- The Washington Times - Friday, December 27, 2002

You don't want the bulkiness and lousy fuel economy of a SUV, but yet you want its image and versatility. How do you bring those two worlds together?
Enter the crossover vehicle. Not quite a sport utility vehicle, but more versatile than a typical car or station wagon, the crossover is the newest niche in the automotive industry. The movement is a runaway juggernaut in which nearly every manufacturer is attempting to establish a beachhead.
Although the argument can be made that the Saturn Vue is a crossover, for the present, General Motors is relying primarily on the Pontiac Aztek and Buick Rendezvous to carry its banner in the segment. Both are based on GM's front-drive minivans. While the Aztek is more a lifestyle vehicle for the biking, camping, kayaking crowd, Rendezvous fulfills the role of family hauler.
The Rendezvous is offered in two trim levels: the CX and the highly contented CXL. GM recently supplied a CXL for a 10-day tour of Arizona and New Mexico. It was a trip that began in Phoenix, and included stops in Prescott, Sedona, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley in Arizona before dipping southeast to Albuquerque, N.M., for its annual Balloon Fiesta.
Easily accommodating three guys and their luggage, the Rendezvous proved the ideal conveyance for such an ambitious trip. Its third-row seat folded flat with the floor to make room for three steamer trunklike suitcases, but with the luggage removed, was folded upright providing seating for extra passengers in Phoenix and Albuquerque.
In the Rendezvous, Buick has done a much better job of dealing with the parameters of exterior styling dictated by the minivan framework than Pontiac did with the Aztek. Managing almost the same degree of elegance found in other Buick offerings, the Rendezvous is nearly classic in its design. It is clearly a Buick.
Like the Aztek and the GM front-wheel-drive minivans the Rendezvous is powered by a 3.4-liter V-6. It pumps out 185 horsepower and 210 pounds-feet of peak torque. Sufficiently powerful for most chores, this V-6 struggled with the high altitudes and mountainous roads encountered on the ever northward sprint through Arizona. Passing at speed on the hilly two-lanes was especially challenging. Fuel economy is decent, though, with an Environmental Protection Agency miles-per-gallon rating of 18 in town and 24 on the highway.
A four-speed automatic transmission funnels power through the Versatrak all-wheel-drive system developed by GM especially for the Aztek and Rendezvous. Under normal conditions all power goes to the front wheels, but in case of front-wheel slippage, torque is passed over to the rear wheels.
It has no low or locked ranges, but had no difficulty in overcoming a rock-strewn dirt road winding through the red-rock country of Sedona.
Despite steering that was light and a tad vague, the Rendezvous handled well on the twisties. This is no sports car, but for its high center of gravity and rather docile minivan roots, it acquitted itself well on the switchbacks of Route 89A between Wickenburg and Prescott, and then again between Jerome and Sedona. Some body roll was evident, but by in large, it wasn't excessive.
The four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock kept the Rendezvous' forward momentum in check. This was particularly welcomed on some of the steeper downhill runs.
Inside, the CXL is luxuriously appointed. The seats are supportive enough to keep occupants fresh even on longer hauls. The analog gauges are large with faces that could easily be found on a fine watch.
Anything but intuitive, the automatic climate control forced a consultation of the owner's manual after two days to discover the finer points of its operation.
There are lots of cubbies, little storage areas and cup holders. This particular test Rendezvous had the CXL Plus option package. It added $5,000 to the bottom line, but included a grocery list of upscale features like heads-up display that projects the speedometer reading onto the windshield, driver information center, upgraded eight-speaker audio system, tire-inflation monitor, leather seating with heated front seats, rear-seat audio, dual-zone automatic climate control, Onstar communications system with one year's free Safe and Sound plan, and rear-parking aid.
The rear-parking aid alerts the driver when the vehicle is backing too close to an object.
This is a handy feature in the Rendezvous because the over-the-shoulder view is restricted thanks to very thick C-pillars.
At an additional cost of $325, a 100-channel XM satellite radio system was also operational. Although a monthly fee (typically less than 10 bucks) is required, satellite radio is a must-have feature.
All of its channels are available, uninterrupted, coast to coast.
Base price of the Rendezvous CXL is $28,170 and comes with features such as power windows and door locks, over-sized dual power remote outboard mirrors, air conditioning and third-row seating.
In addition to the options already mentioned, my test CXL also had $650 16-inch chrome wheels, and a $1,000 rear-seat DVD entertainment system with monitor, ear phones and remote control.
Adding the $625 delivery charge brought the price as tested to $35,770.

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