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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.
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.