Bargains loom as GM readies the next generation. by Tony Swan
It's hardly a secret that GM's front drive minivans -- Chevrolet Lumina APV, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Trans Sport -- have been a major disappointment to their manufacturer. Designed to challenge Chrysler's minivan supremacy with their radical styling, the trio languished as Chrysler and Ford gobbled up the lion's share of the market.
Instead of accolades, the daring new shapes drew criticism and an unfortunate nickname -- the Dustbusters.
Although GM gave the trio nose jobs, powertrain upgrades and a power-operated sliding side door along the way, the trio never recovered from the early impressions.
An all-new set of replacements is just around the corner. Due this fall, the new Chevy Venture, Silhouette and Trans Sport will feature styling that's closer to the minivan mainstream, as well as a sliding driver-side rear door option, a la Chrysler.
Meanwhile, the current generation is still in showrooms. Although these minivans do have their weak points, they have strong points, too. With dealers unloading current models to make room for the new vans, the opportunity for bargains is exceptional.
Since the Pontiac Trans Sport concept van was the design template for the current GM minivans, we chose a Trans Sport SE for our final review of this generation.
Similar in size to the standard Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, the '96 Trans Sport and its corporate cousins come with one powertrain. A 3.4-liter V-6, which will also be the sole engine offered in the new minivans, replaces the previous two-engine inventory. GM's ubiquitous 3.8-liter V-6, the previous upgrade engine, is in too much demand for passenger car applications, which led to the substitution.
Although it doesn't have the muscle of the 3.8-liter engine, the GM 3.4-liter V-6 is second only to the optional 3.8-liter V-6 offered in Ford's Windstar for peak horsepower, and it delivers respectable torque. There's enough grunt to give the Trans Sport a 3000-pound towing capacity when it's equipped with the trailering package.
Like all minivans, the GM threesome is equipped with automatic transmissions. That's a plus for the Trans Sport and its clones, because GM's four-speed automatics are the smoothest in the business. No all-wheel drive option is offered.
A penumatic automatic load-leveling system is offered as a $100 option. A pump adds air pressure to the rear shock absorbers according to load information furnished by an integrated sensor. A nifty feature of this system is that it can also be used to inflate tires or vacation gear like inner tubes and air mattresses.
Another feature exclusive to the GM vans is plastic body panels on vertical exterior surfaces, similar to the panels used on Saturn cars. The plus is extra resistance to parking lot dents and scratches. If this is a feature that appeals to you, 1996 is your last chance to get it. The '97 vans will have conventional sheet steel bodies.
Exterior and interior styling of the current vans follows divisional positioning. The Trans Sport has the sportiest appearance, the Chevy is more basic and the Silhouette the most luxurious.
Clearing the decks for the arrival of the next generation, Pontiac has pared the 1996 Trans Sport model range to just one, the Trans Sport SE. The base price is $19,394, which includes basic comfort/convenience features like air conditioning and an AM/FM radio.
Our test van had the power sliding side door option ($350), a very convenient addition we hope other minivans will adopt. It's been popular for Pontiac; some 85 percent of the Trans Sports sold last year were equipped with the power door feature.
The Inside Story
The basic Trans Sport SE seats five, two up front, three on a rear bench. Our test van had seven-passenger seating, which is another plus for these vans, perhaps their strongest single feature. Arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration, the seats are removable as single units, lending excellent versatility to the cargo space. And they're light, making them the most easily removable of any minivan, including Chrysler's new roller seats.
The weakest point of the interior layout can be viewed from the driver's seat. Although the long nose has been bobbed, it's still invisible from the front seats, something that's led many owners to complain about not knowing exactly where the snout ended until it touched the vehicle in front.
Although GM was able to make a modest fix on the extended front end, there was no way to remedy the extreme rake of the windshield without a major redesign. As a result, the upper surface of the dashboard is a vast plain of plastic between the driver and the base of the windshield.
This distance has proved disconcerting to some drivers, and it does take a bit of getting used to. However, in our past experiences with these vans, including a one-year long-term evaluation of an earlier Trans Sport, we found that familiarity breeds comfort.
Passive safety equipment isn't quite up to current minivan standards -- there's no airbag on the passenger side, something that will be corrected in the next generation. On the other hand, anti-lock brakes are standard, which still isn't true for all minivans.
With all the seats removed, the GM minivans can hold up to 112.6 cubic feet. That's considerably less than a standard Dodge Caravan, but it's a good-sized cargo hold nevertheless. The floor is flat, and the swing-up rear hatch is wide for easy access.
There's also plenty of leg room in all three seating positions.
GM was among the first to recognize America's for mobile dining, a recognition that's reflected in the Trans Sport's impressive array of cupholders. There are eight in the seven-passenger edition, which was probably a world record when these vans first rolled onto the scene.
Ride & Drive
Though the Trans Sport looks sporty, it's no Bonneville in the handling department. The combination of minivan height, a relatively narrow track and suspension tuning aimed at good ride quality produces lots of body roll if the vehicle is hurried through turns. In this respect, the Trans Sport, Lumina and Silhouette are a little less car-like than their prime competitors from Chrysler and Ford.
On the other hand, there are no nasty surprises lurking in the Trans Sport's behavior. Although it refuses to be hurried on tight, winding roads, it's fully predictable.
On the plus side, we think most drivers and passengers will find the Trans Sport's ride quality more than acceptable. Although early members of this minivan clan weren't as smooth as some, GM has retuned the suspension over the years, giving all three vans a more supple feel that does a good job of isolating occupants from minor road shocks.
As we noted earlier, the driving position takes some getting used to, and it's something to be aware of if you take one of these vans out for a test drive. The distance between the driver's seat and the base of the windshield produces an odd sensation at first -- you may feel that you're piloting from the middle of the van, rather than the driver's seat. But this feeling will disappear with experience.
Although the new 3.4-liter V-6 doesn't have quite as much low-rpm punch as the 3.8-liter, it's far stronger than the previous base engine, a 3.1-liter V-6, and it's got enough snort to keep pace with all but a few of its competitors, as well as the cut-and-thrust of commute traffic.
Braking performance, augmented by standard ABS, is good compared to the rest of the minivan universe, though not exceptional.
While the Pontiac Trans Sport and its stablemates aren't the best minivans in the business, they do have their strengths and the Flash Gordon styling still stands out from the crowd.
At suggested retail prices, which pretty much parallel the competition, it's hard to view these vans as bargains. Our well-equipped tester, for example, stickered out at $22,406.
But with the new minivans just over the horizon, suggested retail and actual retail are likely to be two different things. A little bargaining should save a bunch, and the appeal of the van will increase in direct proportion.
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