Called a crossover because it straddles the line between car and truck, the Outlook offers the passenger and cargo capacity of a big SUV, but ride quality and fuel economy more like that of a car. While a Chevy Tahoe is built on a pickup truck platform, the Outlook is built with a unit-body chassis like that of a car. As a result, it offers a smoother ride and nimbler handling. And because its structure is much lighter than that of a truck (by about 800 pounds), it gets much better fuel economy.
Outlook is only one inch shorter than the Tahoe, but offers much more legroom in the third row, thanks to its front-wheel-drive layout, as well as its long wheelbase with short overhangs and wide track.
Outlook gets an EPA-rated 16/24 miles per gallon City/Highway with front-wheel drive and 16/22 mpg with all-wheel drive. That's significantly better than what many truck-based SUVs get.
We found the Outlook offers good acceleration performance, its transmission is smooth and its ride is solid and comfortable. The Outlook benefits from GM's latest 3.6-liter V6 engine with variable valve timing; it's rated at 270 horsepower in the XE and 275 horsepower in the XR, thanks to its dual exhaust. Its six-speed automatic transmission provides good flexibility for good fuel efficiency and responsive performance.
The interior shows attention to detail, and the standard cloth seats are of a high quality and look stylish even in gray or black.
All the latest safety bits come as standard equipment, including large curtain airbags that protect the outboard passengers in all three rows of seating.
For 2008, there are few changes. XM Satellite Radio is standard equipment and a 115-volt power outlet is available to provide house current for accessories. Also, a back-up camera is available that displays an image of what's behind the vehicle whenever the driver shifts into reverse, an excellent safety feature for its ability to help the driver spot small children.
Saturn Outlook XE ($29,360); Outlook XR ($31,770)
The Outlook looks sleek and modern, certainly by SUV standards, though it doesn't have the boldness of the Ford Edge.
The grille with a wide chrome bar and Saturn logo proudly announces itself, and stands out against a black background. The black air dam 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. In short, the Outlook presents a good-looking face.
From the side, the nose is conspicuously short and rounded. The styling invites the eye rearward, as the roof sweeps straight back and appears as a 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.
At the rear, the Outlook loses some of its style. The black dam matches the front, making the SUV look like it has super high ground clearance. The taillights are ordinary, and the chrome over the license plate doesn't add anything. We find the look of the XE with its body-colored trim cleaner than the XR with its chromed door handles and roof rails.
Second-row legroom is less generous: Outlook offers 36.9 inches while Tahoe has 39.0, and the 2008 Honda Pilot has 37.4.
The second-row seat slides rearward, however, providing more legroom when the third row is unoccupied or when kids in back are small enough that you can get away with squishing them a little.
So this legroom thing is a bit complicated. When we add the legroom of the second and third rows together, the Outlook wins with 70.1 inches, compared with Tahoe's 64.3 and Pilot's 67.6.
Getting into the Outlook is very easy, especially considering it doesn't have sliding doors. Access to the third row is much easier than in most vehicles, thanks to a design 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 in place it's 68.9 cubic feet, and behind the third row it's 19.7 cubic feet. Those are 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. We really liked the XE cloth, though 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. There are cup holders galore, a deep console compartment, DC and 115-volt AC outlets.
The center stack is attractive with nice climate controls. Separate HVAC controls are provided for the second row on the back of the console between the seats.
The 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. While 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.
Fuel economy compares easily beats that of traditional SUVs and compares well to smaller crossover SUVs. The Outlook's EPA-rated 16/24 mpg City/Highway (16/22 mpg with all-wheel drive) is comparable to that of the Ford Edge with its similar and comparable V6, but the Edge is smaller and only seats five.
Steering and handling is above averagefor a vehicle this size, a benefit of its car-like structure.
The six-speed automatic works well and usually left it in Drive. However, a button on the side of the shift knob can be pressed with your thumb for manual shifting when driving in changing terrain or in traffic. We enjoyed using the manual feature and liked the tight gear changes.
The all-wheel-drive system sends 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, some as much as 95-5. The Outlook's system is better balanced than those.
It's not uncommon to detect a difference in the ride, between a front-wheel- drive and all-wheel-drive version of the same vehicle, and it's usually the front-wheel- drive that's smoother. In this case, we think the front suspension of the AWD model felt tighter and less jouncy, firmer and more comfortable at the same time. That contributed to the good handling.
The Saturn Outlook is an attractive and practical vehicles that seats eight people more comfortably than most. Its legroom and Smart Slide feature makes entry to the third row a snap. It gets much better fuel economy than a comparable truck-based SUV yet its V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission deliver responsive acceleration performance.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from Southern California.