Outlook adds lift to Saturn’s rising star

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It wasn’t so long ago that the Saturn division of General Motors was on the ropes with an inferior small car, a less-than-stellar minivan, and a mid-sized sedan that was selling so slowly it was terminated.

What was left was a decent, but slow-selling compact sport utility vehicle, the VUE. Not much to carry an entire division.

This startling slide down the slippery slope of automotive disaster began only a dozen years after the division’s birth. In 1991, Saturn was the darling of the U.S.-based automotive industry, a start-up company within corporate giant General Motors headquartered in Spring Hill, Tenn., with one hot product — a small car built to rival the upstart Japanese models. It was GM’s import fighter; while not brilliant it was a good move in the right direction.

It had ding-resistant doors, a fuel-efficient engine and a winning personality. And the dealership experience was — and still is — outstanding.

But in an effort to expand its lineup in the mid ’90s, Saturn began to lose its way. Gone was the import fighter and in its place was an anemic and weakening brand. And then it was swallowed up by its corporate parent and became just another General Motors division, its original mission in tatters and its original automobile plant just another in the GM network. Pundits predicted Saturn would go the way of Oldsmobile, retired to the automotive history books. It was a grand plan gone array.

Now it’s 2007 and suddenly, almost effortlessly, it seems, Saturn has taken on a new life, a new personality, with several highly acclaimed vehicles. And there’s more to come. And while the new marketing plan talks about the “New American” brand Saturn finds itself riding into a bright future on the wheels of its European sister division – Opel – and now Saturn is fighting fire with fire.

Amazing may not be too strong an adjective to describe the turnaround, the Lazarus-like rise from near-death.

Last fall we did extensive time in the new Saturn mid-sized sedan, the Aura, and we were equally impressed. The Aura, based on a sedan originally created by Opel has been lavished with glowing reviews punctuated this year with the North American Car of the Year award.

Last year Saturn introduced a halo car, the Sky roadster, with stunning good looks and a fun-to-drive demeanor. A redesigned VUE sport utility is now in showrooms. And the Saturn transformation will be complete when the Astra (also from Opel) compact car arrives next year replacing the forgettable Ion, which ended production in March. Also recently dropped was the Relay minivan.

We just finished a week behind the wheel of another of those turnaround vehicles for Saturn, the Outlook full-sized crossover, and we were impressed. Outlook is the sister ship to the Buick Enclave and the GMC Acadia – all sure to registers positive points for each of the brands.

There’s no Relay replacement minivan in Saturn’s future because the Outlook, a full-sized car-based sport utility vehicle, serves the same function, but in a superior manner.
It’s capable of hauling seven or eight adult passengers and their cargo while getting 26 miles to the gallon and in a high-riding all-wheel configuration.

For many families the Outlook is the minivan of the future. All three rows are receptive to adult sized bodies and entering and exiting does not take the agility of a 20-year-old athlete to accomplish the same.

The big thing here is that the Outlook has more room for passengers and cargo than the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, the Acura MDX or the new Mazda CX-9 and it’s one of the best first efforts in General Motors’ recent history. It actually has no rival other than its platform mates.

The Outlook has many attributes of large body-on-frame sport utilities including the Ford Expedition and the Chevrolet Tahoe including a 4,500-pound towing capacity, all-wheel drive capability, a 117-cubic-foot cargo area and a nearly 1,500-pound maximum payload. It rides high on standard 18-inch wheels standing nearly 70 inches tall.

General Motors has not scrimped on performance. The Outlook is powered by an all-new 3.6-liter overhead cam V-6 generating either 270 or 275 horsepower — depending on trim level — and 251 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. There’s ample off-the-line power and scads of merging and passing oomph when needed. Even though the engine is asked to pull nearly 5,000 pounds it accomplishes the task in a satisfying manner.

Steering is responsive and well balanced and the suspension setup gives the big crossover a confident demeanor through the twists and turns of back-road America.

Let’s throw out a few comparisons just to demonstrate the Outlook’s advantages against current competition. The Saturn's 117 cubic feet of maximum cargo space with seats that fold flat onto the floor tops the CX-9 by 17, the Pilot by 29 and the Highlander by 36. None match the Outlook’s 26 mpg highway mileage in two-wheel drive format. All carry 3,500-pound tow ratings, 1,000 pounds less than the Outlook.

And if you are worried about giving up the interior space afforded by your truck-like Expedition, forget your concerns. The Outlook actually edges the Expedition, 117 cubic feet to 108 cubic feet in maximum cargo space.

The Outlook interior comes with impeccable fit and finish and high-quality materials, something not always present in late-model GM products. The interior of the Outlook demonstrates that perhaps GM has finally turned the corner.

The Outlook has two trim levels, XE and XR, starting at $28,000 with a full array of standard equipment including 18-inch wheels, full power including windows and mirrors, front and rear air conditioning, cruise control and stereo with CD player and MP3 capability. All Outlooks have three rows of seats.

Standard safety includes antilock brakes, rollover-sensing stability control, tire-pressure monitoring, front-seat side airbags, and three-row side curtain airbags.

The usual options found on big SUVs can be purchased including DVD-based navigation, rear entertainment, rear park assist, power liftgate, 19-inch wheels and sunroof. All-wheel drive adds about $2,000.

The key point here is that the base Outlook for $28,000 comes with the most important equipment. You won’t be giving up any of the driving experience by going the less expensive route.

Our test vehicle, an up-level XR front-wheel drive version with several options including navigation, leather seating and upgraded audio, carried a bottom line of $36,285.

The Outlook is the most expensive vehicle to ever wear the Saturn name, but it just might offer the most bang for the buck of any vehicle in its short history.

Saturn never looked or drove this good even in its short-lived compact car heyday. If Saturn owners haven’t wondered too far this Outlook could be something they could love.


Base price, $28,000; as driven, $36,285
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Horsepower: 275 @ 6,600 rpm
Torque: 251 foot-pounds @ 3,200 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/2/3
Turning circle: 40.4 feet
Wheelbase: 118.9 inches
Length: 200.7 inches
Curb weight: 4,722 pounds
Towing capacity: 4,500 pounds
Cargo capacity (maximum): 117 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 22 gallons (regular)
EPA mileage: 26 mpg highway, 18 city
0-60: 8.2 seconds (Edmund's)
Also consider: GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Mazda CX-9

The Good:
• Smooth ride, car-like handling
• Large cargo capacity
• Better gas mileage than full-sized truck-based sport utilities

The Bad:
• This is not an off-road vehicle

The Ugly:
• Be careful of high-priced options that can run the sticker close to 40 grand