Pontiac's Trans Sport Montana has the sportiest appearance of GM's three minivans

Normally we review a single model but as the trio of minivans from three of General Motors' divisions are so similar we have combined them in one report. The Chevrolet Venture is the most popular version as it is the lowest priced one. Oldsmobile's Silhouette is aimed at those who want a more luxuriously appointed minivan, while Pontiac's Trans Sport or Montana as it is now known, is aimed at those wanting a sportier minivan.

When GM originally introduced these three minivans in 1990 they were not well accepted, much to GM's chagrin. People were not enamored with the space age styling nor did they seem to appreciate the innovative plastic body.

The newest versions introduced in 1997 feature more conservative styling and steel bodies. They have been selling much better than the earlier models and are a good alternative to the ubiquitous range of Chrysler minivans. They have an incredible variety of seating arrangements which provide appropriate accommodations for a wide range of uses in hauling people and/or cargo.


What You Need To Know:

1. Review of a 1997 Pontiac Trans Sport
2. Summary of Good and Bad Points by Owners
3. History of GM's minivans
4. Review of Current Model
5. Basic Facts
6. Changes Year-to-Year
7. Safety Information
8. Value Guide
9. Option Installment Rate
10. Sales History
11. Awards and Commendations Earned
12. Other Reviews
13. Recall Information
14. Price of Spare Parts


1. Pre-Owned Vehicle Evaluation - 1997 Pontiac Trans Sport Montana

Likes: great versatility, good ride
Dislikes: lack of choice of more powerful engine option
Competitors: (on same platform: Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport/Montana and Oldsmobile Silhouette), Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager/Chrysler Town & Country, Ford Windstar

Miles: 41,100
Condition: A+
Price when new: $27,000 (est.)
Posted Price: $19,988 (Feb. 2000)

As I walked up to the Pontiac Trans Sport minivan I realized how well it blended in with a couple of mid-size Sport Utility vehicles parked nearby. I guess this is a positive sign as so many people sacrifice the utility of a minivan for the panache of a SUV. In reality a minivan offers a smoother ride, better handling higher fuel economy and, most important, more versatility.

The Pontiac Trans Sport certainly does. This extended length model came with the optional seating arrangement for eight people. Yes, that's one more than other minivans offer and equivalent to the capacity of the Chevrolet/GMC Suburban or the Ford Excursion. The Trans Sport has three individual bucket seats in the center row and each one can be folded down or removed. The rear seat on this vehicle was a bench seat with a useful 60/40 split, other models come with two bucket seats. As all the seat backs can be folded down it's possible to get a 4x8 sheet of plywood in the back of the van without removing the seats. Depending on the number of passengers, the flexibility for carrying cargo is infinite. For example, you could get a couple of bikes or snowboards alongside two passengers sitting one behind the other in addition to the driver and front seat passenger.

Although the individual seats tip the scales at 39 lbs. each, they are a little tricky to remove by one person even though they are relatively lightweight. For safety they have to be strong and well anchored to the floor which means the frame and latching mechanism has to be made out of steel. Nevertheless I found them a heck of a lot easier to manhandle than the bench seat in a Windstar for example.

On the road the Trans Sport handles nicely and feels much more like a car than a truck. The steering is precise and there is not much body roll. The performance is okay with one or two people in the vehicle but when it is fully loaded it could do with a more powerful engine.

The interior is designed for convenience - as it should be in a minivan! There are storage bins all over the place and enough cupholders for everyone to have a couple of drinks on the go. Of course some of these are only available when the rear seats are folded down as they are located on the seat backs. Cargo nets help keep stuff in place. Getting into the Trans Sport is easy as it has two sliding doors, one of which is electrically operated. It can be opened and closed without touching it by using the remote key. This is a real boon if you're carrying something and don't have a hand free to open the door.

All in all I liked the Trans Sport and its siblings, which are all but identical. They feel slightly smaller than the Chrysler or Ford minivans although in reality they are identical in length and just a couple of inches narrower. They handle well and have tremendous versatility in their seating configurations. Although there is a short wheelbase model available it is not as popular (rightly so) as the longer wheelbase models, consequently you are less likely to find one as a pre-owned vehicle. Also note that the increased usefulness of having four doors has encouraged GM to drop three-door versions from the 2000 model lineup.


2. Summing It Up - Owners Views

Good:
No problems ('94)
Shorter nose of current model
Drives very nicely
Versatility of seats
Good turning radius

Bad:
Front cupholders seem flimsy and inconveniently placed
Lots of niggling problems ('92)
Long nose ('95)


3. History of GM's Front-Drive Minivans

General Motors had (and still has) a rear drive minivan (the Chevrolet Astro) in its lineup. It appeared on the market soon after Chrysler introduced its front-drive minivans in 1983. While the Astro sold well it was not a car-based minivan like the Chrysler models. In 1990 GM introduced a trio of front drive minivans (Chevrolet Lumina APV, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette) that were quite different in appearance from anything else on the road. They were derived from the Pontiac Trans Sport concept vehicle that had gull wing doors. The production models did not get that feature but nonetheless they were very futuristic in design with a swooping front nose and a plastic body built on a spaceframe. They quickly became known as the "dustbuster" vans. Inside they offered tremendous versatility with individual seats but they were smaller than other vans. Most people did not like the driving position with the view over a vast expanse of real estate below the sloping windshield. They handled well but this attribute was not enough to make them best sellers.

