SAN ANTONIO, Tex. -- All traffic on the I-410 freeway in San Antonio moves at a quick pace as we push the throttle on a new performance-geared wagon for the Pontiac brand from General Motors.
Badged as the Torrent GXP, Pontiac's cool CUV (crossover utility vehicle) rolls through the fast lane in lickety-split fashion with its suspension lowered and strong torque flowing from a sophisticated and powerful V6 engine.
All of the engine's power goes to turn the front wheels which also steer this vehicle. Having the front wheels both turn and steer -- when combined with a stiff unitized structure and lively suspension -- makes Torrent uncommonly agile, but that's the big idea behind Pontiac's design for the easy-driving CUV.
That difference traces to Torrent's structure.
The typical sport-ute is built on a truck chassis with the body stacked on a flat platform. Because chassis and body are two separate parts, the joined structure is inherently weak and, no matter how tight the welded joints, twists and bends when set in motion. Such a design guarantees sloppy handling traits -- and a truck's rough ride quality.
Yet Torrent foregoes the SUV's typical body-on-frame structure in favor of a monocoque platform that unites chassis and body in one cohesive unit which remains extremely rigid when moving down the road.
A generous wheelbase length and wide wheel track set up a long and broad foundation for stability when turning.
And, unlike some wagons rigged with a solid rear truck axle and crude leaf springs, Torrent carries out-of-the-ordinary independent suspension components -- MacPherson struts up front and a four-link independent unit in back -- that deliver car-like smooth ride sensations.
So Torrent blends the best traits of a traditional SUV -- such as the tall stance and spacious cabin with flexible seating and generous cargo capacity -- with favored traits of a tightly constructed sedan, as it's easy to enter the low-rise cabin, easy to maneuver the vehicle around town in traffic and easy to park it on the crowded lot at Wal-Mart.
Although Torrent is classified for the compact class, that wide and long platform makes a passenger compartment which seems as spacious as a mid-size wagon.
Plan for the five-seat cabin pitches a pair of comfortable bucket seats on the cockpit row separated by a multi-use console.
A bench seat on the second row splits and folds and also slides fore and aft by eight inches to vary the legroom as well as space for the rear cargo bay.
Pontiac labels this bench as a "multi-flex" seat.
In the rear-most position it shows legroom of more than 40 inches, by far the best in this class and even exceeding the legroom of larger SUVs.
But the bench also scoots way forward.
With a child's safety seat in place and the bench moved to the maximum front position, a parent riding in the front seat can easily reach the little one strapped in back.
And this bench is also broad enough to carry three infant and toddler seats.
The bench's seatback, pared to two sections divided 60/40 percent, reclines to two different positions and each side folds down separately to make room for cargo.
The back of the right front bucket also folds forward to form a flat horizontal surface composed of hard plastic. Long cargo items like lumber or snowboards may be stacked on top of these folded seats and extended from the dashboard rearward to the hatchback door.
With the rear bench folded, cargo room amounts to 68.6 cubic feet.
In the back bay Torrent has a power outlet and a multi-functional panel that fits in three different positions for stacking cargo in tiers. The panel also serves as a tabletop that's handy at tailgate picnics.
Hooks are provided for cinching small articles in the bay, with bins on side walls to corral more small stuff.
Up front, the driver sits in a form-fitting bucket with all instruments and controls within easy reach and view.
Large round analog gauges dot the dashboard instrument cluster with trimmings in low-gloss satin nickel finish.
The center console in multi-level scheme contains an armrest and storage bin hinged at the rear. There's stow space underneath plus five cupholders.
Exterior styling for Torrent seems rugged and strong but also contemporary and sophisticated. It reveals the familiar proportions of a SUV with the erect stance and boxy cabin but also clean lines.
The rippled sheetmetal reflects muscular bulges from flared fenders wrapping around wheelwells and a forceful face containing Pontiac's signature twin-port grille ringed by chrome.
Front fascia on GXP editions gains cooling inlets and deep-set grille inserts. Also, the lower front and rear fascias plus rocker moldings on flanks are tinted to match the color of body panels.
High-polished forged aluminum wheels go to GXP, with P235/50R18 all-season radial blackwall tires.
In the power department, the base Torrent feels frisky, thanks to a 3.4-liter V6 engine which generates up to 185 hp at 5200 rpm and 210 lb-ft of torque at 3800 rpm. The plant ties to an electronic automatic five-speed transmission, a smooth and quiet shifter by Aisin.
Torrent GXP goes for performance with a dual-cam 3.6-liter V6 and variable valve timing (VVT) to knock down 264 hp at 6500 rpm and torque strength of 250 lb-ft at 2300 rpm.
The GXP transmission is a new six-speed automatic (GM's Hydra-Matic 6T70) with manual shift mode (MSM) for tap-up/tap-down shifting control.
Pontiac rigs Torrent for two different traction formats -- FWD (front-wheel-drive) and AWD (all-wheel-drive).
The on-demand AWD device normally runs in FWD mode for driving on dry pavement. When front wheels begin to slip on wet or icy pavement, however, a viscous coupling automatically shifts power to the rear wheels temporarily to keep the wagon moving forward safely on a non-skid path.
Equipment aboard every Torrent includes a four-channel anti-lock brake system (ABS), curtain-style side air bags plus cabin appointments like power windows and door locks, air conditioning and remote keyless entry device.
Torrent's MSRP figures look good -- $23,520 for Torrent FWD and $25,145 for Torrent AWD. Torrent GXP FWD lists for $28,120, with the GXP AWD capping the series at $29,745.