by Phil Berg

Styling distinguishes this minivan from the look-a-likes.

Base Price $23,805
As Tested $32,725

Two of our favorite things about the Montana that you won't find in the nearly identical Chevy Venture and Oldsmobile Silhouette are 1) tires that don't squeal in corners until you're driving at sports sedan speeds, and 2) a steering wheel that's thick and meaty. These two things are directly related to a better driving experience.

In addition, the Montana now comes with the slick integrated video entertainment system that first appeared in the Oldsmobile Silhouette two years ago. If you like what electronics can offer your kids in entertainment and education, this system can change the way you travel.

Model Lineup

The Montana is available in two lengths, one with a 112-inch wheelbase, another with a 120-inch wheelbase. All versions are just called Montana, with no suffixes of letters such as SE, LE, and so forth, so expect some confusion when used versions hit the auto shopper ads several years from now. Montana Regular Length retails for $23,805; Montana Extended Length goes for $24,915.

You'll want to spend some time figuring out the best seating arrangement. Seven-passenger seating is standard with two front buckets and two split-folding benches for the middle and rear seating rows. Another seven-passenger version comes with four captains chairs. Eight-passenger seating is available with modular bucket seats in the middle row and a split bench seat in the rear row. There's also a six-passenger version for the short-wheelbase model.

The long-wheelbase model is the only one available with the Montana Vision video entertainment system, which is a $2595 option. This is the model we tested. This minivan offers the same dimensions as the extended-length Chevrolet Venture and Oldsmobile Silhouette.

All models get two sliding passenger doors as standard equipment; all offer an optional curbside power-operated door.

Walkaround

Like the Chevy Venture and Oldsmobile Silhouette, the Montana is powered by a 185-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 engine attached to a four-speed automatic transmission that drives the front wheels. This type of layout is common to all the best-selling minivans. The engine sits in the usual sideways position, which allows maximum use of interior space. The suspension is independent, and the only chassis differences between this minivan and its Olds and Chevy siblings are the tires.

Interior Features

The instrument panel was revised for 2000. The speedometer needle at 75 mph blocks the right turn signal indicator; a gentle chime indicates you've left the indicator on, but you'll miss it if you've got the stereo up. The steering wheel has seek, set, and am/fm radio controls within reach of your left thumb, and volume, mute, and play (for cassettes and CDs) near your right thumb.

Our long-wheelbase model came with two buckets in the front, two in the middle row, and a split bench in the third row that will hold three adults. Head room and elbow room are generous in all seats, yet tall folks' knees tend to ride high in the middle row, the same as they do in the Silhouette and Venture.

The standard bucket seats fold and remove easily. Handy diagrams on the frames underneath the seats instruct you how to unlatch them from the floor. They are among the lightest seats in the minivan market, so removing them won't kill your back. However, they are heavy enough you'll want to convince your teenager to move them across the minivan's floor and into your garage.

Inside you'll notice the seat has a height-adjustment lever, which really aids comfort on long trips. You can completely change your driving position without getting too close or too far from the steering wheel. The fore and aft range of the driver's seat is one of the longest we've sampled, and will probably make room for plus-six-and-a-half-footers. That also means you can make yourself some room in the driver's seat if you have to wait there for the soccer game to end.

The front seats themselves hold you securely, but they don't feel like the buckets in a sedan. There are large side bolsters on the backs of the seats, but the seating surface is relatively flat. This makes the van easy to get into, but encourages you to move around on long trips.

The dashboard is neatly arranged, and the gauges are easy to read. The videotape and CD players are down near the floor and require a long reach to change media, however. The Montana Vision system has a 5.6-inch flat-panel color monitor screen that folds down from the ceiling. The front-seat occupants can't see it, a legal requirement. Behind this screen is a ceiling console that houses panels with volume knobs and jacks for headphones. On the left side of the rear ceiling are two knobs for additional rear seat heating and cooling. All of this equipment will keep rear-seaters busy and entertained. What we like best about this system is its integration. Aftermarket systems we've tried tend to be more difficult to use and not as durable.

Driving Impressions

The Montana is the perfect family truckster. Crosswinds won't make it wander on the way to Wally World. Veer off onto poorly maintained secondary roads and the suspension doesn't get upset. You feel confident driving on bad roads.

The Montana corners quickly for a minivan. Equipped with the optional sport handling package, its front tires won't squeal until you're cornering at sports sedan speeds. That's unique for a minivan. Body roll is less noticeable in the Montana than it is in the Silhouette and Venture minivans; part of the Montana's handling package includes stiffer springs and larger shock absorbers in the rear.

Back on the big highways, you'll feel no pain. The noise from the powerplant is limited to an isolated and distant hissing. At 80 mph the engine is revving at just 2400 rpm, which we found to be the average cruising speed on most Western highways marked at a 75 mph limit. The Montana doesn't sound like it's straining to keep up, and passing slower cars can be done without too much prior planning.

The V6 engine has good throttle response in traffic, and it's efficient-we got 25 mpg on a fast trip across the state. The EPA estimates highway fuel economy at 26 mpg, an improvement of 1 mpg over last year's Montana. Traction control is optional; and it's a good idea for easier control in winter driving. Without traction control engaged, you can easily spin one of the front wheels during a spirited take-off on dry pavement. With a torque-laden V6 and front-wheel drive, torque steer is sometimes noticeable as a slight tug on the steering wheel under hard acceleration.

The brake pedal is typically spongy, as it is on GM platforms that were designed in the early 1990s. Newer designs, such as the latest Bonneville and GM's newest big pickups and SUVs, lack this mushy feeling, so the Montana will likely get a better-feeling brake pedal in the future. Having said that, the antilock brake system works well, without undue clattering of the brake pedal.

Final Word

The Pontiac Montana is one of our favorite minivans because of its styling, handling and braking. It has all the bins and cubbies of the Oldsmobile and Chevy versions. The Montana was the highest rated minivan by women in Good Housekeeping's latest driving survey. Hmm, suppose all those soccer moms like to play Bobby Labonte on the exit ramps?

The Montana is the most appealing of the three GM minivans to us, and that's just because we prefer the Ducks Unlimited-style colors, the stickier tires and the '99 Bonneville sports sedan steering wheel. It handles rough roads without any ungainly bouncing around. It feels smaller than the big new Honda Odyssey, faster than the new Mazda MPV, but it's not as quick as the latest Mercury Villager or Dodge Caravan. Stocked as it is with a lot of lookalike vehicles, we think there's plenty of room in the minivan market for the Montana.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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