Think of it as a seven-seat luxury sedan.
by Phil Berg
Base Price (MSRP) $26,290
As Tested (MSRP) $33,865
Silhouette prices look steep compared to those of other minivans, but please note that the Silhouette lineup does not include any four-cylinder or short-wheelbase models to keep the price of admission low. Every Silhouette is V6-powered. Every one, by accepted minivan standards, is an extended-wheelbase model. And even the most basic GL packs a long list of luxury equipment that most other minivans offer only as options, or not at all. If you're shopping for the absolute lowest-priced transport for the soccer team, you should probably look elsewhere. Silhouette is designed for a different kind of buyer, one who understands that interior space, efficiency, and versatility are desirable traits in a luxury vehicle.
The highly refined Silhouette handles so well, it is actually fun to hustle one down a challenging road. Yet with its long wheelbase, Silhouette seats seven comfortably and comes with thoughtful interior touches that make trips with kids go easier. The Premiere Edition even features a state-of-the-art video entertainment system.
Oldsmobile Silhouette is available in three models: GL, GLS and Premiere. The GL retails for $26,290, while the loaded GLS goes for $30,425. In fact, the GLS is so well-equipped that there isn't much more for the flagship Premiere ($33,225) to add, beyond a well-integrated video entertainment system for rear-seat passengers that is not available on the other models. Premiere also adds heated front seats (a boon for chilly mornings or lower back pain; they are optional on GLS), GM's new ultrasonic Parking Aid (optional on GL and GLS), and dedicated mid-row stereo speakers with their own separate controls. The only remaining options for the Premiere buyer to consider are third-row captain's chairs for $60, a gold trim package for $150, and a $100 towing package that increases pulling capability from 2000 to 3500 pounds. Northerners will appreciate an engine heater that adds a mere $35.
The firmer-riding Touring suspension with automatic load-leveling, once exclusive to the Premiere, is now standard on all Silhouettes, as is GM's OnStar communications system. In fact, nearly two dozen items have been added to the standard-equipment list for 2001.
Oldsmobile's minivan has a subtly new look, front and rear, for 2001. Underneath, however, it still 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; while GLS and Premiere buyers will be able to order dual motorized doors sometime in the spring.
Just one powertrain is available: a 185-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 attached to a four-speed automatic transmission that powers 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 Silhouette is a great vehicle for big families, extended families, and multi-generation family units. Silhouette coddles and comforts its occupants with bins and cubbies and cupholders for every seating position. All Silhouettes come with bucket seats in front, two captain's chairs in the middle row (redesigned for 2001 to fold flat), and a split bench in the third row that will hold three adults. Third-row captain's chairs are optional on GLS and Premiere.
The Premiere Edition comes with no less than six cordless headphones, and an audio system that can run three tracks simultaneously, so Junior and Grandpa won't have to listen to the same tunes.
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.
There's enough cargo space for six suitcases, but you'll have to use the roof rack 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 the same inside as the Chevrolet Venture or 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. The Premiere Edition's VHS tape player, once awkwardly mounted on the floor, has been moved to the forward console for 2001.
The video entertainment center's flat-panel color monitor screen has also been improved for 2001: It now measures 6.8 inches rather than last year's smallish 5.6. It still folds down from the ceiling behind the two front-seat occupants. A separate rear console houses separate rear-seat heating and cooling controls, along with remote controls for the video player, and controls that determine what the in-dash stereo plays through the headphones. (The tapes are inserted by the driver, but can be controlled by a remote from the rear seats.) This way the driver can cruise along in relative silence while the rear-seat passengers switch stations, or play cassettes or CDs. 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 a 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.
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 feels spongy, 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.
The Oldsmobile Silhouette makes all occupants feel they have control over their personal space, with spots for drinks and trinkets, and volume controls for headphones. You could live in one 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 $2,800 less. That makes the video system an expensive option.
With or without video, the Silhouette is fun to drive. It rides and handles better than the previous generation of minivans from GM and is an excellent choice.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.