All-wheel drive adds appeal to luxurious people hauler.
by Phil Berg
Base Price (MSRP) $27,560
As Tested (MSRP) $34,190
The Oldsmobile Silhouette is a luxurious minivan loaded with features. It comes standard with a powerful V6 engine. The Silhouette is so refined and handles so well that it is actually fun to hustle down a challenging road. Yet with its long wheelbase, it seats seven comfortably and comes with thoughtful and entertaining interior features that make trips with kids go easier.
Safety has been improved with new dual-stage air bags for the driver and front-seat passenger designed to detect the acceleration and severity of a crash and inflate the air bag appropriately to minimize risk of injure to those of smaller stature. Front side-impact air bags are standard.
All-wheel drive is available this year for the Silhouette, improving vehicle stability and driver control on slippery surfaces. The optional Versatrak all-wheel-drive system is packaged with four-wheel disc brakes and an independent rear suspension, all of which adds increases stability in all driving situations and weather conditions.
Also new for 2002 is a third-generation entertainment system, which features a DVD player with wireless remote. And more seating options this year let buyers choose the interior layout that best suits their needs.
Three trim levels are available: GL, GLS and Premiere.
All models come with a powerful V6 engine: a 185-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 attached to a four-speed automatic transmission. The engine sits in the usual sideways position, which allows maximum use of interior space. The firmer-riding Touring suspension with automatic load-leveling, once exclusive to the Premiere, is now standard on all Silhouettes.
This year, buyers can choose between front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive versions. Versatrak all-wheel drive adds $2570 to the prices of GLS and Premiere models, but it also adds greatly to safety and stability on slippery surfaces (see description below).
The base GL model ($27,560) packs a long list of luxury equipment that most other minivans offer as options or not at all. It comes with cloth upholstery, reclining front bucket seats with a six-way power driver's seat with memory control, second-row captain's chairs and a 50/50 split fold-down third row. OnStar is standard. Anti-lock brakes are standard. Cruise control, power programmable door locks, cargo nets, power windows, and a rear window wiper/washer are just a few of the key features that are standard.
The GLS ($31,635) would be the top of the line if it wasn't for the Premiere Edition and its fancy entertainment system. For starters, it comes with leather seating surfaces and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with touch controls. Front dual-zone air conditioning and separate rear heating and air conditioning allow passengers to tailor their temperature; an air-filtration system cuts pollen and odors. GLS also gets an extended overhead console with a driver information center, a premium stereo system, wider tires, aluminum wheels, and traction control
The GLS is so well-equipped that there isn't much more for the flagship Premiere ($33,535) to add, beyond a well-integrated video entertainment system that is not available on the other models. Premiere also adds heated front seats (a boon for chilly mornings or lower back pain).
Options include third-row captain's chairs (a no-cost option), a gold trim package ($150), and a towing package ($195) that increases pulling capability from 2000 to 3500 pounds. Northerners will appreciate an optional engine block heater that adds a mere $35.
Oldsmobile revised the Silhouette styling for 2001. Underneath, it offers the same dimensions as the extended-wheelbase versions of the Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Montana. All Silhouette models get two sliding passenger doors as standard equipment. Curbside doors on the GLS and Premiere Edition are power-operated, convenient for unloading the munchkins. The motorized curbside door is a $450 option on the base GL. GLS and Premiere offer dual power sliding doors for $350.
The Silhouette is a great vehicle for big families, extended families, and multi-generation family units. It rides on a long wheelbase, just a smidge longer than the Chrysler Town & Country, and it compares favorably to that vehicle.
The Silhouette coddles and comforts its occupants. It comes with bucket seats in front and two captain's chairs in the middle row that fold flat. For the third row, GLS and Premiere models offer a choice of three types of seating: a 50/50 split bench that will hold three adults, captain's chairs, or stowable seats. It's a good idea for buyers to spend some time thinking about the best seating arrangement for their needs. Bins and cubbies and cup holders are available at every seating position.
Head and elbow room are generous in all seats. The third-row seats are perched a bit taller than the middle row, so the view forward is clear. Moms tell us that smaller children mounted at such heights are entertained by what they can see out the windows, and that this keeps them quieter.
The seats fold and remove easily. Handy little pictograms on the frames underneath the seats instruct you how to unlatch them from the floor. They are the lightest seats in the business, so removing them is worthwhile when you need greater cargo capacity. However, they are heavy enough that an adult or strong adolescent is best entrusted with moving them across the minivan's floor and into your garage. The available stowable third-row seat eliminates the need to remove the third-row seats.