In 1997 GM totally redesigned the vans making them much more conventional with a steel body and larger interior. They became even more versatile when Pontiac became the first manufacturer to introduce an electrically operated sliding door on the new Trans Sport in 1997. This feature quickly caught on and other manufacturers now offer it.


4. Review of Current Venture

A long family vacation trip is an ideal way to test a vehicle. That's just what I did with an Oldsmobile Silhouette Premiere. After 2,000 miles travelling with two kids and the entire luggage we found it to be an ideal family vehicle. This high-end model came with leather seats and an entertainment system. A flat-panel TV screen flips down out of the ceiling just behind the front passenger seats while the VCR and game ports are located at the bottom of the dashboard just above the floor. Although the screen is small it proved adequate and kept the two boys quiet while movies played. The driver and front passenger did not have to listen to the sound track as there are no less than six outlets for individual headphones.

The van cruised happily all day at 80 mph (we were in a state with a 75mph speed limit) and was as comfortable as any car. The 25-gallon gas tank enabled the vehicle to have a cruising range of about 500 miles on the highway. This was great for the driver but not so good for the passengers as enforced potty breaks were less frequent than they might have been. While the boys and myself loved the electric sliding door my wife was annoyed by it as it is slower to shut than a manual operated door. The door on the driver's side is manual so this inconvenience does not affect the driver when he or she is closing the door. Overall I think the electric door is a boon.

Chevrolet and Pontiac also began offering the entertainment system as an option in 2000, so now one does not have to pay the extra bucks for the Oldsmobile version to get this attractive family option. All in all the newest trio of GM minivans are fully competitive with minivan offerings from other manufacturers.


5. Basic Facts: 1997 - 2000

Vehicle Type: Compact Van
No. Passengers: up to eight
Origin of assembly: Doraville, GA
Engine: (standard): 3.4-liter 180 hp V-6 ('97-'98); 3.4-liter 185 hp V-6 ('99 on)
Transmission: 4-spd automatic; front-drive
Length: 187 or 201 inches
Wheelbase: 112 or 120 inches
Width: 72 inches
Height: 68 inches
Curb weight: 3800 lbs. (approx.)
Cargo volume: 127 or 148 cu. ft.
Fuel tank capacity: 20 or 25 gals.
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway): 18/25B


6. Changes in the Line 1997 - 2000

1997 Model Year (first year of new model)
All new models introduced - it's larger and comes with steel body panels instead of plastic

1998 Model Year
Side impact airbags become standard on all models

1999 Model Year
Engine power output increased by 5 horsepower
Eight-passenger seating now optional on Venture
Trans Sport model name dropped in favor of Montana
Upscale edition of Silhouette includes TV console for rear passengers

2000 Model Year
Four-door models become standard across range
Revised instrument cluster in Montana and Silhouette


7. Safety Notes

NHTSA Crash rating ('98 model year): Driver 4; Passenger 4 (5 is best)
ABS standard on all models
Dual air bags standard from 1997, side airbags standard from 1998


8. Value Guide

Prices listed are for base models. Options can add considerably to the lowest price listed as these are usually "stripped" models. In many cases, very few vehicles are ever sold at the lowest price listed! Source: Kelley Blue Book

1995 Model Year

New: $18,035 to $23,200

1996 Model Year

New: $20,435 to $23,295

1997 Model Year (first year of new model)

New: $20,495 to $26,805

1998 Model Year

New: $20,739 to $26,805

1999 Model Year

New: $21,375 to $31,680


9. Option Installment Rate

Generally, when you order a new car you have a choice of factory-installed options. When you buy a pre-owned vehicle the choice is limited to what was actually installed on vehicles sold in that model year. Use this option installment rate as a guide to the chances of finding particular options on a pre-owned vehicle. Source: Ward's Automotive Yearbooks

1997 Model Year
Installment Rate

Body Style:
3-door std length: 31% (Venture), 34% (Trans Sport), 25% (Silhouette)
3-door ext. length: 26% (Venture), 23% (Trans Sport), 20% (Silhouette)
4-door std length: 9% (Venture), 0% (Trans Sport), 0% (Silhouette)
4-door ext. length: 34% (Venture), 43% (Trans Sport), 55% (Silhouette)

Traction Control: 19% (Venture), 46% (Trans Sport), 64% (Silhouette)
Cruise Control: 85% (Venture), 55% (Trans Sport), 100% (Silhouette)
Leather Seats: 0% (Venture), 13% (Trans Sport), 45% (Silhouette)
Power Windows: 85% (Venture), 54% (Trans Sport), 100% (Silhouette)
Remote/Keyless Entry: 85% (Venture), 95% (Trans Sport), 22% (Silhouette)

