It doesn’t take graphs and analytics to tell you that the crossover utility market is red hot right now. The roads are absolutely jammed packed with them and as their popularity has been on the rise the fortunes of other once popular family vehicles like the minivan have been on the wane. To be honest, I am at something of a loss to really explain why that is. They are, in my opinion, an odd combination that offers none of the real benefits of a true four wheel drive SUV, none of the room or cargo capacity of a van, and virtually none of the economy or road handling of a small car. Why oh why, then, did I buy one?
My particular crossover utility is a 2008 Pontiac Torrent. Since the Pontiac brand was officially discontinued in 2010, my little trucklet is officially an orphan but thanks to the fact that it was constructed on General Motors’ Theta platform it lives in a world surrounded by half-brothers and half-sisters. Introduced in 2002, the theta platform underpins the Torrent as well as the Chevrolet Equinox and the Saturn Vue and the current Chevrolet Captiva, a version of the Vue that continues to be built for the rental market under the bow-tie brand, and the GMC Terrain among others. My car is powered by a 3400 V6 backed by an automatic transmission but GM also offered an Ecotech 4 and, so my research indicates, your choice of two different manual 5 speeds.
Although GM has done a much better job of differentiating the three Thetas currently for sale in the US in the last few years, giving the GMC a more blocky look that is similar to the trucks they sell, the Chevrolet a slicker more modern “Malibuesque” look while the Captiva retains the rounded look that made the Saturn a popular and distinctive vehicle, such was not the case when my Equinox was sold back in 2008. In those days, only the Saturn Vue had its own look, the Equinox and the Torrent were differentiated only by their front fascias on the outside and, so far as I know, only by Pontiac’s signature red dash lights on the inside. In my opinion, the Torrent is the more attractive of the two as Chevrolet hung their center bar grill and an oversized bowtie on the Equinox while Pontiac reached back into their history and pulled out a twin hole grill ala the GTO Judge and stuck a small, brilliant red arrowhead between the twin snouts.
Moving back past the fascias the two rigs are, as I have said, identical and are designed to look more like the “normal” body on frame SUVs that preceded them rather than the slicker more car like crossovers that have since evolved. My Torrent has a solid upright look to it, with blocky fenders and over sized wheel wells. A sloping c-pillar gives the design a little bit of forward motion and the back glass that slopes down to a fairly upright tailgate completes the truck like effect. On top, large diameter tubing set into rugged plastic mounts runs from just above the driver’s door to the back of the rig and two removable crossbars, now safely in the garage. allow me to utilize this space for cargo should I desire.
Inside the Torrent is built to a cost. The dash, and all the plastic parts for that matter, is made of cheap looking, hard black plastic. There are some obvious seams where the pieces fit together but I cannot go so far as to say that there are any gaps between the panels. In fact, they seem to fit together well, it is only the mating of two different angles that draws the eye to them. The seats in my Torrent are scratchy, utilitarian cloth rather than the nicer leather than would have come on a more well optioned vehicle and the carpets are just simple black carpets and mats that are standard fare in most vehicles today. Rubber flooring, I think, would have been a better choice.
The instrument panel is big and has easy to read numbers which is good because I rely upon bifocals to see these days. The controls are all easy to use and intuitive, the climate controls with three easy to find knobs and the radio above with one large volume knob like the ones below it. It would be easy to get them confused at night but for the fact that they are fairly well separated. Between the speed and tachometers is a digital information system that shows the regular and trip odometers while you are driving but which will also occasionally alert you to vital information like low tire pressure, when an oil change is needed, low oil pressure or other engine vitals and even when the outside air temp gets low enough to create possibly icy conditions.
The CD player allows 6 discs to be loaded and the buttons on either side of the aforementioned volume knob do all the usual seek and scan duties. Changing between discs is difficult to do on the fly because the forward and backwards controls are included in the row of buttons right below the display that would in days gone by be used the pre-programmed radio stations. The fact that these buttons’ functions changed when different parts of the sound system were brought into play escaped me for a while, but now that I have had the vehicle in regular use it has become more natural. The radio also features an equalizer function that requires accessing a menu something that, like added or removing CDs, is best done while stopped. There are always ways to hook in your i-pod which I might know about if I wasn’t a cave man.
