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With its current counterparts from other General Motors divisions, the 2005 Chevrolet Uplander is easily the best minivan GM has ever built.
The Uplander is enough to make the world forget GM's original "dustbuster" minivans. It beats the 2004 Chevy Venture, which it replaces, in virtually every respect. Chevy says Uplander's long-nose, truck-type styling conjures up images of an SUV more than a minivan. We say no one will mistake the Uplander for anything but what it is: a minivan with the flexibility features and family-friendly conveniences buyers expect.
Uplander comfortably seats seven, with a choice of individual captain's chairs or a two-place bench seat in the second row. Even the base model offers a high level of standard equipment, including a basic subscription to GM's in-demand OnStar tele-aid service. Uplander also offers the unique PhatNoize removable hard drive, which allows its onboard entertainment system to play or display everything from MP3 music files to family photos to video games to the latest movie releases. Our test vehicle's finish and build quality matched the best in class, and Uplander offers all-wheel drive to those who need it. With the optional towing package, it can pull up to 3,500 pounds.
If Uplander falls short of the best minivans, it's most obvious in the driving. This Chevy's cam-in-block engine makes less power than those in all of its primary competitors, and while Uplander is pleasant enough to drive, it feels less responsive and perhaps less satisfying than the minivans from Dodge, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. The Uplander's real strength lies in its value. Comparably equipped, it sells for thousands less than class standards such as the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. And that's before the attractive dealer incentives GM frequently offers.
Uplander's suggested retail prices start $135 lower than the Saturn Relay, which sits next up the pecking order in GM's minivan hierarchy. That said, while minor styling and equipment differences may apply, there isn't a lot to separate the Chevy Uplander, Saturn Relay, Pontiac Montana and Buick Terraza. When comparably equipped, the retail prices are very close. The choice between brands could come down to satisfaction with a particular dealership, lot location or which dealer is willing to cut the best deal, or which styling or feature set you like the best.
Our Chevrolet Uplander LT was equipped with fulltime all-wheel drive. In climates where snow, slush or icy roads are a fact of life, we highly recommend it. GM's VersaTrak system adds relatively little weight to the vehicle, and it can do things some similar systems can't. When the Uplander's front wheels lose traction, VersaTrak automatically shifts engine power to the rear wheels, increasing the odds of continued forward mobility. Yet it can also shift power from side to side between the rear wheels. If the inside wheel encounters slush build-up near the edge of the road, for example, VersaTrak sends power to the outside wheel with grip.
StabiliTrak, GM's electronic stability control, is also available. Buyers must choose between the stability system and all-wheel drive, however, because StabiliTrak is only offered on front-drive Uplanders. In the northeast or mountain states, we'd choose the all-wheel drive. It brings a slight penalty in fuel mileage (1 mile per gallon according to EPA figures), but in the right climate it's well worth it.
Uplander's most obvious weaknesses compared to the best minivans come in the driving. The fundamental design of Chevy's 3.5-liter V6, with its old-fashioned cast-iron engine block, dates back decades. That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. At freeway speeds this 200-horsepower V6 is smooth and quiet, and there's enough quick-burst acceleration for safe merging onto busy freeways. The engine is aided by first-rate performance from the automatic transmission. GM makes some of the best automatics anywhere, and while the Uplander's has four speeds (compared to five in some competitors), it responds almost perfectly to the driver's commands via the gas pedal, and shift quality (smoothness) is as good as it gets.
That said, the Uplander's V6 isn't likely to stir much emotion, and we wouldn't relish the thought of towing something at the rated capacity of 3500 pounds. In short, Uplander's engine delivers less horsepower and torque than any in the class, and it's noticeable on the road. It simply can't match the power, smoothness or fuel economy of the overhead cam engines in some competitors, nor the torque of cam-in-block engines in others. The engine more or less sets the tone for Uplander's driving dynamics in general.
Handling is reminiscent of old-school GM. This is no doubt by design, because GM is perfectly capable of building vehicles with a more contemporary ride-handling balance. In other words, Chevy thinks Uplander buyers want a soft ride and side to side sway in any corner taken faster than parking-lot speed. We prefer more responsive handling. Uplander's steering has too much power assist for our taste, and it feels numb. This minivan will eventually turn, but sometimes it seems it doesn't want to. While the ride is soft, the suspension can also be loud and clunky on rough surfaces. Uplander simply does not respond as crisply as some other minivans, though some drivers may appreciate the softer ride and never know the handling difference.
On the positive side, Uplander's anti-lock braking system works great. It keeps the brakes precisely at the point of lockup without any shuddering through the pedal, and stops this minivan as quickly as possible while leaving the driver full directional control. The 25-gallon fuel tank is another plus. Based on our real-world mileage figures, highway range of more than 550 miles is within reach.
The 2005 Chevrolet Uplander and its closely related siblings from Buick, Pontiac and Saturn are easily GM's best minivans yet. Uplander holds its own amongst stiff competition in passenger comfort and flexibility, not to mention the gizmos buyers increasingly expect in their minivans. Its styling doesn't do much for us, but it might from some buyers and it's innocuous at worst. Fit, finish and build quality rank with the best in class. Uplander falls short a bit when it comes to power, ride and handling. Just about any of the major players outpower this Chevy. Most feel more nimble and some simply more pleasant to drive. Few, if any, deliver as much room or equipment for the money. With fairly consistent, attractive dealer incentives, some value conscious buyers will find the Uplander tough to beat.
J.P. Vettraino filed this New Car Test Drive report from Detroit.