PALO ALTO, CA – It’s just not cool to make minivans anymore.

It’s debatable if minivans ever were cool – just ask any 30-something who grew up sandwiched between a cooler of Capri Sun and mesh bag of soccer balls.

But minivans are even less cool if you’re an auto maker on the wrong end of the segment, as General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. demonstrated this year.

Both domestic auto makers have shut down their minivan programs, leaving the sliding-doors wide open for the leaders: The Honda Odyssey and Chrysler Group’s Dodge Caravan. By no means does that mean GM and Ford have surrendered the market, however.

With the all-new Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia cross/utility vehicles, GM is trying to change the rules of the game as Generation Xers look to buy family haulers of their own.

Both new CUVs are well-executed people movers that are distinct enough to avoid the criticism of homogenous rebadging. The Acadia brings the “professional grade” appearance GMC customers expect, even though the Acadia is the brand’s first model not built on a truck frame. Meanwhile, the Outlook’s pluckiness conveys Saturn’s conversion to European styling, even though this model is engineered in the U.S.

Found in front- or all-wheel-drive layouts, both contain GM’s upgraded 3.6L DOHC V-6 with variable valve timing. The 275 hp and 251 lb.-ft. (340 Nm) of torque combine with Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy ratings of 18 mpg (13 L/100 km) city and 26 mpg (9 L/100 km) highway for FWD variants. The mileage improvement beats the likes of the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer and the new Acura MDX.

The CUVs’ new dedicated platform hovers relatively low to the ground, aiding ride and handling that is fluid compared with some truck-platform SUVs or CUVs derived from existing passenger-car architectures.

Inside, the Acadia and Outlook carry just about everything. There is space behind the third-row seats for groceries and soccer balls.

All seats fold flat, and the third row is fitted with Velcro straps – easily reached and yanked from the tailgate – to erect and lock the third row into place. The third row headrests fold down with a push of a button, instead of requiring disassembly.

Handles attached to the headliner near the rear side doors make entry and exit trouble free.

The three rows of seats can be configured for seven or eight passengers, with two bucket seats up front and a standard third-row 60/40-split bench seat. The second row offers the choice of a 3-occupant split bench or two captain’s chairs.

Both the Acadia and Outlook feature “smart slide,” a new seating innovation that also arrives on the upcoming Buick Enclave, the CUVs’ platform mate. A 1-pull lever pushes the second-row seat cushion up while the seatback slides forward. The entire unit slides as one, allowing for easier access to the third row. The feature also means seating can be adjusted for both tall and short passengers.

Other little features on both models give away GM’s target audience. For instance, the angle of the driver’s dead pedal – no minivan needs a dead pedal! – was crafted with a groove for the comfort of women in high heels.

Another plus is the 6-speed automatic transmission’s manual-mode button. That feature – perhaps not the most ergonomically placed, on the shifter in the center console – is nonetheless a nice option for engine braking and more spirited backroad cruising. The Acadia’s steering wheel could stand to be a bit more robust, especially for the typical GMC buyer.

Uplevel interiors are plush, and the ride for all trims is nicely hushed. The CUVs were sealed with a new type of expanding foam that helps keeps out noise. A pair of optional sunroofs gives the Acadia and Outlook an open and airy feel, as opposed to cavernous minivans of old.

GM presents the Acadia alongside would-be competitors in the Acura MDX and Honda Pilot.

Both GM CUV models are down on horsepower compared with the MDX’s new 300-hp 3.7L V-6 mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission. However, GM’s 3.6L V-6 spreads more torque through a wider range. And along with the 6-speed automatic, it just plain sounds better.

Neither rival vehicle is particularly pleasing for passengers getting in or out, especially the MDX, which allows third-row entry only from the curbside. GM’s point here is well taken: If a third row is necessary, it should be accessible without having to contort into a pretzel.

The Acadia (named for the national park in Maine) continues GMC’s penchant for namesake national parks, such as Yukon, Denali and Sierra. An Acadia Denali version with a V-8 is expected later in 2007. The Acadia starts at $30,000 but can loft to nearly $50,000 fully loaded.

The Outlook isn’t named for anything in particular, and GM product engineers bristle at any comparisons to the Microsoft software that has been known to crash from time to time. Outlook starts at $27,255 and tops out at about $38,000 nicely equipped.

Why will these CUVs succeed when similarly pitched domestic “breakout” CUVs Chrysler Pacifica and Ford Freestyle haven’t lived up to expectations? GM says its CUVs offer low step-in height, yet still are more roomy than either of the aforementioned competitors, among other reasons.

Fair enough. But how will GM market these to the minivan buyer without uttering the “M” word?

“You don’t,” says GM product chief Bob Lutz, as he tears the Acadia around a corner here. “You just show them what they can get.”

If Generation X gets it, GM may be able to take back some of its mislaid minivan market.

scanderson@wardsauto.com