The wheel is leather wrapped and feels good in my hands but it is connected to a steering gear that I think is a little on the twitchy side. Perhaps it is my increasing age but I prefer just a little more play in my steering, this thing is instantaneous and the slightest input will point you in a new direction. The brakes are good. The car has about 38,000 miles on it now and I have recently replaced the pads on all four wheels. The front were definitely needed but the backs could have gone a while yet. I did tires when we got it 3 years and around 16K miles ago and they are wearing a little more than I expected, especially on the front. But given the fact that my AWD trucklet is closer to a front wheel driver than a rear wheel driver I suppose I should have expected that. The trick, I think, is to keep the tires rotated and everything will be fine.
Performance wise I have been disappointed; the Torrent seems under powered to me. The 3400 V6 demands to be revved in order to make any power and any sudden acceleration results in the transmission downshifting in order to force the engine high in to the rev range. I have never abused my cars and I am reluctant to put my foot down and force an engine to work hard, but the Torrent, it seems to me, likes to be wound up tight all the time. In a hot little turbo car I would not have an issue, but in something that at least otherwise looks like a truck I find it disconcerting. In varied city/highway driving it is returning about 18 miles to the gallon, not as good as I thought it might when I purchased it but not horrible either.
Paint is another area where I am suffering some mild disappointment. There are two small areas, neither where one would expect to find any real rock damage, where the clear coat has flaked away. This is a vehicle I drive year round so it is exposed to salt, but it is generally taken to a car wash several times during the winter and then gone over carefully by yours truly in the spring. My own detailing includes a thorough underspray with the garden hose, a wash and a wax with Meguiars Gold Class. I wax the vehicle at least one more time during the summer and again in the fall before winter comes. I have, at this point, touched up the edges of the flaking clear coat and the peeling has stopped, but I am unhappy as these two areas, each about a 50 cent piece in diameter, are the only blemishes on the car’s otherwise attractive black paint.
The only mechanical issue I have to report after three years of ownership was an issue with the coil packs. Last summer it began acting up on the highway, stuttering and not accelerating like it should. A simple Google search pointed me in the right directions and a trip to the local dealer, now a Buick shop, had the entire thing resolved in just the amount of time it took me to walk a block to the nearest McDonald’s, eat my breakfast and get angry at the Fox N Friends Morning Show they had on the TV there. Because GM was aware of the issue and tweaked their warranty to cover the parts and service, this little problem was handled on their dime and without too much hassle. Props to GM and our local Buick dealer, they did a good job.
I purchased the Torrent in the autumn of 2010 shortly after I arrived in Buffalo and it was intended to be primarily my wife’s car. Although I was originally looking for a minivan a chance stop at the dealer closest to my house turned up this Torrent, recently traded and adult owned with just 18K miles on the clock. At the time I paid about $16K which seemed like a fair deal and I have since seen others selling for similar money despite not appearing to be as nice. Currently Thetas can be found in virtually all price ranges and in all states of condition but I would realistically guestimate that mine is worth somewhere in the $10K to $12K range as it sits now.
Ultimately my family’s situation has changed since we purchased the Torrent. My third child, now 18 months old, necessitated the purchase of a van and I began using the Torrent as my daily driver. In the last 18 months it has served me well on my modest commute, sits on a fairly busy thoroughfare while I earn my daily bread and out in the driveway exposed to the elements the rest of the time. It works reasonably well in this role, still looks great and still performs decently.
The rub is that I do not think I would buy this vehicle again knowing what I know now. Although my third child forced us to buy a minivan the truth is that we would have been better off buying one in the first place. Ingress and egress with a four door is a pain in the butt, especially when you have strollers and car seats involved. The back seats are close enough to the front seats that, with my car seat ensconced little-ones in the back, I get a never ending series of kicks to the seatback which causes me a rough ride and lots of dirty little foot prints that demand cleaning. It is not a great family vehicle for little kids and its limited space feels quite similar to the VW Golf TDI I used to own. At least in the Golf, while it ran, I was rewarded by its fuel sipping frugality, but here I am getting econobox space without any of the benefits. That bothers me.
Should you buy one? That depends, I suppose. The Torrent, I think, is a decent bargain priced entry into the midsized crossover market. If you must have a crossover, are sans children and have a commute that requires some AWD capability, and I have to confess that the Torrent has been fantastic in the Buffalo winters it has endured, making the commute on its normal, all weather tires without so much as a slip or a slide, then why the heck not? If you have a burgeoning family, need something that gets great mileage or are looking for a place that you can comfortably grind out a long commute, then I would advise against it. That then, is The Truth About Cars from this author’s perspective.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.