I've been putting off buying a three-row vehicle for four years now--that's how long it has been since kid #3 was born. When the Ford Freestyle came out, I was impressed by the versatility of its interior and its relatively tidy handling. Maybe one of these wouldn't be bad with a sports car on the side, I started to think.
So when I heard that GM had a large crossover (car chassis, SUV styling) on the way, I looked forward to it. And the instant I learned that they had arrived at dealers, I got myself to a Saturn dealer and took one for a test drive. The dealer only had the base trim XE with front-wheel-drive, so this is what I drove. Immediately afterwards, I took a Ford Freestyle Limited for a test drive to refresh my memory of that car. It hasn't been too long since I drove the revised-for-2007 Chrysler Pacifica, so I'll make the following comparative review a three-way. At stake: best large domestic crossover.
After completing this review I drove the Mazda CX-9 and Suzuki XL7. See link to those reviews at the bottom.
No doubt about it, the new Saturn Outlook has far more presence than the other two. Its lines are clean yet bold, with a wide stance and flared fenders. The wheels have been pushed to the corners, and overhangs, especially the front overhang, are fashionably short. The upper body bears some resemblance to that of the discontinued extended-length Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT, with fairly upright pillars, the last one blacked out. Overall, the Outlook looks much more like a conventional SUV than either the Freestyle or the Pacifica do. Which is a smart move, seeing how many rough-riding SUVs were sold based on this look. Even the base XE looks very good. To often GM equips its base trim products with wheels that destroy the looks of the vehicle, but not this time.
The Pacifica has a more sophisticated exterior, but its squat proportions tend to be controversial. The Freestyle is much more plainly styled than the other two. Though only an inch shorter in length than the Outlook, it's over three inches narrower, and it looks much smaller than it is. Clean and functional, but no road presence. It looks like a toy compared to the Outlook.
The Outlook's instrument panel resembles that in the new GM large trucks. So it's cleanly styled but with a definite upscale ambiance despite the generally hard plastics. The door panels and armrests are upholstered in stitched vinyl. I like that the stitching is real, and the armrest actually padded, unlike in the Saturn Aura sedan. However, the Outlook in the showroom had a light gray interior, and in this shade the vinyl had the slick appearance I associate with the cheapest grade. The gray seat upholstery also looks at best functional, at worst also way too cheap for a $28,000+ vehicle. The Outlook I drove had a black interior, which looked MUCH better than the gray. Avoid the gray. In any Outlook, the amber-lit instruments look much classier than those in the typical GM car.
The Chrysler's interior is fancier, and I remember being impressed by the design and the upscale ambiance when I first drove the vehicle back in 2003. But in my recent test drive many materials seemed cheap. The culprit might again be shade: like the Outlook's, the Pacifica's interior looks best in a solid off-black shade. The light gray areas of the 2007 looked cheap.
The Ford's interior looks much more downscale than the other two. Ford for a few years was stuck in a highly functional interior aesthetic. That said, it feels more solid than the other two despite having the plainest styling.
Chrysler's market research found that people wanted to feel safe, and that they felt safest in a vehicle with a high beltline and relatively small windows. So sit lowest relative to the instrument panel in the Pacifica. Forward visibility is still fairly good, rearward pretty bad. The driving position in the Saturn Outlook is much like that in the average SUV, so you sit a bit higher relative to the IP than in the Chrysler. Visibility is fairly good in all directions, partly because you sit highest in the Outlook relative to the road. You sit closer to the road in the Freestyle, but much higher relative to the instrument panel. This plus large windows gives the Freestyle the best all-around visibility of the three.
The Freestyle is three to four inches narrower inside than the other two, and it feels it. Want the vehicle to feel compact and manageable? Then you want the Ford. Want a feeling of space? Then you want the Outlook. Though the Pacifica offers almost as much shoulder room as the Outlook, it's higher beltline and smaller windows make the interior feel closed-in.
The front seats of the Saturn Outlook are among its weakest aspects. They're not uncomfortable, but they're not especially comfortable, either. Just generic seats with a bit of a cheap, insubstantial feel to them. The Outlook in the showroom had a broken manual lumbar adjuster. Luckily the one I drove did not. Although I don't require much in this area--I'm constantly cranking it down in cars driven by others before me--in the Outlook I needed it dialed all the way up to provide just adequate lumbar support. The seat's small squishy side bolsters provide zero lateral support in turns.
The Ford Freestyle's front seats offer just a bit more lateral support, courtesy of firmer but still small bolsters. They are the firmest of the three, and are perhaps the best shaped for proper support and long-distance comfort. Their styling isn't much better than the Outlook's, though, owing to the general hyperfunctional styling of the interior. The Pacfica's front seats have the most prominent side bolsters and the cushiest, most luxurious feel.
In the second row, the Outlook fares even worse. Legroom is easily sufficient, but the split bench seat is devoid of contour and mounted way too low to the floor to provide adults with anything resembling thigh support.
