Torrent brings a likable crossover to Pontiac

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Pontiac struggled this summer even as the rest of the General Motors’ lineup enjoyed big gains thanks to the “employee discount for everyone” sale.

A big deal was made about the “excitement” division actually losing sales in June, the month the discount program started and the month one GM division showed 200 percent gains over June 2004. While seven brands enjoyed increases ranging from 36.4-percent for Buick to a whopping 210.5-percent for Hummer, Pontiac sales were off 14 percent.

But Pontiac officials pointed out, that fleet sales, which dipped significantly, were figured into that total. Showroom sales actually were up 17 percent for the month, officials said.

Maybe that means there’s a little life left in the brand, but no matter how you cut it, Pontiac is in a slump.

We predict a somewhat brighter future as the 2006 models begin arriving at dealers.

Our prediction is based on several products including the Torrent, an all-new crossover compact sport utility vehicle. We drove an all-wheel drive version for a week and we were as impressed with it as its kissing cousin, the Chevrolet Equinox, which we reported on a year ago.

The Torrent is a car-based sport utility vehicle that offers good looks, incredible passenger space, decent performance and acceptable gas mileage at an affordable price.

The biggest news at Pontiac, and over-shadowing the Torrent, is the arrival of the Solstice, a roadster that takes aim at the popular Mazda Miata. The Solstice will entice people into Pontiac stores. And more excitement arrives in 2006 when the long-awaited G6 hardtop convertible makes its debut.

The G6 sedan, introduced in 2005, is a worthy replacement to the Grand Am — and a compact car that we recommend. For those who lust for the Pontiac power of the past, a V-8 engine option has been added to the 2006 Grand Prix.

Pontiac also features three vehicles capable of 30-miles-to-the-gallon or better on the highway — an important factor is this time of record gas prices — including the Vibe wagon, G6 4-cylinder and the Grand Prix V-6.

This still doesn’t add up to the glory years, but Pontiac has a nice combination of products for 2006 that should put it in a position for increased sales. The Torrent will surely be a big factor in the sales revival if it isn’t overlooked in Pontiac’s marketing scheme.

Like the Equinox, the Torrent has well-proportioned and sporty styling, something that has been lacking in many of General Motors’ recent projects. In fact, we consider this SUV one of the most handsome on the market.

The only real difference between the Torrent and the Chevrolet are the grille and taillight treatments. The Torrent gets the traditional Pontiac grille and more traditional taillights than the Equinox.

The wheels pushed out to the corners not only give the Torrent a more aggressive look, but add crucial inches to the wheelbase and more room inside than in the standard compact sport utility.

And the longer wheelbase also makes for a more pleasant ride. For instance, at 112.5 inches the Torrent wheelbase is nine inches longer than the Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe and Honda CR-V, eight inches longer than the Jeep Liberty and a whopping 14 inches longer than the Toyota RAV4. The Torrent wheelbase, in fact, is only an inch shorter than the mid-sized Chevy TrailBlazer.

This size virtually blows the competition away in rear-seat legroom, or perhaps it can best be described as rear-seat stretch out room.

The second-row comfort is enhanced by seats that slide fore and aft up to eight inches. And the 60-40 folding seatbacks also recline for long-haul comfort.

The rear seats also sit occupants up higher than the front. This theater-like seating may be especially appealing to youngsters who will feel less claustrophobic. And for those folks blessed — or cursed — with a large number of very young kids, the second row will accommodate three child-safety seats abreast.

The interior has other interesting features that make traveling life easier including an adjustable rear parcel shelf that can carry groceries or a flat of flowers, a center armrest/storage bin that can be flipped up out of the way to create a large area between the seats to accommodate large purses or a laptop computer, and fabric storage pockets on both sides of the center console good for storing magazines, maps or other large items.

The dashboard area is neatly designed offering a contemporary look that retains a user-friendly nature. Silver metallic trim pieces surround the instrument gauges and the metallic look, popular in many vehicles these days, is also featured in the center stack.

The shifter is in easy reach in the center console and just above it are the PRND indicators, an unusual but effective setup.

A couple of minor nitpicks — the window switches are located on the center stack and are hard to use, especially when hurtling down the road, and although there is a storage area under the dash to the left of the steering wheel, it is the only cubby to be found up front.

We found the electric power steering very effective at slower speeds, but rather numb on the highway. Pontiac needs to recalibrate the steering to live up to the brands “excitement” division tag.

Overall, we think the Torrent’s steering and handling traits will satisfy most families who buy the vehicle.

One thing that we found dismaying is the Torrent’s rather large turning radius. We misjudged parking spaces a couple of times before we finally accepted the fact that the Torrent doesn’t turn as sharply as some other vehicles in the class. The turning radius is 41.8 feet compared to 35.4 feet for both the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4.

The Torrent comes in just two models, one with front-wheel drive starting at $22,990 and with all-wheel drive beginning at $24,890. Both models are outfitted with the lively 3.4-liter 185-horsepower V-6 found in numerous other GM products.

While the Torrent is no SUV hotrod, it acquits itself nicely whether jumping from a stoplight or merging into freeway traffic. Figure 0 to 60 in about 8.5 seconds through the standard 5-speed automatic transmission.

The usual stuff — power windows and locks, keyless entry, air conditioning, stereo with six speakers and rear-window defogger are standard equipment.

Our test vehicle included many of the available options including upgraded stereo, sunroof, leather seating, 17-inch wheels and side-impact head curtain airbags.

Bottom line on our tester was $30,235. Much too close to the entry luxury segment for what it is – but we are sure that local Pontiac dealers will help you find a more reasonable transaction price.

The Torrent is a good addition for Pontiac. It puts the brand into the crossover sport utility market with a desirable product that has outstanding room for four adults and luggage. Not quite the GTO or GPX – more modest excitement is the Torrent.