Families are buying sport-utility vehicles in droves, but not everyone needs or even wants an SUV. For many, a minivan still is the best option. The Pontiac Montana answers this call.
Pontiac has enhanced its minivan for 2002 by offering all-wheel drive for improved traction in wintry conditions and a new-generation DVD entertainment system for improved relations with backseat occupants. A Thunder Sport appearance package is now available for a sportier appearance.
Pontiac's Montana is quite handsome by minivan standards. This is one Pontiac on which the brand's lower body cladding enhances the appearance and gives this minivan a more SUV-like look.
Thunder Sport adds wild-looking bulges to the hood that look ridiculous.
All Montanas have height-adjustable driver's seats, which really aids comfort on long trips. You can completely change your driving position without getting too close or too far from the steering wheel. The fore-and-aft range of the driver's seat is one of the longest we've sampled, and will probably provide enough room for six-and-a-half-footers. That also means you can make yourself some room in the driver's seat if you have to wait there for the soccer game to end.
The front seats hold you securely, but they don't feel like the buckets in a sedan. There are large side bolsters on the backs of the seats, but the seating surface is relatively flat. This makes the van easy to get into, but encourages you to move around on long trips.
The standard second-row bucket seats fold and remove easily. Handy diagrams on the frames underneath the seats instruct you how to unlatch them from the floor. They are among the lightest seats in the minivan market, so removing them won't kill your back. However, they are heavy enough that you'll want to convince a teenager to move them across the minivan's floor and into your garage. Doing this reveals a flat and wide rear cargo floor.
The dashboard is neatly arranged, and the gauges are easy to read. However, when the speedometer needle reaches 75 mph, it blocks the right turn-signal indicator. A gentle chime indicates you've left the indicator on, but you'll miss it if you've got the stereo turned up. The steering wheel has seek, set, and AM/FM radio controls within reach of your left thumb, and volume, mute, and play (for cassettes and CDs) near your right thumb.
The videotape and CD players are nicely located up on the front console.
The DVD entertainment system has been redesigned for 2002. It features a large seven-inch screen that folds down from the roof panel. It features a wireless remote, auxiliary jacks for video game systems and camcorders, and wireless headphones. Called MontanaVision, the system comes standard on the versions of the long-wheelbase minivans. What we like best about this system is its integration; aftermarket systems we've tried tend to be more difficult to use and not as durable.
While not an all-out SUV, the Montana can be the perfect family truckster. Crosswinds won't make it wander on the way to Wally World. Veer off onto poorly maintained secondary roads and the suspension doesn't get upset. You feel confident driving on bad roads, and that's with the front-wheel-drive system.
Versatrak enhances your driving comfort and confidence in bad weather and non-paved road conditions. Versatrak is new for the Montana for 2002. While operating as a front-wheel-drive system in normal conditions, it automatically directs power between the front and rear wheels to provide grip in adverse weather conditions or whenever one of the tires begins to spin. The system is compact as well as efficient.
The Montana corners quickly for a minivan, especially versions that have the Sport Performance and Handling Package ($395) that includes alloy wheels, all-weather tires, automatic level control, sport suspension and traction control.
The front-wheel-drive Montana has a twist-beam rear axle that contributes much-needed rear roll stiffness in a front-heavy vehicle. Versatrak versions have an independent suspension at all four corners.
The Montana's tires don't complain until you push very hard, and that's unique for a minivan. Body roll is less noticeable than in many other minivans, even those from within the GM stable. Part of the Montana's handling package includes stiffer springs and larger shock absorbers in the rear.
Back on the big highways, you'll feel no pain. The noise from the powerplant is limited to an isolated and distant hissing. At 80 mph, which we found to be the average cruising speed on most Western highways marked at a 75 mph limit, the engine is revving at just 2400 rpm. The Montana doesn't sound like it's straining to keep up, and passing slower cars can be done without too much prior planning.
The V6 engine has good throttle response in traffic, and it's efficient; we managed 25 mpg on a fast trip across Michigan. The EPA estimates highway fuel economy at 26 mpg.
Traction control is optional for front-wheel-drive models. It's a good idea for easier control in winter driving. Without traction control engaged, you can easily spin one of the front wheels during a spirited take-off on dry pavement. With a torque-pumping V6 and front-wheel drive, torque steer is sometimes noticeable as a slight tug on the steering wheel under hard acceleration.
The brake pedal is typically spongy, as it is on most GM platforms that were designed in the early 1990s. Newer designs, such as the latest Bonneville and GM's newest big pickups and SUVs, lack this mushy feeling, so the Montana will likely get a better-feeling brake pedal in the future. Having said that, the antilock brake system works well, without undue clattering of the pedal.
The Pontiac Montana is one of our favorite minivans, and it has been greatly enhanced for 2002 with such features as Versatrak and the latest in entertainment systems.
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