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2006 Pontiac Torrent Photo
Reviewed by Bengt Halvorson
Deputy Editor, The Car Connection
BASE
INVOICE
$19,944
BASE
MSRP
$21,400
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Who doesn’t know the Pontiac Aztek? It’s the unforgettable, odd-looking model that Pontiacintroduced in 2000. Although it seems to have found a cult following, with its little pop-out tent and armory of body cladding (later pared down), GM has now quietly taken it out of production, in favor of a much more conventional-looking crossover SUV, and the division is probably hoping that torrents of buyers will be storming the dealerships for it.

 

The Torrent is based on the Saturn Vue crossover that was first introduced for 2002. The Chevrolet Equinox went on sale last year, for ’05, and now Pontiac gets a version for ’06. That’s why the Torrent’s shape probably looks a little familiar, even in pictures, with the prominent hood crease and rear pillar, and the same big, flared wheel wells.

 

While the Saturn Vue is made in Tennessee , the Torrent is assembled at the GM-Suzuki CAMI plant in Ingersoll, Ont. — the same plant that already makes the Chevrolet Equinox. There’ll be another sibling cranked out of that same factory — for Suzuki — that will come online sometime next year.

 

While the Torrent doesn’t pose as a luxury vehicle, as a Pontiac it’s supposed to offer a little more sport appeal, which GM does by adding Pontiac identifiers like the three-spoke steering wheel, a flashier alloy wheel design, prominent fog lamps, and a standard FE2 Sport Suspension.

 

Though marketing folks would want you to see it otherwise, the Equinox is virtually identical, and the Vue is a close sibling, though each boasts slightly different front and rear exterior treatments and slightly different interior appointments. Along with the Chevrolet Equinox, the Torrent is available only with a Chinese-built 3.4-liter GM V-6, while the Saturn Vue offers either a 2.2-liter four-cylinder or a Honda 3.5-liter V-6.

 

We might add, we’re more than a little puzzled as to why GM priced the Torrent at more than a grand higher than the Saturn Vue, as equipped with the smoother and more powerful (psst…and much more expensive) Honda engine.

 

Slight differences

 

But there’s a slight difference in length; the Torrent is actually about 7.5 inches longer than the Vue, with a wheelbase about six inches longer, putting it on the large side of the compact SUV spectrum. While the Torrent takes compact SUVs like the Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, and Toyota RAV4 in its sights, it’s longer in wheelbase and overall vehicle length than any of those vehicles — even longer than the minivan-based Aztek it replaces and about as long as some SUVs that might be considered mid-size, like the Honda Pilot.

 

We’ve been in and out of most of the compact SUV competition recently, and just in terms of interior design and cargo versatility, the Torrent ranks as one of the best in its class. There’s no third row, but the back seats are considerably more comfortable than much of the competition. They slide fore and aft eight inches to optimize cargo space and legroom, and they easily fold flat for large cargo, with a flat floor. The front passenger seat will also fold forward flat for exceptionally long items. GM claims that the back doors are the widest-opening in the Torrent’s segment, and it helps lend a feeling of accessibility to the space that some other models don’t have. There are plenty of storage spaces, with map pockets on either side of the center stack, plus door pockets, and several center-console cubbies. A flexible cargo shelf in back can easily be removed, or configured for tailgate picnics or muddy boots.

 

Up in the front seats, the Torrent is very comfortable, too. The instrument panel — set low, allowing plenty of forward visibility and easy reach to controls — has much more in common with a car than a truck. The mix of materials, including some chrome and matte surfaces, could have been kept a little simpler, but it feels fine in a vehicle without much luxury pretense. Despite many calling foul on Pontiac’s red interior lighting, we liked the warm tone in this interior.

 

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A 185-hp, 3.4-liter iron-block pushrod V-6, of GM’s long-lived 60-degree family, is the only engine available. This engine has been used in GM’s minivans and the Aztek for years. It’s not particularly smooth or sporty, and emits a coarse drone when under load, but it makes up for it with plenty of low-end torque. I’ve seen some of my colleagues complain that the Torrent doesn’t have enough power, but it seems plenty peppy in real-world driving. The engine had plenty of torque with a full load to make a quick merge with traffic up a steep hill with three people on board.

