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Note: This December 2006 review refers to hesitation in the Outlook's acceleration that I deemed a deal-breaker — a sentiment later reinforced by several visitors who had test-driven the model. Saturn has addressed this, and I recently drove the GMC Acadia, the Outlook's sister model that Saturn says has the same exact drivetrain with the new calibration. I'm pleased to issue a clean bill of health. Accelerator lag is no longer an issue, which makes both of these models truly impressive new options for the crossover SUV shopper. —Joe Wiesenfelder, March 21, 2007

The eight-seat Saturn Outlook SUV, along with its sister vehicles from Buick and GMC, could prove to be the best thing to happen to GM in years. The Outlook combines the good looks of the new Aura sedan with interior quality worthy of Chevy's new full-size SUVs. Very much the type of family-mover that people want today, the Outlook is designed to compete with the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. Its success will depend on two things: its initial quality and buyers' reaction to its tentative acceleration.

The Outlook explains why General Motors gave its minivans only a slight restyling a few years ago when its competitors rededicated themselves to building the best new vans they could. While they retain significant market appeal, minivans have a chronic image problem. Vehicles that combine the best aspects of minivans and SUVs — call them crossover vehicles, but only if you must — are the most appealing choice for families. Just days after the Outlook started arriving at dealerships, GM announced it will not be developing new minivans and will drop the segment entirely sometime after 2007. Outlook production is ramping up and should reach full capacity by the beginning of 2007.

Unlike the truck-based — or body-on-frame — construction of the Chevy TrailBlazer and Tahoe, the Outlook uses a new car-based — or unibody — platform (the SUV is larger than a car, but the structure is a design that's been used in most cars for decades). Car-based vehicles are lighter and more space-efficient, meaning better gas mileage and better interior room given their exterior size. The Outlook and its ilk have the traditional SUV features that many Americans don't want to give up — namely the body style, space, higher seat height and four-wheel drive.

Look Out
The sole engine is a 3.6-liter V-6 that generates 270 horsepower in the XE trim level (it makes 275 hp in the XR because of dual instead of single exhaust). Because it's mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the Outlook has both decent acceleration overall and efficient cruising. I stress overall because the drivetrain has what I consider a significant deficiency: accelerator lag. As I mentioned, once the car gets going it has decent power, but there's often a delay after you step on the pedal before the Outlook responds. This happens consistently before kickdown, and it also seems to hesitate at least a bit when you give it some gas any other time.

This is by no means a rare problem in today's cars, and it's one I rail against at every instance. (I'll explain at the end of this review why it happens, and spare most of you the glossed-over eyes.) There are different kinds of lag, and it's worth explaining why I find the Outlook's particularly onerous.

Sometimes transmissions hesitate before downshifting into a passing gear, but they don't always lose momentum before doing so. This is acceptable, especially if the delay is brief — or at least if it's consistent and predictable enough that you can adapt to it. When you nail the pedal in the Outlook, on the other hand, it feels as though the transmission releases the current gear and takes too long to engage the passing gear. While this indecision and hunting goes on, the car bogs down a bit; you hear the engine rev, and then it lurches forward. For what seems like a second or more, there's a lot of windup but not enough pitch.

The good news for GM is that this might be reparable. The transmission is brand new, a joint venture with Ford for use in both companies' front- and all-wheel-drive vehicles. Drivetrains are now completely computer-controlled, and sometimes it's an issue of the programming. In terms of lag, GM Powertrain has been better than most, so I'm hoping the flaw can be cured. (It's probably a good sign that the Ford Edge SUV, which shares this transmission, responds much more quickly.) I'm more sensitive than most to accelerator lag, but I think this instance will be a problem for many. I'd love to hear your impressions if you've driven the Outlook or a sister model.

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