The Pacifica's second-row buckets are mounted just a bit higher and feel a touch undersized, but especially with the swoopy second-row center console feel somewhat luxurious. While second-row buckets are optional in the Saturn and Ford, a second-row bench is only available in the base, five-passenger Pacifica. Since I have three kids who I'd like to carry with my luggage, this is a deal-killer for me.
The Freestyle's second row seats don't have much more contour than those in the Outlook, but they are firmer and feel more comfortable. Even though the Ford has a much shorter wheelbase than the others (113 inches vs. 116 in the Pacifica and 119 in the Outlook), it offers the most total legroom, matching the Outlook in the first and third rows and exceeding it by over three inches in the second row, for an impressive total of 40.2 inches. Best of all, the Freestyle's second-row seats are mounted high off the floor, providing both very good under-thigh support and an open view forward. The Outlook's extra shoulder room makes it easier to fit three across, but in terms of second-row legroom and comfort for two adults the Ford is the clear winner.
In the Outlook and the Freestyle, the second row easily slides or tumbles well out of the way, opening up a wide path to the third row. Access is much more constricted in the Chrysler, as is the third row itself: both headroom and legroom are inadequate for adults. In contrast, two adults can sit with good headroom and barely adequate legroom in the third row of the Ford, and three can do this in the Outlook. Surprisingly, the third row seats in the Outlook actually have a comfortable shape to them, making them more comfortable to sit in that the second-row seats. The seatbacks are taller than those in the Freestyle, where the headrests must be raised a good half-foot or more for adults.
One nifty Outlook feature: there are four pairs of reading lights mounted to the headliner.
In all three vehicles, the second and third rows fold to yield a flat floor. The Outlook easily offers the most interior cargo room when this is done, both with the seats upright and with them folded. The Chrysler is the tightest inside, owing to a lower roof. In the Ford's favor, it's third row actually stows beneath the floor, as in a minivan, so it has a lower load floor than the other two and especially than the relatively high floor in the Saturn. (This is the payoff for the Freestyle's smaller seat.) Also in the Ford's favor, it's front passenger seat also folds to enable especially long objects to be carried. I love this feature in my wife's PT Cruiser, but will grant that it is less necessary in larger vehicles. A final detail I liked on the Outlook: a meaty grab handle to close the raised hatch.
On the Road
The Saturn Outlook starts out at 4,700 pounds, so I feared that even with 270 horsepower its engine would be overmatched. I needn't have feared. The 3.6-liter DOHC V6 moved the large crossover well, and made encouraging noises while doing so. The gearing of the newly developed six-speed automatic helps.
Through last year the Pacifica was powered by a 3.5-liter DOHC engine that, hamstrung by an automatic with four widely-spaced ratios, provided just adequate acceleration. The 2007's new 4.0-liter six plus six-speed automatic provides very strong acceleration, giving it a modest advantage over the Outlook in this area. You'll experience more torque steer in the Chrysler, though.
The new Chrysler automatic shifts more smoothly than the new GM automatic. The Outlook's slushbox sometimes shifted abruptly and often felt indecisive. On a positive note, the Outlook's automatic responds quickly to the shift-knob-mounted "range selector." (I actually prefer this shifting method, first seen in the Chevrolet Malibu, to the more common ones of steering-wheel-mounted paddles or a special slot for the lever, but I haven't noticed any other reviewers sharing this opinion.) And it should enable decent fuel economy. At 75 on the highway the engine turns just 2,000 rpm. I was less crazy about how the transmission lugged the engine as low as 1,200 rpm at slower speeds, causing a slight drone.
The powertrain in the Ford, although probably the most economical, doesn't perform nearly as well as the other two. While acceleration is adequate, the engine sounds coarse and never feels happy about the amount of weight it must move about. The CVT enables the adequate acceleration, but the way it holds engine speed constant while vehicle speed catches up doesn't feel normal. And makes for a lot of unpleasant engine noise.
The 2008 Freestyle will arrive next spring or summer. In addition to stability control (finally), it will have a new powertrain, a new 3.5-liter V6 that is much more refined than the current 3.0 (but a bit weak in the midrange) paired with the same six-speed automatic found in the Outlook.
The Chrysler's steering is overly light. The Saturn Outlook's steering has reassuring weightiness to it that builds properly as the wheel is turned, but doesn't provide much road feel. Here the Ford wins, with a much tighter, more precise feel to the steering than you'll find in the other two. Combined with the higher driving position and narrower width, the Ford easily feels the most agile.
This is not to imply that the others handle poorly. For such large vehicles, they all have commendable poise and balance in turns. Body roll is perhaps greatest in the Ford, but there isn't much in any of them, especially not in the Outlook. This is partly because the Outlook's Goodyear Fortera tires have very low limits; the other two have stickier tires (Pirelli P6s on the Freestyle Limited). More performance-oriented tires are part of a Touring Package optional on the XR. On the highway quick lane changes produce a touch of rear-end wobble in the Outlook, and I've noted similar behavior in the Freestyle in past test drives, though to an even lesser extent.
