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The minivan market is one of the industry's most varied, and a big part of that variety comes from the front-drive minivans from General Motors. Mechanically identical as well as visually similar, the Pontiac Trans Sport, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Chevrolet Lumina look like nothing else on the road. These vehicles are notorious for the very pronounced rake of their noses and windshields.
Introduced in 1990, these minivans were the subjects of early criticism due to their Dustbuster look and mediocre performance. But with some restyling and a new powertrain, those sore points are things of the past, and the GM threesome has developed a strong loyalty among their owners.
The Lumina is available as the base Lumina or upscale Lumina LS, you can get the Silhouette in Series I or Series II trim levels, and the Trans Sport is available only in the uplevel SE trim, which we evaluated.
One huge point in the Trans Sport's favor is its construction. The basic structure is a welded steel cage, giving it impressive rollover protection.
The Trans Sport's bodywork is made up of composite panels - polymer materials that are dent-resistant and virtually ding-proof and will never rust. No other minivan on the market offers such a high level of protection against minor body damage and corrosion.
The base engine is a 120-hp 3.1-liter V6 mated to a 3-speed automatic transmission, a choice we don't recommend.
Far better in every way is the optional 3.8-liter V6 and 4-speed automatic. With 170 hp, it's vastly superior in every driving situation, and it delivers about the same mileage as the smaller engine. Case in point: The 3.8-liter is EPA-rated at 1 mpg less in the city but 2 mpg more on the highway.
Traction control, a big bonus on slippery surfaces, is optionally available with the 3.8-liter powerplant.
The Trans Sport has a pretty full list of safety features. In addition to the virtues of its steel cage construction, a 4-wheel anti-lock braking system (ABS), a driver's airbag, and lap and shoulder seat belts in all outboard positions are standard equipment. Even this vehicle's shape contributes to safety in a way: It sports huge taillights that rise vertically along the upper half of the hatch where they can be seen from very far away.
One option no other minivan can match is the power sliding side door. Operated by the touch of a button, it allows the driver to open and close the side door from up front. This is great, for example, when picking up the kids from school or coming out of the grocery store with an armload of parcels. Among the door's safeguards: It will stop and reverse itself if it runs into obstructions, much like an elevator door. It also includes an override switch that allows for manual operation.
There was a major restyling to the Pontiac Trans Sport in 1994, so there aren't any major changes for 1995. Some minor ones include a 4-spoke steering wheel with radio controls and a new overhead console with a temperature gauge, compass and sunglasses holder.
Volume-wise, the Trans Sport rates only about average; much of the potentially available space is lost to the long nose. With the middle and rear seats removed (a fairly easy task), total cargo volume is just over 112 cu. ft. But what space exists is quite user-friendly.
With the Trans Sport's low ride height, entry and exit is easy, whether you're coming through the front or the side.
The rear hatch-type opening rises high enough for even fairly tall people to stand under it without hitting their heads, and there's a handy strap so shorter people can easily pull the hatch back down and shut.
The two seating choices are for five or seven passengers. The middle and rear rows consist of modular seats that are individual instead of benches.
Young families will most likely enjoy the optional integral child seats that are built into the outboard seats of the middle row (if you order just one, it's installed in the right outboard position). That's a safety plus that would be hard to pass up.
With the 7-passenger seating, you also get a rear cargo net, handy for keeping loose things from rattling around the cabin.
The driver faces a modern instrument panel with complete instrumentation, and most functions are located for easy reach and operation.
There was lots of storage almost everywhere in our test vehicle: two glove boxes, map pockets in the doors and storage bins in the rear, and - get this - we counted more cup-holders than seats.
Quality of materials, assembly, and fit-and-finish seemed to be quite good on our Trans Sport SE. Whether slamming doors in a parking lot or driving over rough back country roads, it had a solid, well-put-together feel to it. Owner surveys show that the Trans Sport has come through with superior reliability, too.
The biggest problem with driving the Trans Sport is becoming acclimatized to the long nose. The styling has resulted in a considerable distance between the driver and the base of the windshield, and even more distance from there to the front bumper. It can feel as if you're driving from somewhere in the middle of the vehicle.
The view forward is a little odd, too, with the foremost angled windshield pillars creating a kind of tunnel-vision effect. But the windows are big, and the general outward vision is excellent.
Once under way, the Trans Sport is a nice-handling minivan. Pontiac engineers have always done a good job with suspension tuning, and the Trans Sport rides and drives pretty much like a car that just happens to be taller and roomier than usual.
Steering feel is very good, and in all likely driving situations the Trans Sport is smooth, comfortable and predictable.
The Trans Sport also has a surprisingly capable ride on bad roads. It deals commendably with potholes and rough pavement while all the time maintaining a decent level of comfort and good driving control.
With the 3.8-liter V6 engine, performance is more than just adequate, and there's plenty of torque to deal with crowded traffic or freeway merging. This engine transforms the Trans Sport and its siblings - so much so that having it makes all the difference. Performance is pleasant with it, and unacceptable without.
There's an optional trailer-towing package available, and so equipped the Trans Sport's towing capacity is rated at 3000 lb. - enough for a small camping trailer or small boat.
In tighter traffic, new owners will have to get used to the driving position. But that's really just a short-term problem that shouldn't weigh heavily in a purchase decision.
The Pontiac Trans Sport lacks the interior space of some of its competition. But it, along with the Lumina and Silhouette, ranks high on the user-friendliness scale.
The Trans Sport offers an attractive package of safety features, and it takes an innovative approach with such things as its rust-free body work, steel cage construction and optional power sliding side door. These features are not available anywhere else.
The Trans Sport also seems to have generated a substantial level of customer loyalty and owner satisfaction. In fact, there are lots of young families that wouldn't trade their Trans Sport for anything.
Its price, depending on which options you choose, can vary widely. But if the Trans Sport seems to offer what you've been looking for in a minivan, we think you'll find it to be a good value for the money.