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Tall wagons tout their nuances

Crossover vehicles are replacing those old family haulers, and GMC's Acadia establishes its niche.

January 03, 2007|Warren Brown | The Washington Post

The minivan is living on borrowed time.

Minivan sales are falling, down to nearly 850,000 in 2006 from a record high of 1.4 million in the United States in 2000. Auto industry analysts predict that sales of minivans will not top 1 million again.

Toyota executives, at an international motor show in Geneva in 2005, declared the minivan "dead." General Motors and Ford are pulling out of the minivan business in 2007, leaving the segment to their lone American rival, the Chrysler Group.

But all is not lost for consumers in need of big family haulers. A new vehicle segment is rising. Auto industry people call it the "crossover" market.

I prefer calling the new models tall wagons, because that is what they are -- wagons with sport-utility-vehicle pretensions. And along roads winding through the vineyards and agricultural fields of central California, I had the opportunity to drive what arguably is one of the best of the new breed -- the 2007 GMC Acadia.

I was not surprised by the Acadia's road performance or build quality. It shares a platform with the 2007 Saturn Outlook, a tall wagon I recently drove. I loved the Outlook, a commodious work of unitized steel construction that drove and handled in the manner of a much smaller, tighter sedan, although it offered ample seating for eight people with enough space remaining behind the third upright seat to accommodate 19.7 cubic feet of cargo.

The Acadia, starting at $29,900, has the same capabilities, and I have every reason to believe that the Buick Enclave -- which I have not driven but is built on the same tall-wagon platform -- will prove to be as capable as its siblings, all of which are available with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.

What, then, distinguishes these three?

In the bad old days of General Motors, the answer would have been easy -- absolutely nothing, with the meager exceptions of their identity badges.

But that GM is dead and gone -- and good riddance to it. The new GM has mastered the art of computerized engineering and design. It has discovered what many of its better foreign rivals have long known -- that with the right sculpting and component tweaks, consumers can be offered visually and behaviorally distinctive vehicles built on the same cost-efficient platform.

Thus, the Acadia, with its bold but tasteful upscale trim, its enhanced four-wheel suspension and its array of gadgetry -- such as a heads-up display system that projects vehicle speed and other operational information on the windshield -- looks and feels richer than the Outlook. Its exterior design, in keeping with the heritage of GM's GMC Truck Division, is more aggressive than that of the Outlook.

The Buick Enclave, on the other hand, has a look that is jazzy and upscale, decidedly more urban and urbane than the Outlook or the Acadia. No one will have trouble telling the three vehicles apart. And it's a safe bet that the Acadia, Enclave and Outlook buyers will be demographically different.

But they are likely to have two things in common: their dislike for minivans and their disdain for truck-like sport-utility vehicles.

And something else: Buyers of the Acadia and its tall-wagon relatives will have a keen appreciation for style. After all, that is what the turn away from minivans to what the industry calls "crossovers" is all about: style augmented by performance, reliability, safety, utility and fuel economy.

The tall wagons, or crossovers, have it. The minivans don't.

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