There's enough cargo space for six suitcases, but you'll have to use the roof rack (standard) if you want to cross the country with the six big folks that the comfortable seats invite.
Premiere and GLS come with smooth leather seating surfaces, but otherwise look similar inside to the Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Montana. The dashboard is neatly arranged; the gauges are easy to read, and other controls are intuitive, once you get used to the door switches in the overhead console.
A new DVD-based entertainment system features wireless remote control and on-screen programming. Viewers can choose among normal, wide, cinema, and zoom settings on the big, wide 16x9-inch DVD-formatted video screen. Stereo RCA jacks provide inputs for video game stations, camcorders, and wireless headphones with separate volume controls. The rear seat features HVAC and audio controls for AM/FM radio, cassette tapes and CDs. The video screen folds down from the ceiling behind the two front-seat occupants. Passengers can choose among different audio sources. This way the driver can cruise along in relative silence while the rear-seat passengers switch stations or play CDs or watch DVD video. There are even input jacks for Nintendo, Sega Genesis, or Sony Play Station video game machines that play on the flip-down monitor. This all sounds like complex integration, but the end result is simple: No matter where you sit, you can enjoy your own form of entertainment. All of the systems can be overridden by the boss in the driver's seat, which is helpful for parents issuing time-outs to unruly kids.
GM's V6 engine is a powerful workhorse with satisfying throttle response and good efficiency. It produces strong low-rpm torque for quick acceleration, even when loaded down. You can feel the engine growl slightly through the steering wheel.
Traction control is standard on GLS and Premiere, and a $195 option on GL, and we recommend it for easier control in winter driving. Without traction control engaged, you can spin one front wheel during a spirited take-off. With a powerful V6 and front-wheel drive, torque steer is sometimes noticeable: a slight tug on the steering wheel under hard acceleration. Still, the output of GM's V6 is less than that available in Ford, Chrysler, Honda, and Toyota minivans. The four-speed automatic is programmed to shift up as soon as possible, which improves fuel economy at the expense of driving fun.
This year, for the first time, the Silhouette is available with GM's Versatrak all-wheel-drive system. Versatrak directs the power to the wheels with the best traction whenever traction is lost and wheel spin is about to occur. So, if you accelerate on a slippery road, the system transfers power to one or both of the rear wheels before the front wheels can start spinning. The system comes with four-wheel disc brakes (in place of the standard rear drum brakes), and an independent rear suspension. Impressively, the rear cargo floor is flat even on models equipped with the Versatrak all-wheel-drive system.
Oldsmobile's Silhouette does a better job of filtering road vibration than Pontiac's Montana or Chevy's Venture. Perhaps the touring tires of the Premiere we drove are tuned for less harshness. These same tires likely contribute to the Premiere feeling a little less grippy in corners. Body lean is also more noticeable in the Silhouette than in the Montana.
The brake pedal of the Silhouette doesn't feel as firm as we'd like, especially when you compare it to Oldsmobile's more modern sedans, such as the Alero, Intrigue, and Aurora. The anti-lock brake system, however, works well, with steady and unobtrusive feedback when it's engaged on slick surfaces. (We have not tested the available four-wheel disc brakes that come on the all-wheel-drive models.)
The Oldsmobile Silhouette makes all occupants feel they have control over their personal space, with places for drinks and trinkets, and individual entertainment options. You could live in one of these if you had to, and it sometimes seems that way when you're stuck on the 405 in Los Angeles, shuttling distractible youths to after-school Tai Chi lessons.
We've driven minivans with aftermarket video and television setups, and none of them match the sound quality, picture quality, and ease of operation found in the Premiere Edition. On the other hand, the GLS model offers most of the same equipment without the video system for considerably less. Viewed that way, the video system is an expensive option. Some users, however, say it's money well spent because it eliminates from their vocabulary the phrase, “Don't make me come back there.”
Regardless, the Silhouette is fun to drive. It rides and handles well. Add all-wheel drive and it's a great all-weather vehicle.
If you're shopping for the absolute lowest-priced transport for the soccer team, you should probably look elsewhere. The Silhouette is designed for people who understand that interior space, efficiency, and versatility are desirable traits in a luxury vehicle. These are certainly traits we can understand.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.