Used to be, to accommodate their specific vehicular needs, medium- and large-size families were relegated to penalty-box minivans with questionable styling, or behemoth full-size SUVs with trucklike handling and abysmal fuel economy. The introduction of midsize and large crossovers, like the 2008 Saturn Outlook, has changed all that. Now, soccer moms, NASCAR dads and everyone else with a brood to chauffeur (and cargo to move) have a viable and — dare we say — desirable domestic alternative to the family mobiles of the past.
The 2008 Saturn Outlook is kin to the other General Motors crossovers based on the same Lambda vehicle platform: the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and the newest member of the family, the 2009 Chevrolet Traverse, all of which effectively take the place of minivans for the automaker. Even though the base Outlook XE starts out as the least expensive of the three (at roughly $28,000), once you step up to the higher XR trim level (which is what our test car was), add all-wheel drive (like our test vehicle) and start ticking off must-have and like-to-have options packages (also on our test vehicle), the ticket price blows through the $30,000 range. We decided to see how this $42,000 crossover from Saturn shaped up.
Our all-wheel-drive 2008 Saturn Outlook tester's 3.6-liter V6 engine puts out 275 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm (For 2009, this was upgraded to 281 hp and 266 lb-ft). That six-cylinder engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control, and they work together to get the 5,067-pound crossover to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds during performance testing. That's not all that an impressive number when compared to the Outlook's competitors, but it's nothing to be ashamed of for such a large, heavy people carrier. (The Toyota Highlander gets from zero to 60 in 7.5 seconds, the Mazda CX-9 does it in 7.7 seconds and the Buick Enclave takes 8.8 seconds.) The Outlook stopped in a respectable 127 feet in our 60-0-mph braking test, thanks to ventilated disc brakes at all four corners, and handled like a car (albeit a big car) courtesy of its unibody frame and comfort-tuned suspension.
During highway driving, we found the transmission often reluctant to downshift on its own. This was most apparent when merging into traffic and trying to get up to speed quickly, or when we needed a quick downshift to pass at speed. It felt like there was power there to tap into, but the six-speed transmission, obviously tuned for maximum fuel economy, was sometimes painfully slow to react to our pedal-based requests. This is a known issue for GM's Lambda platform crossovers, and there is an ECU reflash available through dealers to reportedly remedy the problem. The other way to fix the issue is to use the manual shifting option, activated by a rocker switch on the shifter.
One of the biggest benefits of a crossover SUV built on a unibody platform (as opposed to a truck-based SUV) is a smooth ride quality and carlike demeanor. This holds true for the Outlook; it's well-mannered, predictable and easy to drive. Due to firmer suspension tuning, it's less floaty and boatlike than the Outlook's Buick Enclave sibling. Even loaded with seven adult editors of varying sizes, our Outlook test vehicle never seemed sluggish, and it exhibited minimal body roll when cornering considering its size. Freeway hop when cruising over expansion joints is fairly pronounced, but not so bad as to make the ride uncomfortable.
The eight-way-adjustable driver seat (with memory as part of the Enhanced Convenience Package) and height-adjustable seatbelts make it easy for people of many sizes to find a comfortable and safe driving position. The front passenger seat is four-way-adjustable and has power lumbar adjustment, allowing the person riding shotgun to dial in their seating position, too. Both front seat cushions are firm and wide, yet gentle side bolstering and decent thigh support help to keep even those with narrow or long frames comfortable on longer trips.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels good, with just enough thickness and cushion to keep road-weary hands comfortable. It also tilts and telescopes to adjust to drivers of different sizes and position preferences.
The second-row bench seat is roomy and comfortable, with copious legroom. Outboard seat cushions are firm with prominent side bolstering, but the center seat is very hard and narrow. The third-row seat, however, is where the 2008 Saturn Outlook really shines. Many crossovers or traditional SUVs have very cramped third-row seats. Yet adult passengers who end up in the Outlook's flat third-row bench will have little to complain about. Legroom can't be characterized as abundant, but average-size adults won't be eating their knees back there either. Rear-seat audio and climate controls with vents in the second and third rows are appreciated when things heat up.
One of the best attributes of this eight-passenger crossover is the acrobatic second-row bench seat, which splits, tumbles, flips forward and slides easily to allow wide-open access to the third row or provide room for more cargo. Second-row captain's chairs are optional for increased seating comfort but reduce capacity (to seven).
With all rows of seats in use, the remaining cargo area is a usable 19.7 cubic feet, enough for a few pieces of luggage or a week's worth of groceries for a large family. Should you want to use more of the Outlook's generous 117 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity, putting down the third-row seats is an uncomplicated process thanks to a simple lift-to-release lever and pull-to-raise strap, though it requires quite a bit of effort: The third-row seats are rather heavy and a 5-foot-7-inch editor had to climb into the cargo area to reach the levers and straps.
One of our few complaints is that, for a family-focused vehicle, there is a surprising lack of just-right medium-size storage bins, though there are many small storage compartments. Another gripe from the driver seat is that the small, similarly shaped buttons of the climate and audio controls are attractive and symmetrical, but these very qualities make them more difficult to use. The optional touchscreen navigation system now includes a rear back-up camera, which helps with rearward visibility in a vehicle of this size, but it comes with a hefty $2,340 price tag.
Our Recaro Como child safety seat was fairly easy to install on the outboard second-row seat (we installed it on the 40 side of the 60/40-split-folding seat to make access to the third row through the 60 side easier without having to remove the child seat). You'll find LATCH anchors on the second-row outboard seats only.
Design/Fit and Finish
Our test car's Garnet paint, a deep glittering red reminiscent of the gemstone for which it is named, was quite attractive and rich-looking up close, but dissolved to "non-descript dark" from any distance farther than a few feet, especially in bright sunlight. The Outlook's exterior design is friendly and clean, but less visually interesting than its GM brethren.
Interior materials are of good quality, and while not quite the premium feel of the Buick Enclave, they definitely don't feel cheap. Panel gaps were minimal on our test vehicle, and the entire interior felt solidly built, with nary a squeak or rattle. The light tan leather on the first- and second-row seats — part of the pricey $3,570 Luxury Package — was comfortable and attractive, but we noticed it already starting to look dirty after our test Outlook's 2,300 miles. Hard plastic on the backs of the front seats makes scuff removal easy but takes away from the upscale feel of the leather upholstery.
Who should consider this vehicle
Carpools, family road trips, extended visits from extended family, big box shopping sprees: If those all sound familiar to you, the 2008 Saturn Outlook could be the understated minivan alternative you're looking for. If you like what the Saturn offers in terms of standard equipment, options and the like, it's a solid choice in the midsize or large crossover SUV segment, though we'd probably skip the pricier options if it were up to us.
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