Unlike the Chevy Tahoe and TrailBlazer, the Outlook doesn't use a truck chassis, so it offers a smoother ride, less weight and nimbler handling. Called a crossover by industry observers, its chassis is more like that of a car even though it offers the passenger and cargo capacity of a big SUV.
Outlook is only one inch shorter than the Tahoe, but offers much more legroom in the third row, thanks to its modern design: a long wheelbase and wide track, with short overhangs.
The Outlook offers comfortable seating for eight yet it gets an EPA-rated 18/26 miles per gallon City/Highway with front-wheel drive and 17/24 mpg with all-wheel drive. That's significantly better than what the truck-based SUVs get.
Although the Outlook is 13 inches longer than the Honda Pilot, it retails for about the same price. Compared with the Honda, the Outlook offers significantly more horsepower, transmission sophistication, and interior room, plus the latest in styling (although the Pilot will be redesigned for the 2008 model year).
The Outlook's acceleration is good, its ride solid and comfortable, and its transmission smooth. The interior shows much attention to detail, and the standard cloth seats are of a high quality and actually look stylish in black or gray.
All the latest safety bits come as standard equipment, including large airbag curtains that protect all three rows of seating, and a tire pressure monitor. Its base price is a relatively modest $28,000 in a FWD Outlook XE that's fairly well equipped, but many options are available that could jack the price way up.
Saturn Outlook XE ($27,255); Outlook XR ($29,555)
It's more than the length that makes the Outlook look a lot smoother than the Pilot. The Outlook isn't as bold as the Edge, Ford's new five-passenger mid-size SUV, but it's clearly a modern design in the GM family, with rounded edges like the latest Tahoe.
The grille with a wide chrome bar and Saturn logo proudly announces itself, and stands out against a black background. The black airdam at the bottom slices a rigid horizontal line across the chin, and its contrast against the body color makes the fascia look like the edge of a cliff. Large trapezoidal openings for the foglamps look like wicked eyes a cartoonist might draw, and above them the similar-shaped headlamps fill the corners of the car; foglamps are unavailable on the XE, leaving big black holes there. A character groove down the center of the hood finishes it all off. It's a good-looking face.
From the side, the nose is conspicuously short and rounded. The eye moves rearward quickly, as the roof sweeps straight back and appears to be a mere thin sliver at its trailing edge. The dark rear glass takes over, wrapping around about 40 percent of the vehicle, finally stopped by a wide sloping C-pillar. The fender flares are fat, and the six-spoke alloy wheels are clean and unpretentious, with six beefy lugs in the hub.
The Outlook loses some of its style at the rear. The black dam matches the front, making the SUV look like it has super high ground clearance. The taillamps are ordinary, and the chrome over the license plate doesn't add anything. In fact, the XE with its body-colored trim is cleaner than the XR with chrome, from door handles to roof rails.
We put a 6-foot, 3-inch fellow in the Outlook's third row, and he said it was fine. But how did Outlook get that leading legroom in the third row? By squeezing the second row. Witness the second-row legroom: Tahoe, 39.0; RAV4, 38.3; Rondo, 38.2; Pilot, 37.4; and Outlook, 36.9, the least of the bunch.
However, the Outlook's second-row seat slides rearward, providing more legroom when the third row is unoccupied or when kids back there are small enough that you can get away with squishing them.
So this legroom thing is a bit misleading. You can't have it both ways. Still, when we add the legroom of the second and third rows together, the Outlook wins with 70.1 inches; then Rondo, 69.5; RAV4, 68.3; Pilot, 67.6, and Tahoe, 64.3.
As for ease of entry, the Outlook takes the cake, at least for a vehicle that doesn't have sliding doors like a minivan. But even with sliding doors, access to the third row couldn't be improved by much over the Outlook's system, called Smart Slide. Using a massive lever on the either side of the 60/40 split seat, each side of the second row slides way forward on rails, and then the seatback tilts until it touches the back of the front seat. It's an easy one-handed operation, opening a wide path to the third row. Smart Slide is also a feature of the optional captain's chairs.
Cargo capacity with both rows folded is 116.9 cubic feet. With the third row down it's 68.9 cubic feet, and behind the third row it's 19.7, all of them healthy numbers. The third row easily folds flat, from either the second row or through the liftgate.
The rest of the Outlook interior is aces. Our XR test model had the standard cloth interior, in black, and it was comfortable and classy; Who needs leather? asks our notes, although the leather-wrapped steering wheel in the XR is sweet. The wood trim in the XR is way prettier than that in GM's past, and the analog instruments are tidy. All the other things are present, and right. Cupholders galore, a deep console compartment, DC and 115-volt AC outlets, an attractive center stack with good HVAC controls, including standard controls for the second row on the back of the console between the seats.
The new 3.6-liter engine handles the weight, with 275 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque. That torque peaks at a conveniently low 3200 rpm, so the acceleration happens early.
The Outlook AWD still gets an EPA-estimated 17/24 mpg City/Highway, numbers which equal those of the new Ford Edge with its similar and comparable V6. But the Edge is smaller and only seats five. In a longer test than we were able to give the Outlook, AutoWeek magazine got 20.7 miles per gallon in mixed use.
This same V6 and six-speed automatic transmission are used in the Saturn Aura sedan, which was voted the 2007 North American Car of the Year by 49 automotive journalists at the Detroit Auto Show. We drove the Outlook for half a day, and never felt the need for more power. The acceleration was always there, and at 80 miles per hour it felt very smooth and extremely quiet.
We didn't have the opportunity to thoroughly test the Outlook's cornering, but from what we could see, the handling is decent for a vehicle this size. There are solid indications that it should be good, including a modern independent suspension and ring-and-pinion steering.
The Aura sedan uses paddles on the steering wheel for its manual operation of the automatic transmission, for sporty driving; but the Outlook uses a button on the side of the shift knob that you flick with your thumb, for more practical manual shifting, for example with changing terrain and load. We shifted a lot, and liked the tight gear changes.
We drove both a front-wheel-drive XE and an all-wheel-drive XR. We didn't get off road, but the AWD system drives 60 percent of the power to the front wheels and 40 percent to the rear on dry pavement, and adjusts that ratio when the sensors detect slipping. That 60-40 split is more balanced than most; some systems are heavily balanced to the front, as much as 95-5.
It's not uncommon to detect a difference in the ride, between a FWD and AWD version of the same vehicle, and it's usually the FWD that's smoother. In this case, we think the front suspension of the AWD felt tighter, and less jouncy. Firmer and more comfortable, at the same time. That contributed to the good handling.
On the heels of the award-winning Aura sedan, the all-new Saturn Outlook SUV further demonstrates what GM engineers are capable of. The Outlook looks good, and it uses a strong new V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission, while delivering 17-24 mpg using all-wheel drive. But its claim to fame is that it offers the most legroom of any three-row SUV, while employing a system called Smart Slide that makes entry to the third row a snap.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report after driving the Outlook in Southern California.