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The all-new 2006 Pontiac Torrent is the biggest of the compact SUVs. Based on a car chassis, the Torrent offers a nice ride and good power.
The available leather seats are nice, the premium stereo sounds good, and the low dash offers a good view of the road ahead. Convenience features include a sliding and reclining back seat that offers extended leg room or more cargo space according to your needs, and a clever tray in back for cargo versatility.
Torrent is Pontiac's first true sport utility vehicle. It's built on the platform of the Chevy Equinox. Unlike most Pontiacs, Torrent's styling is restrained, clean and pleasing.
The Pontiac Torrent is relatively large for the class, with a wheelbase that's 13 inches longer than that of the Ford Escape. The Torrent is based on a car platform. It shares its basic structure with the Chevy Equinox and Saturn Vue. Torrent is the same shape as the Equinox, but Torrent's split kidney grille announces it's a Pontiac and gives it some distinction. Distinction is in fairly short supply in this class, however, and the Torrent looks similar to most SUVs in this category.
All in all, it's a pleasing, subtle design, with clean lines and a forward wedge shape to the sides. The trapezoidal twin-beam headlamps are strong, reminiscent of a Saab, and so is the pseudo skid-plate that wraps up onto the front fascia, coming from under the car. The B-pillar is flat black, so it's barely visible between the tinted glass of the front and rear doors; this accentuates the thick C-pillar, and the pleasant tall rectangular shape of the rear side window. Thick aluminum roof rails are suggestive of those on the Nissan Xterra and help give this car-based SUV a more rugged appearance. The outside door handles are the big grab variety, making it easy to open the doors and climb in without breaking fingernails.
Getting in the Pontiac Torrent is easy. The door openings are wide, and you need neither climb up nor stoop down to get in the seats. Simply slide in. The seats are comfortable, though we'd prefer more side bolstering.
The cabin looks nice, though the materials vary in quality. The standard cloth upholstery, used on the seats and door trim is attractive. One of our test vehicles came in light-colored cloth and, with a matching roof liner, gave the cabin an airy feeling. The available leather seats are also nice. However, the plastic used for the dash and other trim is no better than average for the class.
The steering wheel, is leather-wrapped with stylish but bulky stitching that feels rough in your hands. The instruments are uncluttered and easy to read, despite the red lighting. The dashboard is low, affording good forward visibility. Big side mirrors make more good rearward visibility. The inside door handles are easy to operate. The switchgear works well, with one exception: The power window buttons are awkwardly located on the center console, not on the driver's door, so you'll have to look down to find them; and lowering the window at toll booths demands a shift of hands on the steering wheel, to toss coins or take a ticket.
The center console flips up and out of the way, opening up space between the front seats for a tote bag or purse so it's not flopping around in the passenger's footwell. On the floor is a single cupholder that works well for cans and water bottles; just aft of this, also on the floor, are slots for CDs angled forward for easy access. Flipping the center console back into place offers an armrest and a small amount of storage, though the storage cubby is located far enough rearward as to be awkward to access. A pair of cupholders can be popped out of the end of the console, but they're flimsy and obstruct the floor-mounted handbrake lever; we avoided using them, preferring the floor-mounted cupholder. Your passenger will just have to hold his or her drink. The door pockets are narrow, though there are map pockets on the sides of the center tunnel. There's room for a cell phone on each side of the gear lever, which is surrounded by a grippy rubber pad.
The optional Pioneer sound system is deep and rich, something we discovered while listening to XM Satellite Radio's Cinemagic station, with movie soundtracks.
The rear seat slides forward or back eight inches, a nice feature. Sliding it forward and adds five cubic feet of cargo space. Sliding it back offers rear passengers more legroom. The rear seat is split 60/40 for cargo versatility, and the seatbacks recline, so passengers back there can really lie back. The front passenger seat folds flat, turning it into a tray or allowing long items, like a surfboard, to stretch from the tailgate to dashboard.
The cargo compartment features a clever polycarbonate tray that pulls out of the floor and can be slotted into one of three height levels, so it can be used for different things, including concealment. It allows two levels of grocery boxes or bags, for example. The tailgate lifts high enough that all but the tallest owners can stand fully upright beneath it.
The Pontiac Torrent gets good acceleration out of its 185-horsepower V6 engine. It uses an older, overhead-valve design, however, so it's not as smooth and quiet as, say, an overhead-cam engine from Toyota. EPA rates it 19/24 City/Highway miles per gallon. We averaged 18 mpg, but our test vehicle only had 579 miles on it when we began driving, and engines loosen up and get better mileage over time.
The five-speed automatic transmission may be the smoothest thing about the Torrent. The upshifts are nice and tight. There's good engine torque, with 210 pound-feet, and the transmission ratios and electronically variable shift points are well matched. We drive two steep hills every day in all kinds of vehicles, including those far more powerful than the Torrent; many other transmissions have to kick down, but the Torrent did not. It's also rated to tow 3500 pounds.
The Torrent offers good handling for the class without any sign of harshness to the ride. The longest wheelbase and widest track in the class surely add to this capability. The ride was good, including over some rough gravel roads, and. It's not hard to spin the front wheels when taking off quickly, and the front-drive Torrent comes standard with traction control to mitigate that. We haven't driven an all-wheel-drive version. Our experience with all-wheel-drive versions of the similar Saturn Vue are that the rear wheels are only driven when the fronts start to slip. This works okay for getting through snow, but doesn't significantly improve handling on wet roads.
We'd prefer the Torrent had disc brakes on all four wheels, but it comes with drum brakes in the rear, which are less costly. Four-wheel ABS is standard, but no Electronic Brake-force Distribution is available. We made one panic stop from 70 miles per hour, and were satisfied with the feel of the pedal and stopping distance.
The Pontiac Torrent is among the biggest of the compact SUVs. It's a competent vehicle with some nice convenience features, such as a sliding rear seat. In terms of refinement it's about average for the class.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from the Columbia River Gorge; Mitch McCullough contributed to this report from Los Angeles.
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