1998 Model Year
Installment Rate

Body Style:
3-door std length: 12% (Venture), 8% (Trans Sport), 0% (Silhouette)
3-door ext. length: 8% (Venture), 0% (Trans Sport), 0% (Silhouette)
4-door std length: 10% (Venture), 12% (Trans Sport), 1% (Silhouette)
4-door ext. length: 70% (Venture), 80% (Trans Sport), 99% (Silhouette)

Traction Control: 32% (Venture), 53% (Trans Sport), 87% (Silhouette)
Cruise Control: 92% (Venture), 57% (Trans Sport), 100% (Silhouette)
Leather Seats: 0% (Venture), 16% (Trans Sport), 73% (Silhouette)
Power Windows: 95% (Venture), 99% (Trans Sport), 100% (Silhouette)
Remote/Keyless Entry: 94% (Venture), 97% (Trans Sport), 92% (Silhouette)

1999 Model Year
Installment Rate

Body Style: N/A

Traction Control: 37% (Venture), 49% (Montana), 82% (Silhouette)
Cruise Control: 92% (Venture), 60% (Montana), 100% (Silhouette)
Leather Seats: 7% (Venture), 18% (Montana), 68% (Silhouette)
Power Windows: 93% (Venture), 99% (Montana), 100% (Silhouette)
Remote/Keyless Entry: 94% (Venture), 95% (Montana), 92% (Silhouette)


10. Production/Sales Volume History

Normally a model year runs from October to September. Often though, when a new version is introduced it hits the market before October. Legally, a model year can start as early as January of the preceding year. Accurate model year sales counts are almost impossible to collect as different model year vehicles are regularly sold side-by-side for several months. Production figures, when listed, often include vehicles made for export to Canada, Mexico and overseas. Source: manufacturers/Ward's Automotive Yearbooks

1997 Model Year (first year of new model)
Production run: Oct. 1996 through Sept. 1997
Total number produced: NA
Total no. sold in U.S.: 56,801 (Venture), 41,910 (Trans Sport), 18,459 (Silhouette)

1998 Model Year
Production run: Oct. 1997 through Sept. 1998
Total number produced: NA
Total no. sold in U.S.: 99,442 (Venture), 58,421 (Trans Sport), 35,659 (Silhouette)

1999 Model Year
Production run: Oct. 1998 through Sept. 1999
Total number produced: NA
Total no. sold in U.S.: 98,518 (Venture), 59,482 (Montana), 41,959 (Silhouette)


11. Awards and Commendations

1995
"Best Overall Minivan Under $18,000" - Intellichoice (Lumina Minivan)

1997
"Best Buy" - Consumers Digest (Lumina Minivan)

1999
"Best in Class" - Kiplinger's Personal Finance (Pontiac Trans Sport)


12. Quotes

"Forget the Lumina APV, this is a legit competitor in the market, and should be on the shipping list." - Autoweek's 1999 Buyers Guide

"The Trans Sport Montana's sport suspension makes for a good ride and surprisingly crisp handling. Optional seating for eight, combined with truly comfortable seats, makes the Trans Sport shine as a cargo ship." - Car and Driver 1998 Truck Buyers Guide


13. Recalls (Only major recalls listed)

ID Number: 98V072000
Component: visual systems: windshield wiper linkage: pivot: drive ASSEMBLY
Potential Number of Units Affected: 55,154
Year: 1997-1998
Manufactured From: Apr. 1996 To: Oct. 1997
Year of Recall: '98
Summary: Vehicle Description: Passenger mini vans equipped with traction control systems. The windshield wiper linkage arm can contact a brake line which is connected to the traction control system modulator valve. This contact can chafe the brake line resulting in a brake fluid leak. Brake fluid leakage can cause reduced brake effectiveness and increased stopping distances.

ID Number: 98V145000
Component: interior systems: seat latch
Potential Number of Units Affected: 125,990
Year: 1997-1998
Manufactured From: Apr. 1996 To: Mar. 1998
Year of Recall: '98
Summary: Mini vans equipped with bucket seats or a split bench seat in the second (middle) or third (back) row. The seat latch mechanisms on bucket seats and on the 40% portion of the split bench seat in the second and third rows do not have protective covers. When activating the release mechanism to roll a bucket seat forward, a customer's finger(s) could be severely injured or severed in they are not kept clear of the mechanism.

ID Number: 98V131000
Component: power train: transmission: automatic
Potential Number of Units Affected: 38,540
Year: 1998
Manufactured From: Dec. 1997 To: Apr. 1998
Year of Recall: '98
Summary: These vehicles may have (1) a broken shift cable fitting or (2) loose shift linkage. Consequently, moving the shift lever to a 'Park' position may not shift the transmission to 'Park'. The vehicle could roll increasing the risk of a crash.


14. Cost of Parts for Chevrolet Lumina APV (relative to other vehicles)

Headlight unit: $229 (above average)
Side marker lamp: n/a
Door (left front): $787 (above average)
Fender (left front): $191 (average)

Note: these are estimated retail prices for commonly replaced body parts on a 1996 model. Prices are current as of Feb. 2000 but will vary from region to region and are subject to change at any time. Source: ADP Collision Repair Services


The Rettie Report and Pre-owned Profiles contain objective information from a variety of sources. The subjective comments are those of John Rettie.

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