Families are buying sport-utility vehicles in droves, but not everyone needs or wants an SUV. For many, a minivan still is the best option. The Pontiac Montana answers this call.
Montana offers all-wheel drive for improved traction in wintry conditions, and a DVD entertainment system is available for improved relations with backseat occupants. A Thunder Sport appearance package adds some SUV-style macho.
For 2003, Montana is more versatile than ever. The low-priced Special Value model now comes with a 60/40 split second-row seat, and is available with the standard or extended wheelbase. More stand-alone options are available that should help buyers tailor their Montana to their individual tastes.
Pontiac's Montana is quite handsome by minivan standards. This is one Pontiac on which the brand's lower body cladding enhances appearance, giving this minivan a more SUV-like look. Montana's front end is unmistakably Pontiac, with its bird-beak grille dipping down into a curved bumper that seems to smile confidently. The bumper integrates into the body cladding exceptionally nicely
On the other hand, the Thunder Sport package adds wild-looking bulges to the hood that don't seem to go with the Montana.
Pontiac Montana comes with a height-adjustable driver's seat, 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 extra room in the driving position while you are parked and waiting 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, and encourages you to move around on long trips.
The optional modular bucket second-row seats ($235) fold and remove easily. Handy diagrams on the frames underneath the seats show how to unlatch them from the floor. They are among the lightest seats in any minivan we've tested, and removing them won't kill your back. However, they are heavy enough that you might still want to convince a teenager to haul them into the 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 was redesigned last year. It now features a large seven-inch screen that folds down from the roof panel, plus a wireless remote, auxiliary jacks for video games and camcorders, and wireless headphones. Called MontanaVision, the system comes standard on the up-market versions of the long-wheelbase models. What we like best about MontanaVision is its integration; aftermarket systems we've tried tend to be more difficult to use and not as durable.
While not an SUV, the Pontiac 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 front-wheel-drive.
Versatrak all-wheel drive enhances driving comfort and confidence in bad weather and on unpaved roads. While operating as a front-wheel-drive system in normal conditions, it automatically directs power individually to each rear wheel whenever necessary to maintain forward progress. The system is compact as well as efficient.
The Montana corners quickly for a minivan. 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. The Montana handles best when equipped with the Sport Performance and Handling package ($750 with the standard wheelbase, $425 on the longer van), which 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.
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, the engine is loafing 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. The V6 is efficient, too. The EPA estimates highway fuel economy at 26 mpg. We managed 25 mpg on a fast trip across Michigan.
Traction control is optional ($195) for front-wheel-drive models and 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, 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 have eliminated 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, especially when equipped with Versatrak all-wheel-drive and the latest in entertainment systems.
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