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2008 Saturn outlook

GM is a player

By Ron Amadon, MarketWatch

Last Update: 9:00 AM ET Sep 15, 2007

DAMASCUS, Md (Menafn - MarketWatch) -- On a cold blustery day a while ago, General Motors assembled a group of auto writers in a heated tent under extremely tight security.

We signed many papers, and all of them had lots of fine print, pledging we would not utter a word of what was going on here, for fear of eternal damnation. GM was in the middle of its fiscal problems, and someone in PR had the bright idea of giving journalists a view of the top-secret future (car) model-wise through the year 2010 and beyond. If they could do it, it appeared that the General had a future.

The solidly-built Saturn Outlook, and other new models, show GM's a full-fledged player again on the big stage.

Now some of those vehicles are, as promised, coming to market, and at GM, a new era might just be dawning. GM shares were recently upgraded to "buy" by an analyst at Citi. Further, the company surprised the auto world by posting a sales gain in August -- when everyone was expecting a decline.

We think CEO Rick Wagoner has done an outstanding job in trying to turn the big auto firm around. If he can secure a favorable health care deal with the United Auto Workers in the ongoing contract talks, and keep GM on the road to new and better products, we think he will become one of the top, if not THE top, auto industry execs in the world. Not to mention the person who saved a few thousand jobs.

We have now spent hundreds of miles in both the new Saturn Vue and the Saturn Outlook, and can tell you that one message come blasting through: GM is now a full-fledged player on the big stage, and Honda and Toyota would be well advised to pay strict attention. (Goodness, did we really type that?)

You want proof? Our sister publication, The Wall Street Journal, recently reported that customer demand has been strong for the Outlook and its two brothers, the Buick Enclave and the GMC Acadia. Enough to keep the GM plant in Lansing, Michigan running at full production, and that, girls and boys, is the key to profits. ("And I say, ya got fun, right here in River City...")

It's also getting the kind of attention Detroit has long ached for -- from owners of imported sport utility vehicles who are looking for something new. Put into the context of recent days, months, and years in the Motor City, this is the equivalent of **** freezing over.

Saturn Outlook illustrates GM's commitment

Slip into the seats of our test Outlook and you can see how serious GM is. It has a luxury car feel with some nearly soft-to-the-touch dash surfaces that are well integrated and do not look cheap. Add in easy-to-decipher controls, soft leather seats, effective sounding deadening, a top quality auto system, and seating for six real people, plus one small one, and you have a crossover vehicle that demands attention.

Mrs. Evaluator said, and we agree, that for the $39,184 our top-of-the-line Outlook XR went for, electric seat controls, not manual ones, should have been included for the passenger as well as driver. The upscale XR starts at $31,555.

We were very impressed with our test Outlook. (See slide show.) It hauled boxes and kitty cats, computers and just plain "stuff" in the relocation of Ron's Roads to our new digs. The second and third row seats fold virtually flat -- without consulting the owner's manual -- to create 117 cubic feet of cargo space that is easily accessed through the electric door to the rear. That kind of storage space is more than you will find in the Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, and even the Chevy Tahoe.

While this was not one of the new vehicles tested at a hot German racetrack (they all seem to be these days), the Outlook does handle better than earlier crossover vehicles. Body lean is well controlled, with the handling and ride calibrations designed to meet, and even beat, the expectations of the moms and dads who will be driving. It seemed to just pop and in and out of shopping center parking lots, despite its 200.7- inch length that puts the Outlook on the large end of the midsized crossover spectrum.

Our test vehicle had the 3.6-liter V6 tied to a six-speed automatic. In the upscale XR model, it churns out 275-horsepower with 251 lb.-ft of torque. Because the all-wheel-drive Outlook tops the scale at a hefty 4,936 pounds, it needs more "go" power.

Regardless of what the zero-to-sixty times might be, it seemed sluggish when pushed, with the six-speed automatic doing all it could to move things forward. Gas mileage also may not be what you are looking for. We got 15 mpg consistently in city and country driving. That is only a mile per gallon or so worse than the Pilot.

How much the slow acceleration (zero to six in about 9 seconds), along with the middling gas mileage, will mean to the typical owner is something we will leave up to the individual. We would note that as we write this, light crude is toying with $80 a barrel.

We can say we experienced pleasant driving in town, out on the interstates, and on nice country roads. The Outlook seemed solidly put together with good materials and workmanship.

Here is our bottom line on this one. Despite some shortfalls, the new vehicles clearly show that GM now really IS a player on the big stage. It hit the high "C" note and now can go toe-to-toe with Toyota and Honda in this segment -- providing the reliability and longevity are there.

Wagoner's on a roll, and if the bottom line continues to improve for GM and its shareholders, he should be considered in the same hero spotlight afforded Carlos Ghosn in recent years. Perhaps more so, because righting the big ship GM is a heck of a lot harder task than turning around Renault and Nissan.

Vehicles tested in this column are on loan from the auto companies through local distributors

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