Update: I've now driven the Outlook with the 19-inch tires--but on icy roads. Which reminded me that Goodyear Eagle RS-As don't deal well with ice. If it snows often where you live, and you don't want to buy winter tires, then I'd opt for the standard 18-inch Forteras. That said, I can now attest that the standard stability control works very well.
Trying to drive the Outlook aggressively is also hampered by the powertrain. The range selector helps get the engine into second gear and hold it there, best for most turns, but I never felt a direct connection here. The optional all-wheel-drive system might help. In the front-drive model, pressing on the throttle just increases understeer. Even with all-wheel-drive, I wouldn't expect the Outlook to approach the unexpectedly enjoyable handling of the new Acura MDX, with its trick rear differential that counteracts understeer in hard driving.
I'm being very picky here. The way most people drive such vehicles, they all handle more than well enough, especially compared to conventional SUVs such as the discontinued Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT.
The Outlook is very quiet inside, with very little road noise at any speed. The Pacifica is perhaps a touch noisier, while the Freestyle has considerably more road noise than the other two. I still wouldn't call it noisy (aside from the unrefined engine). It's just that the Outlook is virtually silent up to about 45 miles-per-hour. At highway speeds wind noise remains moderate. Engine noise is less muffled, but as I said above it's a pleasant noise in nearly all cases, so I didn't mind it. Engine noise is even more prominent in the other two. The Chrysler's engine noise is borderline acceptable, while I suspect I've already dissed the Ford's enough.
Ride quality is steady on the highway in all three and on smooth roads at lower speeds. Hit patchy pavement, though, and the Outlook feels somewhat jumpy, with frequent lateral "head toss," while the Freestyle's suspension reacts harshly to some impacts. I suspect very thick stabilizer bars are to blame in the Saturn's case, while the Ford's suspension settings are simply firm. The suspension feels less firm in non-Limited Freestyles, at the expense of steering feel and some float. The Chrysler has the most comfortable ride of the three.
Saturn Outlook Price Comparisons and Pricing
With the vehicles equipped similarly at the lowest possible level, the Ford Freestyle SEL lists for $150 more than the Saturn Outlook XE. But a $2,000 rebate, a $300 adjustment for additional unshared features, and dealer discounting (Saturns tend to sell at MSRP) mean that the Ford will probably cost about $4,000 less than the Saturn.
Given its larger feature adjustment, this is also true of the Limited. Comparably equip a Saturn Outlook XR AWD and a Ford Freestyle Limited AWD, and the approximate difference in transaction prices widens to a huge $9,000, about $2,250 of which is accounted for by the Saturn's additional features, for a net difference of nearly $7,000.
Chrysler slashed the Pacifica's pricing for 2007, such that similarly equipped to the two above a Touring lists for nearly $500 less than the Outlook. Figure in a $1,500 rebate, $400 feature adjustment, and dealer discounting, and the gap again widens to about $4,000.
GMC will soon sell a similar Acadia. GMC dealers will discount, but the Acadia is also priced about $2,000 higher. Sounds like a wash.
Prices change frequently, and differences will vary based on feature level. To quickly generate these and other comparisons with the specific features you want, visit my Web site, www.truedelta.com. (It's the only site that provides true "apples-to-apples" price comparisons.)
TrueDelta's page for the Saturn Outlook:
Is the Outlook worth $4,000 more than the others? I suppose this depends on one's priorities. The Chrysler's maximum capacity of six people, tight third row, or closed-in feel will rule it out in many cases. So the real competition is probably between the Saturn and the Ford. The Outlook's interior feels much larger owing to its greater shoulder room, it looks more upscale, and it can seat an additional person. It also has much more road presence and a stronger, more refined, engine. In the Ford's favor, it has more agile handling, more precise steering, a more compact feel, a more comfortable second row, and a lower load floor. My head says the Ford is the better buy from a functional and cost standpoint, but I suspect most people's hearts will lead them to hunt down the extra dinero for the Outlook. At least with the black interior, it looks and feels like much more vehicle.
If the Outlook's first and second row seats were better, I'd be giving it five stars. As it is, I'm giving it four.
A Note on Saturn Outlook Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy an Outlook rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in Saturn Outlook reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need reliability data on all cars--not just the Outlook--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access
to the site's reliability information. Non-participants will have to pay an access fee.
I am especially interested in starting data collection for the Outlook as soon as possible. Not only am I personally interested in this vehicle, but I know many other people are as well. At the same time, we're talking about an all-new vehicle with a very new transmission design. If enough Outlook owners sign up soon, I could have initial reliability results as early as February.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
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Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
Acura MDX review
Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT review
Chrysler Pacifica review
Ford Freestyle review
Mazda CX-9 review