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Saturn is rapidly distancing itself from its older plastic body vehicles that were left unchanged for far too long. It soon will have a full line of much more sophisticated steel-body vehicles.

The latest such Saturn is the handsome new Outlook. It's the automaker's first crossover-style SUV to provide eight-passenger capacity, thanks to a third-row seat.

New Trio
The 4-door Outlook is mechanically similar to the newly available, much-priased GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave, which arrives this summer. All share a car-type platform and are made in a new General Motors plant near Lansing, Michigan.

Lansing is a longtime Oldsmobile town, filled with skilled auto workers who do a good job of building the Outlook, which has precise body fits and a solid feel. It doesn't have to take second place to Japanese vehicles in that regard.

The Outlook is the lowest-cost member of the new Lansing trio and thus could be considered the best bargain. It looks stylish, but the quiet, attractive interior has a good amount of hard plastic to help hold down costs. However, pragmatic parents might view that plastic as easier to keep clean if children are transported a lot.

Competitively Priced
The Outlook has entry XE and higher-line XR trim levels with either front- or all-wheel drive. List prices competitively range from $27,255 to $31,555.

GM hopes the trio will do well, and they just might. Rivals include the Ford Edge, Chrysler Pacifica, Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot, and a few of those lack a third-row seat.

The Outlook has a powerful V6, newly developed, responsive 6-speed automatic transmission and lots of electronic and safety features.

Powerful Engine
The smooth 3.6-liter V6 produces 270 horsepower for the XE and 275 for the XR, which has nicely shaped dual exhaust outlets.

Fuel economy is an estimated 18 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway with front-wheel drive and 17 and 24 with all-wheel drive. That's decent for a powerful vehicle that weighs nearly 5,000 pounds. Only regular-grade gasoline is required.

Enjoyable to Drive
The Outlook is enjoyable to drive. Steering is precise and nicely weighted. The ride is on the firm side, but well-controlled. Handling is almost car-like—despite the Outlook's size and weight, and stopping distances are impressively short.

Both trim levels have anti-lock brakes, traction control (for the front-wheel-drive version), and an anti-skid system with rollover sensors. A full complement of front and side airbags also are standard.

Roomy and Practical
The Outlook is mostly about roominess and practicality. But the third seat is best suited to small to medium-size passengers on trips of moderate distances.

At least it's not too difficult to reach the third seat because the second-row seat slides forward and folds with a "scissor" action to allow entry. The second-row split bench seat also slides fore and aft to allow a desired mix of legroom for second- and third-row occupants.

Second- and third-row bench seats provide seating for eight, but optional second-row bucket seats provide seven-passenger seating in the high-line XR trim level.

The first and second rows provide good room for tall occupants, although the second-row bench seat has a hard center area; it's best to flip down that seat's center armrest, which contains dual cupholders. Rear windows roll all the way down.

Nice Interior
Front seats offer decent support when taking curves in a spirited manner, and backlit gauges can be easily read, even in bright sunlight. Controls are conveniently located, and dual front cupholders have a sliding cover to keep things looking tidy when they're not being used.

While wide, the cargo area opening is somewhat high. Cargo room is decent even when the third seat is in its normal position, and the third seat folds nearly flat to enlarge the cargo area. There's a fairly good-sized under-floor cargo compartment for stuff you want kept out of sight.

Considerable Length
The Outlook is classified as a midsize vehicle but is pretty long at 200.7 inches. Parking and maneuverability in tight spots thus can be a problem.

The console bin is too small for this type of vehicle, but cabin storage for small items otherwise is good.

Rear visibility is fine from the driver's seat, thanks partly to unobtrusive rear headrests and large outside mirrors. But thick windshield posts obstruct the view to the front corners and thus can hide pedestrians darting across a street when the Outlook is turning a corner.

It requires extra effort to enter or leave the Outlook, but not as much as is needed with a typical truck-based SUV that lacks this Saturn's body-frame integral design.

Comfort and Convenience
Comfort and convenience features for the XE include front/rear air conditioning, tilt/telescopic wheel, cruise control, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player, rear wiper/washer and power windows, locks with remote keyless entry and heated mirrors.

Added to the XR are items including dual-zone automatic climate controls, power driver seat and mirror-mounted turn signals.

Options include remote engine start, power sunroof and a DVD entertainment system. You can get leather upholstery and heated front seats for the XR version. And an XR rear-obstacle detection system is handy because it's often impossible to see objects directly behind the Outlook.

Saturn dealers have kept high customer satisfaction ratings despite years of marginal products. That should help sales of the Outlook, not to mention other new Saturn vehicles.

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