HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Sparkling white snow, rare in the pine-clad mountains of Arkansas, coats all roads into Hot Springs with multiple inches of the slippery stuff.
Drivers in this region, usually not confronted by such a traction dilemma as snow, struggle to maintain control of their vehicles on slick slopes.
We're in better shape, however, because the vehicle we're steering through this icy onslaught comes with a sophisticated traction device designed to keep all of the wheels rolling as the vehicle moves forward on a steady and safe track.
Our set of wheels, working magically to maintain steady traction on the snow, happens to be a new product for the Saturn line of General Motors.
It's labeled as the Relay and emerges as a 2005 model under the designation of a crossover sport van (CSV).
The boxy exterior package, cast with a broad prow and high-rising cabin, looks clean and stylish but similar in shape to Saturn's Vue sport-utility vehicle (SUV).
It has a protruding prow with headlamps planted high on front corners like a SUV and prominent pillars on each side trailing back to the squared-off tail plus a top-hinged liftgate on tap to access the back cargo bay.
Yet the stretched wheelbase of Relay supports a generous passenger compartment configured with three tiers of seats for as many as seven riders plus a flat floor arrangement to handle a load of cargo.
And a big slab door on each side of the cabin slides back to function like the side door on a minivan.
Actually, the platform for Relay is a revised issue of the GMT-200 minivan chassis of General Motors but it stretches for nine inches longer than previous GM minivans. The result becomes a vehicle that resembles a low-slung SUV but works on the inside more like a comfortable van and has room for all in the family plus gear.
Saturn offers Relay in two different levels of trim -- designated by numbers simply as Relay 2 and Relay 3.
Front-wheel-drive (FWD) traction is the norm for Relay 2 as well as Relay 3, but Relay 3 adds the option of all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction.
That's the version we're driving over snow-covered roads in Arkansas.
Relay's AWD system -- dubbed Versatrak -- is designed to help the wagon maintain traction on wet or icy roads. It's always engaged so the driver never has to decide when to punch a button or pull a lever to turn on the device.
Under normal conditions the Versatrak system operates in FWD mode.
However, there are wheel sensors aboard linked to a computer brain. If the system detects tire rotational differences between front and rear wheels during dicey traction conditions, it can instantly divert some of the engine's power to propel either or both rear wheels momentarily before tire slippage occurs at front wheels.
This action keeps our Relay moving forward steadily and safely during those low-traction incidents, and we find ourselves moving around other motorists who do not have such traction-grabbing armaments.
The engine propelling all editions of Relay is GM's 3.5-liter 3500-series V6.
It generates 200 hp at 5200 rpm and as much as 220 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.
The V6 links to a four-speed automatic transaxle with electronic controls, the Hydra-Matic 4T65-E from GM.
Add an optional towing package and Relay is capable of towing a trailer that weighs up to 3500 pounds.
And the powertrain earns favorable fuel economy ratings -- 18 mpg in town and as much as 24 mpg for highway driving in FWD mode, or 17/23 mpg (city/highway) on the AWD version.
The ride quality of Relay is smooth and comfortable like you'd expect from a large luxury car.
Front suspension is independent with MacPherson struts and coil springs.
For FWD versions, the rear suspension is an open-section twist axle with integrated stability bar.
For the AWD Relay, there's an independent double wishbone design in back isolated on an aluminum cradle.
Steering works through a rack and pinion system with power assistance applied, and for stopping power there's a disc brake on every wheel tied to a four-wheel anti-lock brake system (ABS).
The FWD Relay also shows the option of StabiliTrak, GM's seamless vehicle stability control system.
Styling for Relay seems discrete and sedate.
There's that long-snout face marked by Saturn's horizontal-bar grille, subtle shoulders on front fenders and extended flanks capped by three expanses of windows. A panel tinted neutral gray rings each Relay at ground level.
The sliding slab door on each side operates manually on Relay 2, while Relay 3 adds push-button power controls to open and close each portal.
Inside the cabin, Relay contains three rows of seats plus cargo space at the rear.
Two large buckets mount on first and second tiers, with a bench for three on the back row.
Seats on the second row fold on the seatback and tip forward, or they unlock easily for removal when extra cargo space is needed.
Seatback on the rear bench, divided into equal halves, folds down in separate sections to form a flat cargo floor, or the entire bench unit may be removed.
Several nifty storage devices show up inside the Relay, such as flip-down trays between front and second-row seats, or an optional multi-section cargo organizer in the floor at the tail with lids that line up level with the folded-down back bench.
The ceiling houses a console above front seats and overhead rails that hold snap-in modules for storage and accessories -- including controls for rear area audio and climate systems or a standard backseat DVD video entertainment kit with flip-down screen.
Standard equipment includes air conditioning, a remote keyless entry system, cruise control, power to the driver's seat, power controls for door locks and windows, heated external mirrors, an audio kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3 and six speakers, plus the backseat DVD video unit.
MSRP begins at $23,770 for Relay 2 and runs to $29,885 for Relay 3 with AWD.