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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.
Chevrolet's party line on the 2005 Uplander: Its "innovative styling combines the best attributes of vans with the bold look of a sport-utility vehicle.'' This is accomplished, according to Chevy, with a long hood and a large, chromed-ringed grille sporting a big Chevy bow tie. In profile, wide roof pillars, 17-inch wheels and tires wider than the typical minivan's are supposed to reinforce the SUV look. Gray molding covers the rocker panels and connects the lower bumper plastic front and rear, "creating an SUV-like skid-plate."
We're not sure about any of this SUV stuff, because to us Uplander just looks like a minivan with a prominent, slightly awkward snout. It won't fool many people. In virtually every respect Uplander is a minivan, with all the many advantages minivans offer, including a low step-in and load lift heights compared to the typical SUV.
One thing that impresses during an Uplander walkaround is the overall quality of its assembly and finish. The seams on our test vehicle matched precisely and consistently, and the paint had a thick, deep luster with very little orange-peel effect. It was among the best we've seen from Chevrolet and as good as any other minivan currently offered, including those known for their build quality.
Few owners absolutely must have power-operated rear sliding doors, but they're something we like and handy in a number of situations. GM actually invented power rear doors years ago, so it's a bit perplexing that those on the Uplander seem a little slow to open, close and lock (as are Nissan's). Perhaps Chevy engineers designed the operating mechanism with safety foremost in their thinking. More likely, they were responding to cautionary intervention from corporate liability attorneys. We were also struck by the lack of any power liftgate assist, despite Uplander's overall high level of standard equipment.
It should be known that the 2005 Uplander is one of four new vans offered by GM's various brands. The Uplander shares its engine, transmission, chassis and general dimensions with the Buick Terraza, Pontiac Montana and Saturn Relay. There are slight styling differences, to be sure, and each division has its own rational as to why its minivan looks like it does and why it will appeal to a certain type of buyer. Whatever the thinking behind each might be, price differences between the four are negligible when comparably equipped.
Unless a buyer has a particular brand loyalty, or is taken by those minor styling differences on one of the minivans, the choice is probably best determined by the quality of the dealership selling the vehicle or the value in the deal cut.
Inside, the Uplander shines compared to Chevrolet's 2004 Venture, or any of GM's previous minivans. It also stacks up well against its current competition.
Interior finish and materials are almost surprisingly good, considering some of GM's efforts just a few years ago. Plastics are generally rich in touch and appearance, and while other media have bashed the fake wood trim, we find it as good as that in cars that cost considerably more. Uplander's instrument panel doesn't try to get cute. It's clean, straightforward design is efficient and easy to get comfortable with.
The instrument binnacle prominently features a large tach and speedometer. The dials are sharp and legible, and trimmed with a thin chrome ring that adds a classy touch. Window, mirror and lock switches are located in the driver's armrest, right where we like them. Lights are on the dash, next to the steering column; wipers on a stalk to the right. There are redundant audio controls on the steering wheel hub.
The center stack is particularly well done. Audio controls sit above the climate controls, also as we like them, and the knobs are not only big, but pleasant to touch. There's a pair of pull-out cupholders and a swing-out storage bin at the bottom. There's also a folding utility table between the front seats with more cupholders and indents to keep phones or glasses handy without allowing them to slide off.
While the Uplander's cabin is good, it's hardly perfect. The glovebox door feels a bit flimsy; the same applies, more so, to the bins behind the front seats. These are well designed, with secure storage for headsets and discs, but they feel cheap. The front fan moves a ton of air, but it's quite loud at full bore. Perhaps most annoying is the view through the rear-view mirror. It's noticeably restricted by the rear-seat headrests, with a relatively narrow scope.
Our Uplander LT had second-row captain's chairs, which are amply spacious and comfortable for good-sized adults. The third-row bench will be no problem for kids through age 15 or 16, even on long drives, but access to the third row is not the best. The pathway between the individual second-row seats is narrow, hampered further by the folding utility table. For access from the outboard side, a one-button mechanism folds the seatbacks forward and slides the entire seat toward the front. That said, it doesn't make climbing in back much easier than walking between the second-row seats.
Uplander's interior roof rail system is interesting. It mounts various storage bins, DVD screens and lighting under the headliner in modular fashion. It also holds the optional, removable PhatNoize hard drive, which is one of the coolest things going in minivans.
Our test van had an onboard inflator integrated in the left-side trim behind the third seat, with enough pressure to inflate just about anything. On the right, there's a standard 110-volt plug that allows Uplander to operate small appliances without a separate power inverter. The optional Cargo Convenience center has its advantages. It can keep certain items out of site, and holds plenty of groceries without allowing them to slide. Yet it's not very deep, and it raises the load height for larger items a good eight inches.
In short, Uplander has the conveniences that make family excursions or daily driving chores easier and more pleasant, and it holds its own with the best. When it comes to passenger/cargo flexibility, it does well, too. Any or all of the seatbacks quickly fold forward, creating an expansive, essentially flat load floor from the driver's seat back. The rear seats can also be removed without too much difficulty, but they don't simply tumble into the floor as they do on some minivans.
Configured for maximum hauling capacity, Uplander offers 136 cubic feet of cargo space. That's twice as much as a full-size SUV like the Cadillac Escalade
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.
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