 

A five-speed automatic transmission is the only gearbox. Five speeds is really more than the torquey engine needs, but it does allow a low first gear for quick takeoffs and high fifth gear for good highway fuel economy. Incidentally, the transmission isn’t a GM Hydramatic, though it plays the part perfectly; this one is built by Japanese supplier Aisin. Our front-wheel-drive Torrent was rated at 19 city, 24 highway; we saw real-world results of nearly 20 mpg in around-town driving.

 

The brake system — discs in front, drums in back, with standard anti-lock — has a firm pedal feel that feels much better than earlier Vues, enabling the Torrent to stop confidently with very little nosedive or fanfare. Our test car had an odd pulsating pedal, though, that would tickle our feet at stoplights.

 

 

Firmed up feel

 

The Torrent’s ride is noticeably firm, more like a well-damped sporty sedan than a utility-oriented vehicle, comfortable most of the time but closer to jarring over potholes. The suspension layout is conventional passenger-car territory, with struts up front and a four-link independent setup in back. Generally, the Torrent is very quiet and well isolated inside for a two-box design, though road noise was sometimes noticeable on coarse pavement.

 

As it’s firmly sprung, the Torrent leans very little during hard cornering and promises tight body control and confident handling. The big letdown, though, is that the excitement just isn’t there. As with many newer cars, the Torrent has an electric power steering (EPS) system; it’s the same basic system that’s used on the Vue (and Equinox). While we can complement most of the other vehicles that have upgraded to electric systems — including the new Toyota RAV4 — it’s hard to do so with the Torrent. We don’t expect the compact ute to be a high-performance road-wringer, and most of the time it handles in a safe and predictable but unexciting way. But the system’s tuning provides a numb, heavy feel most of the time, with little if any feedback from the tires or the road. In low-speed corners when getting back on the power it unwraps in a very odd way, quickly at first then unwilling to center, as if it’s in some internal struggle against its own torque steer. Counter to that, there’s a strong on-center feel at higher speeds. During parking maneuvers, a faint groaning sound coming from the steering column is anything but refined.

 

But during normal driving, those steering complaints count as a relatively minor downside. Truth is, the Torrent is a quite compact vehicle that’s extremely maneuverable and has good throttle response, altogether making a great city vehicle. Just keep both hands on the wheel.

 

Our test vehicle was the standard front-wheel-drive model, though an all-wheel-drive model is available, with a system that’s front-drive-biased, sending more power to the back as needed. Although the Torrent makes no claims of being off-road capable — there’s no low range, no lockers — it is certainly very dirt-road savvy, with short overhangs plus standard front and rear skid plates.

 

The base price, at $22,400, is low, but a closer look at the standard equipment list reveals that you don’t get much more than the basics for that. Our test car had more than $5000 in options — including an extra $1090 for side airbags, which are standard on some competing models — for a sticker total of over $28,000. In that range, there are plenty of other possibilities, some of them with luxury-brand badges. But on the other hand, who pays close to retail for a GM car this year? A quick check on GM’s Web site showed the new-for-’06 Torrent already discounted nearly $2000 as part of the automaker’s Red Tag sale.

 

In all, the Torrent offers plenty of utility but comes up a little short in other areas. For those who haven’t caught the underlying message, no we don’t see a Torrent of buyers storming the Pontiac dealership. It’s a shame, as the Torrent would have been a home run if it had the Vue’s V-6, retuned steering, and a wholehearted sportier feel. This isn’t going to be one of those must-have products GM sorely needs — or one as memorable as the Aztek — but don’t cross this one off the list so quickly.


 

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2006 Pontiac Torrent
Price:
$22,400 base, $28,335 as tested
Engine: 3.4-liter V-6, 185 hp/210 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 188.8 x 71.4 x 67.0 in
Wheelbase: 112.5 in
Curb weight: 3660 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 19/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes, side-impact airbags (optional), head-curtain airbags (optional)
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, tilt steering, rear wiper/washer, luggage rack, fog lamps, six-speaker AM/FM/CD sound
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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