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Saturn’s newest crossover vehicle seats eight. The Saturn Outlook, which goes on sale this spring, also features available all-wheel drive and seating for up to eight passengers, with pricing starting under $30,000.

I’ve always been a fan of the Saturn concept: a company that was, from the start, managed and directed by women. Since women account for over half of new-car sales, it only makes sense that women should have a say in what rolls into the showroom.

Saturn general manager, Jill Lajdziak, has been with the company since the get-go, and she’s been a huge proponent of making both the vehicles and the buying experience enticing to women. The fact that Saturn was the first GM brand to introduce no-haggle pricing is no accident.

As much as I love the concept, I haven’t always been a fan of Saturn cars. The earliest models had inconsistent fit and finish, and sluggish performance. Over the years, Saturn improved both its drivetrains and body structure, but struggled to match the quality of competitors such as Honda and Toyota.

All of that changes with the new Outlook: an eight-passenger crossover vehicle that rolls into dealerships this spring. Not only is the Outlook the biggest Saturn vehicle introduced to date, but in my opinion, the best. Even on the pre-production model I drove, the fit and finish was superb, engine acceleration more than adequate, transmission shifts smooth, and steering response nimble.

The Outlook was designed to be an affordable option for families needing to haul multiple passengers and their gear over varied terrain. With pricing starting under $30,000, and available all-wheel drive, Saturn’s newest active lifestyle vehicle is an exceptional package.

Two states, three cities, and a thousand miles in four days I had the Outlook over the Christmas holiday: a hectic week that included a trip to visit the in-laws down south, and a two-day out-and-back drive from Phoenix to San Diego for the Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards presentation at the auto show. I opted to drive the front-wheel drive base model ($27,255) equipped with two options: a six way power driver’s seat and roof rails ($505) and special paint ($395).

Standard features include dual-zone and rear heating and air conditioning, remote keyless entry, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, MP3 compatible stereo with an in-dash CD player, power windows and door locks. The Outlook is also well-equipped, with safety features including stability control, front, side and side curtain airbags, antilock braking and traction control.

All models are powered by a V-6 engine rated at 270 horsepower with a six-speed automatic transmission that optimizes both power and fuel economy. While many V-6 engines struggle on steep inclines, this one does not.

There was a conspicuous absence of downshifts going into the mountains as we approached San Diego on the 8 freeway from the east. Passing was a non-issue. Despite its size, the Outlook has excellent steering response at all speeds. There is a good on-center feel on the highway, making it easy to weave through traffic. The brakes feel solid without being grabby, and the standard eighteen-inch wheels give the Outlook a nice wide footprint for cornering. The suspension is compliant but not overly soft.

A wrap-around rear window is a nice change from the thick rear D-pillar on so many sport-utility vehicles, and it also helps to eliminate rear blind spots. Also notable is the Outlook’s stability. Driving east out of San Diego, we followed a cold front that brought rain and strong winds. The vehicle’s relatively wide track and low center of gravity was very apparent: there was no feeling of instability, even on wet pavement in high-wind conditions.

A spacious, versatile interior.

Three rows of standard seating is one of many features to love about the Outlook’s interior. The second-row seats have a new “smart slide” feature that makes it easier to access the third row. One lever flips up the seat cushion and slides the seatback forward, so passengers can have open, easy access to the back. The test car came with the standard 60/40 split bench seats, but buyers can opt to substitute captain’s chairs instead. Both second and third-row seats fold flat to create a long, functional cargo area.

Even with all three rows of seating in place, there was plenty of room for our luggage, sacks full of Christmas gifts, and a cooler full of road trip munchies. A hidden cargo area under the floor was handy when we went to the trailhead, keeping our valuables out of site.

The standard cloth upholstery is attractive and comfortable. Both the driver and front passenger seats were easy to adjust, with adequate lower lumbar support. There are two good-sized cup (or bottle) holders in the center console. There are also bottle holders and map pockets in all four doors. A covered bin in the center console is handy for storing compact discs or small electronic devices, and a small cubby at the base of the center stack holds a cell phone.

All vehicles have four standard power points, including one in the cargo area. Buyers can opt to add a 115-volt outlet. The cargo area also comes with hooks to hold an optional cargo net. A power tailgate is available on the two up-level models.

Fuel economy for the real world.

Saturn engineers spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel, fine-tuning the Outlook’s aerodynamics. They minimized the wheel opening around the tires, and used shielding to reduce aerodynamic drag under the body. Not only did these modifications minimize noise intrusion to the interior, but they yielded impressive fuel economy figures for a vehicle of this size: 18/26 miles per gallon city/highway. With recent fluctuations in fuel prices, that should ease shoppers concerns about the cost of operation. The V-6 engine has plenty of power to tow, exceeding our minimum criteria by over 1,000 pounds.

All Saturn cars come with 24-hour roadside assistance, and a year of the basic OnStar safe and sound plan.

The Outlook is being built at General Motors’ Lansing Delta Township Assembly Plant in Lansing, Michigan. Pricing ranges from $27,255 for the XE model with front-wheel drive, to $32, 290 for the upscale XR with all-wheel drive.

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