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General Motors has been beset with problems from falling market share, loosing the global production crown to Toyota, staggering healthcare costs and a big reliance on thirsty SUVs and pickups. All divisions have been taking a hit, but none bigger than Saturn.

Shuffling the order

Saturn, once the darling of small car buyers and economy minded souls, stumbled badly in the late 1990’s by not expanding its lineup and producing boring cars with ho-hum styling. However a recent product infusion has made Saturn one of the most progressive and (dare I say it) hot divisions at GM. The current Saturn borrows heavily from the European Opel division and Pontiac. Saturn now has some very stylish and diverse product including the Vue hybrid and (soon) an Aura hybrid. I tested their first mid-size crossover, the Outlook XR.

All new ballgame

The Saturn Outlook and sibling GMC Arcadia have been “right sized and engineered” to offer a good combination of size, capability and ride quality. Until now GM’s midsize SUV offerings were truck based body on frame 4x4s that offered outstanding off-roading, but a trucky on-road ride/handling with weak fuel economy numbers. I’m keenly aware of these facts because I have a seven passenger mid-size GM SUV in my personal fleet.

The Outlook is a crossover (car platform-based) SUV that hand stacks the old mid-size GM SUVs with up to eight passenger seating. Furthermore, the Outlook can do all the things (except heavy-duty off-roading) that a truck-based SUV can, yet comes with carlike driving characteristics .

Interior thinks big

The Outlook offers three rows of seating that are great for suburban families that need the seats and the cargo space to keep up with on the go kids and lifestyles. While the old GM mid-size SUVs had easy to use flip forward second row seating the Outlook offers access to the third-row via a Smart Slide second-row seat feature. As it implies the second-row seat cushion flips up while the seatback slides forward, basically compressing the space occupied by the seat. It operates with one hand and enables adjustable fore/aft positioning of the second-row seat.

Behind the wheel you’re greeted by a “low and away” instrument panel that creates a feeling of openness in the front-row seats and provides a commanding view out of the windshield. A nice interior design is spoiled by an instrument panel and other interior panels that have hard plastic surfaces and materials that felt inexpensive. On the plus side the gaps were small and there were no squeaks or rattles.

Outlook has cargo room, with 116.9 cubic-feet with the second and third-row seats folded. There’s almost 20 cubic-feet of cargo space behind third-row seat when it’s in its up. The second and third-row seats fold flat to aid cargo-carrying capacity.

I liked the covered rear cargo convenience center that allows you to conceal stuff under the floor.

Outlook offers a wide range of optional and standard equipment, including power windows/locks/mirror, ultrasonic parking assist, power liftgate, remote vehicle start, heated windshield fluid, DVD entertainment system and a DVD navigation system.

Exterior design face

The Outlook’s “face” has a bright grille bar that is flanked by big, jewellike projector beam headlights. The profile is very sleek and handsome with a sporty, tapered roof line that says active and functional. The chrome door handles and large 18-inch tires on attractive alloy wheels added premium cues. I also liked the way Saturn designers wrapped the rear glass around the corners. This design element aids rear visibility. The tail features attractive chrome-highlighted horizontal tail lamps and a rear spoiler with LED center stop lamp.

By the way don’t expect dent-resistant, rust resistant polymer body panels. With the exception of the soon to be discontinued Ion models, the unique, standout-selling feature is gone.

Power up

The motivation behind the Outlook is GM’s 3.6-liter V-6 VVT engine. The engine features variable valve timing, designed for improved fuel economy, low emissions and exceptional smoothness. My uplevel XR model (with dual exhaust) delivered 275 horsepower on unleaded regular, and has five more horses than the XE model. The engine is backed by a new, Hydra-Matic 6T75 six-speed automatic transmission. The window sticker on my all-wheel drive test vehicle said 17 city and 24 highway mileage figures, which are an improvement over the previous GM mid-size SUVs. You can squeeze a few more miles out of a tank if you opt for standard front wheel drive. .

Chassis and suspension

Outlook sits on a 118.9-inch wheelbase and a 67.28-inch wide, front/rear tracks. This new wider platform yields a nice combination of a smooth ride with stable car/van like handling. The ride and handling reflexes are supported by independent front and rear suspensions. The front suspension uses the familiar MacPherson strut design, with a direct-acting stabilizer bar. The rear suspension uses a compact, state-of-the-art linked “H” design, which (like the front), also has a isolated mounting system that is designed to reduce noise and vibration, transmitted to the passenger compartment.

As for acceleration the performance is just average. There’s enough power for passing but towing tops out at just 4,500 pounds.

ABS brakes are standard as are the StabiliTrak stability control system and variable assist power steering.

Safety is a complete package

Outlooks come with six standard air bags: two dual-stage frontal air bags for the driver and front passenger, two seat-mounted side-impact air bags in the first row and two head curtain side-impact air bags that cover all three seating rows. The head curtain air bags are among the longest air bags in any production vehicle. Complementing the air bags is GM’s rollover sensing system, which can preemptively activate the side-impact air bags if sensors determine a rollover is imminent and keeps the bags inflated longer.

Pricing out a new Outlook XR begins at $31,555. The test vehicle added premium leather for $1,275, a convenience pac featuring a power liftgate, rear park assist and remote start for $1,045 at XM radio for $199. The total bill came to a reasonable $34,809 after the $750 destination charge was added.

With fresh designs, new models and a great “buzz” running through the industry Saturn has been gaining traction and should show up on more shopping lists.

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