GM certainly must have thought that, as when it became clear that the third (OK, perhaps the 2.5th) generation Minivans, the Chevrolet Uplander, Saturn Relay, Buick Terraza and Pontiac Montana would not be directly replaced, word was that they would replace them with an SUV. Except marketing had decided that these would not be SUVs so much as “Crossovers”, the latest term for something that was SUV-like without the off-road ability. Based on the GM’s Lambda platform, three vehicles debuted in 2008, the luxury Buick Enclave and the cheaper Saturn Relay and GMC Acadia. A fourth model, the Chevrolet Traverse became available for the 2009 model year. They were well received, getting good write ups from the motoring press and being recommended by Consumers Guide, among others. I secured a rental of a Saturn Outlook to see if this is indeed a good vehicle, and whether it improved on the less than impressive Chevrolet Uplander, its half cousin antecedent.
Initial impressions were very positive. Partly, that is, because I had just handed in a Pontiac G5, so getting a larger, better equipped albeit more expensive vehicle, The test car came in the lesser of two available specifications, the XE, and it was a front wheel drive model. A more luxurious XR is also on offer, and both trim levels can be delivered with all wheel drive.
The Outlook is fitted with GM’s 3.6 litre V6 engine. In XE spec, it develops 281 bhp. The XR gives you a whole additional 7 bhp. It is enough, even for this large and heavy vehicle to provide it with decent acceleration, helped no doubt by appropriate gearing from the 6 speed automatic transmission. The engine is smooth, quiet and refined, and particularly relaxed on the motorway. At the New Mexico state freeway speed limit of 75 mph, it is turning over at just under 2000 rpm. Need a sudden burst of acceleration, though, and it is there. After the lack of cruise control on the G5, I was pleased, but of course not surprised to find that it features on the Outlook, and I did take full advantage. When faced with a steepish incline, the change down a gear to maintain speed was far smoother than I found in the Taurus and Taurus X cars, though it was still noticeable. Considering that this is a large car, average fuel consumption, largely based on freeway cruising, of 22.6 mpg US (that’s 27 mpg imperial) is not too bad. Whilst the Outlook will never win prizes for its handling prowess – it’s really not that sort of car – it will not get the brickbats, either.
There is some body roll, but nothing alarming, just a gentle reminder that you have rather a lot of heavy car and that you should take bends at an appropriate speed. In this respect, it was far better than the Toyota Sienna I recently sampled. The steering is massively better than on the Toyota, too. Light, but not excessively so, it certainly felt like it was directly connected to the steered wheels. The one dynamic weakness concerns the brakes. When pressed gently, nothing untoward is evident, but I found that to stop the Outlook from even a moderate speed required a far harder push on the pedal than I would have expected. I fear that if the car is fully loaded, and the roads are wet, this could lead to some scary moments. There is a foot operated parking brake, which is mounted quite high, but did from time to time seem to get in the way of my left leg when the foot was resting on the foot rest. The Outlook rides well, smoothing over the bump, ridges and rough surfaces of the varied roads on which I took it with aplomb.
Good though the driving dynamics are, it is not really for these reasons that people would buy an Outlook. They would be far more interested in the ability to haul people and their stuff. There are eight seats. You really could put eight adults in the car, though the back-most row is less generously endowed with room than the middle seats. Those middle seats are asymmetrically split, and can be slid back and forwards, thus potentially increasing the amount of space for people in the very back. The angle of the backrest is also adjustable. Regardless of which position is adopted, there is plenty of space for the people in this row. They also get their own little control box, mounted on the back of the sliding armrest that sits between the front seats, which allows them to plug in an MP3 player, and also to adopt their own setting for the climate control system.
Access to the rear most seats is going to involve a certain amount of clambering in, but once installed, there is good leg and head room. Unusually, there is a decent boot space available even when all rows of seats are erected in passenger carrying mode. Both rows of seats fold down, simply by pulling one lever, creating a flat load floor, which is positively gargantuan when all seats are down. Inside the cabin, there is reasonable provision for odds and ends, with a particularly deep cubby between the seats – you could put a 1,5 litre bottle in there and it would not touch the lid – along with an average sized glove box, a shallow lidded tray on top of the dashboard and door pockets, as well as small amount of space inside the central armrest.
GM have made massive – and necessary – strides in the quality of their interior design and finish in the last five years or so, and the Outlook is evidence of the further improvements that they continue to make. The design is cohesive, and is well constructed, with minimal gap between the dash and the door trims. In fact, the plastics used for the dash are still rather hard and brittle to the touch, but they look better than they actually are. I think I would rather this than what I experienced in my next test car where the converse applies. There is a brushed aluminium trim finisher across the dash and on the centre console, which adds some variety to the black finish of the test car, and which appears well done, without being too garish. The dials are clearly presented under a single binnacle, though I was surprised to find that in the XE spec, there are no trip computer functions, simply a couple of mileage trip readings which are cycled through by pushing a button.
On the XE, there are no wheel mounted controls for the standard GM stereo system, which was very similar to the one I found in the G5. It was XM capable, but like many rental cars, the XM subscription had clearly lapsed. Cruise control is selected by a small stalk on the right of the column. Climate control is standard, and was appreciated as the temperatures continued to rise during the test. There is one column stalk, which operates indicators and wipers, which would have benefited from being about half an inch longer, as reaching it from around the wheel was not quite the natural position you would want. Otherwise, I had no complaints about the controls. In XE spec, the seats are cloth covered. There is electric adjustment for the driver’s seat, but the front passenger will need to resort to manually operated bar under the seat and levers on the backrest. The seat proved supremely comfortable.
The XE trim level covers all the basics. As well as getting the extra 7 bhp, upgrading to an XR brings dual zone climate control, power operated and heated leather seats,trip computer a compass facility and a couple of other minor items.
Overall, with the exception of the brakes, I was impressed with the Outlook. None of the press seem to have criticised these, so it may be that the pads were worn on my test car, though it had only done 15,000 miles so this should not be the case. Not only is a massively better car than the Uplander and its relatives, it is a good car in absolute terms. If I needed something to carry up to 8 people and stuff, I would certainly prefer this to the Toyota Sienna I drove a few weeks ago, simply because of the better steering and handling. At just over $30,000, this is a lot of car for the money, and Saturn has traditionally enjoyed very high customer satisfaction ratings. However, with the failure to sell the Saturn brand, though, the last of these cars are now lingering in the dealers, so it would probably have to be one of the other Lambda based cars that a new car buyer would select. Although each has its own body style, I expect that the fundamentals are very similar. With so many Chevy Traverses in the Hertz fleet at present, I am sure that one day I will get to find out