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BEHIND THE WHEEL

GM Offers a Minivan to Be Taken Seriously

December 06, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

General Motors is knocking on suburban doors again, yelling for recognition from peewee soccer managers, dog groomers, discount shoppers, victory gardeners and others devoted to life in the minivan lane.

This time, GM may be allowed in.

More important, with its handsome, hearty second-generation trio of vans, GM may even erase the dismal flop of its shovel-snouted period and evolve into a major player in the million-unit-a-year minivan market.

Provided, of course, the new vans aren't stunted at birth by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. This insurance research facility recently conducted 40-mph frontal crash testing on nine minivans, and the GM entry imploded like an empty beer can.

GM has yelled foul and faulty extrapolation. The institute is sticking to its guns and conclusions. NBC's "Dateline" has shown footage of the van collapsing, a dummy with a severed foot and a steering column under its chin--and we all know how consumer-persuasive that can be.

Meanwhile, GM is soldiering on and rolling its Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette into national showrooms. Yet do not see these triplets, solid as they are, as vans to knock off the Chrysler kids.

Chrysler invented the minivan in 1984, reducing station wagons to redundant lumps and creating mass adoration for new cookie box vehicles that drove tall and hauled many. In round numbers, Chrysler supplies about 50% of the market, and vans by the Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge boys outsell the GM bunch by almost 10 to 1.

But after six years of bashing its head bloody against Chrysler's supremacy, GM suddenly--and sagely--seems less dedicated to dazzling the opposition, more willing to sleep with the enemy while duplicating its very personable packages.

Rewind to 1990. GM thought it was being daring, even darling, when it built an APV (All-Purpose Vehicle) with the silhouette of a space shuttle rear-ending a Dust Buster. But Chrysler--and its customers--stayed with square, safe and familiar until last year's highly acclaimed and prize-winning redo that went rounder and haughtier.

GM delivered plastic panels in its belief that aerospacier meant better. Chrysler stuck to vans stamped from steel, and van fans stuck with Chrysler.

Take the GM's old rear lights. Please. Batta-boom! They looked like long-lensed orange flashlights ground handlers use to wigwag airliners to gates at night.

GM minivans bobbed under braking and sat back, quivering, when their meager acceleration was vigorously applied. They rocked in freeway lanes, rolled around parking lots. Owners were advised to take two Dramamine and call a customer service representative in the morning.

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But this time, General Motors has done it right.

Styling is closer to the conventional and plastic paneling has been banished. No matter the badge on the snout or subtle trim differences, the vans share a 3.4-liter, V-6 producing 180 horsepower and that's 14 more horses than Chrysler's very capable, quite elegant Town and Country.

Handling and ride have been disciplined; all vans are available as three-doors in extended (120-inch) and regular (112-inch) wheelbases; and with sliding rear doors on both sides as an option.

Chevrolet's Venture replaces the Lumina minivan and is already here. Pontiac's sportier Trans Sport and Oldsmobile's better-upholstered Silhouette are dribbling in and should be available as oversized stocking stuffers.

Few options and packages have been left unturned. Depending on breed and brand, there is a GM minivan for cargo or people hauling; with or without leather upholstery; your choice of bench, captain, or bucket seats in a variety of seven- or eight-passenger configurations.

All vans have theater seating with just enough rise to clean up the forward view of rear-seat riders. There are power, sliding doors (with activating buttons inside the vehicle and on the key fob) and climate controls front and back.

And there's a Pontiac Trans Sport Montana that emulates the Subaru Outback with meatier cladding, two-tone paint, a luggage rack, sport suspension and the full look of a sport utility--but not the Outback's all-wheel drive.

Everything about the GM batch is geared to attacking Chrysler vans and Ford's Windstar, the second level of competition.

GM's cargo volume and walk-through room are greater. Floor rise is higher. Even sliding doors yawn wider than Chrysler or Ford. In balance, however, Windstar offers more horsepower and has a lower lift-over to ease the heaving of loads through the rear door.

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Our test vehicle was a Chevrolet Venture LS three-door with an early shock for sticker shoppers. Base price is $19,925, which is $3,400 more than a Plymouth Voyager or a Dodge Caravan. Add the LS toys--such as traction control, cast aluminum wheels, sound system with CD player, key-less entry and cruise control--and pricing climbs to $23,672, which is uncomfortably close to Town and Country country.

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