TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Cheaha Mountain, tallest obstacle in Alabama, tops out at 2,407 feet above the Talladega National Forest with a twisty thread of pavement - route 281 -- traversing the peak in a series of hairpin curves carved through granite ramparts.
This sinuous trail over the tallest mountain in Alabama, of all places, became our tortuous track to test the road-hugging manners for a big new crossover utility vehicle (CUV) from the Saturn Division of General Motors.
Chrome-coated block lettering mounted on the lip of the tailgate identifies the CUV as Outlook. The wagon, looking distinctive in a sleek shell, drives and handles like an agile sedan yet functions like a large SUV with the spacious passenger compartment stocking seats for up to eight passengers.
Our drive on the serpentine 281 over Cheaha Mountain demonstrates that Outlook can hang around a tight hairpin curve with tires confidently tracing an aggressive line.
In these benders, the wagon maintains a stable position with minimal lateral roll of the body, the result of a stiffly braced unibody design.
Outlook's integral body-frame structure compares to a front-wheel-drive (FWD) car rather than the conventional SUV's rear-wheel-drive (RWD) body-on-frame truck platform.
A stretched wheelbase of 118.9 inches and a wheel track of 67.1 inches wide forge a long and broad platform which reduces the center of gravity for the vehicle and sets up its smooth ride and nimble handling qualities.
And Outlook has independent suspension components. There's a MacPherson strut design up front with direct-acting stabilizer bar, and in the rear the independent H-arm arrangement has twin-tube shocks mounted on a sub-frame assembly to isolate the road-bump action.
Outlook also shows nimble steering attributes from a power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system, and the brakes pin a disc at every wheel with electronic tie to an anti-lock brake system (ABS).
Further, all versions stock electronic traction control (ETC) and electronic stability control (ESC) devices. Passive safety systems are aboard including frontal and seat-mounted side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags above outboard seats in all rows.
Also on tap is GM's rollover sensing system, dubbed rollover mitigation technology (RMT). It will automatically deploy the side-impact air bags and curtain-style air bags if on-board sensors detect a potential vehicular roll event.
Outlook also offers the choice of FWD traction or a permanently-engaged all-wheel-drive (AWD) system. The smart AWD equipment uses a computer and wheel sensors to determine how much power to apply at each wheel for maintaining tire traction on slippery pavement.
Strength for Outlook is derived from a V6 engine by GM which displaces 3.6 liters and contains dual overhead cams and variable valve timing (VVT). When rigged with a single exhaust system for Outlook's entry-level trim edition, the plant develops 270 hp at 6600 rpm plus torque of 248 lb-ft at 3200 rpm.
For Outlook's top trim edition with a dual exhaust system, the engine's output increases to 275 hp at 6600 rpm plus torque of 251 lb-ft at 3200 rpm. Transmission for either version is GM's fuel-saving Hydra-Matic 6T75 six-speed automatic.
With the 6T75 six-speed in play, Outlook earns EPA fuel economy scores up to 26 mpg for highway cruising in the FWD edition, or 25 mpg with the AWD equipment. No SUV with a cabin capacity of eight seats comes anywhere close to matching Outlook's fuel economy numbers.
And it's really a sizable vehicle in all measures -- the body stretches for 16.8 feet long and 6.5 feet wide by just over six feet high.
Yet the package styling for Outlook, with rippled skin stretched tautly like flexed muscles over the long and broad structure, seems to diminish the big-ness. The face is formidable with oversized clusters of projector headlamps on corners flanking the forward-thrust nose grille scored by a flat bar of chrome.
The profile is sleek, thanks to a tapered line of the roof and rear glass wrapping around the tail corners. Wheels are big, with 18-inch cast aluminum rollers the standard and 19-inchers available. Climb aboard Outlook and you'll find the big-ness of this vehicle apparent in the vast passenger compartment. The cabin plan has three rows of seats and a rear bay for cargo.
On the first row two wide bucket seats flank a floor console. On the second row the standard arrangement shows two captain's chairs that slide to and fro, although a sliding bench to accommodate three passengers is available.
On the third row, a folding split bench can squeeze up to three additional riders aboard. Cargo space in Outlook is impressive.
With the back bench up, the flat-floored cargo bay contains 19.7 cubic feet of storage space -- which is more than the big trunk of a full-size sedan.
With the back bench folded down, the bay expands to 68.9 cubic feet. And with second and third tiers of seats down, the cavernous bay reaches to 117 cubic feet.
Saturn delivers Outlook in two different trims -- XE and XR -- the latter with the twin-pipe engine booster. Gear standard on Outlook XE ranges from air conditioning (front and rear) and power controls for windows and door locks and mirrors to a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes, the driver's seat with height adjustment, and a sound kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3 player.
Outlook XR has added luxuries like dual-zone front climate controls, an electrochromatic rearview mirror, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, front and rear reading lamps, and simulated wood trimming dash, console and doors. Saturn's chart of MSRP figures begins at $27,255 for Outlook XE FWD and runs to $31,555 for the XR AWD version.