfortably accommodate a woman's high heel.

There is a latch on the inside of the rear hatch to easily tie the back-end closed if you have 12-ft. two by fours from Lowe's (LOW) hanging out. The lift-gate is electrically powered. The head restraints don't get in the way of the third-row seat folding flat. The center console has both a lighter outlet and an AC outlet for cell phones. The leather interior was top-grade and tailored for support.

No kidding. In my notebook, under "negatives," I didn't write anything. This can't be, I thought. Then I drove the Outlook. I was deeply suspicious of the transmission, which GM developed with Ford (F). Ford's version, in the new Ford Edge (see, 10/18/06, "First Drive: Ford's Edge"), wandered and wheezed during my drive. In the Outlook, it was smooth and silky. It goes to show how important software engineering is in today's vehicles.

And unlike the Edge, the Outlook comes with a sport mode to allow easy manual shifting. I was so surprised by my lack of criticism for this vehicle that later I called Jim Hall of AutoPacific, an auto industry consulting firm, who was on the drive with me. "Am I nuts? Is it that good?" Hall, never afraid to criticize, said, "Yeah, it is." Hall agreed it may be the best product execution GM has ever released in segments that sell over 100,000 a year.

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