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The Chevrolet Uplander is hands-down the best minivan GM has ever offered. With its counterparts from Buick, Pontiac and Saturn, the Chevy Uplander puts GM on much better footing in one of the auto industry's most competitive segments.
Uplander comfortably seats seven, with a choice of individual captain's chairs or a two-place bench seat in the second row. And it takes care of its passengers in a well-designed, nicely finished interior. The base LS model offers a high level of standard equipment, including a subscription to GM's 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.
For 2006, Chevy will address one of this minivan's most glaring shortcomings as it introduces a new 3.9-liter V6. This optional engine is the world's first cam-in-block V6 with variable valve timing, and delivers 22 percent more horsepower (240) than the Uplander's standard 3.5-liter V6. That quickly, the Uplander will change from one of the least powerful minivans on the market into one of the most powerful. The 2006 Uplander also offers the availability of side-impact airbags for second-row passengers for the first time.
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.
Chevrolet 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. Our test vehicle's finish and build quality matched the best in the class.
Uplander offers all-wheel drive, a great feature in the snow country. GM's VersaTrak system adds relatively little weight to the vehicle, and it can do things some similar systems can't. In short, if you need all-wheel drive, you've come to the right place. With the optional towing package, the Uplander is rated to pull up to 3,500 pounds.
The big news for the 2006 Uplander comes in the driving category. Sometime in calendar 2006, Chevy will begin offering Uplander with a new, 3.9-liter V6 with variable valve timing. We expect this more powerful engine to be a significant improvement, but we'll have to wait and see.
On paper, this optional engine should be a significant improvement. It will generate 240 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque, compared with 201 horsepower and 216 pound-feet of torque for the standard 3.5-liter V6. (All-wheel-drive versions generate slightly less power.) The upgrade will transform Uplander from one of the least powerful minivans available to one of the most powerful.
Moreover, GM continues to take conventional overhead-valve engine technology to new heights. The 3.9-liter V6 will be the first cam-in-block engine with fully variable valve timing. This technology should deliver a nice, broad power curve, with lots of acceleration-producing torque at all engine speeds. It should also help optimize fuel mileage. We expect the bigger engine will deliver real-world mileage comparable to the standard V6.
The Uplander LT we tested was equipped with full-time 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, but buyers must choose between the stability system and all-wheel drive. 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 (about 1 mpg), but in the right climate it's well worth it. StabiliTrak helps prevent skidding in corners on wet or slippery conditions or on dry pavement.
The standard 3.5-liter V6 is the Uplander's most obvious weakness when compared with the best minivans. Its old-fashioned cast-iron engine block dates back decades. That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad, but it doesn't offer the power of the competition's engines.
At interstate speeds the 3.5-liter 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 quickly and appropriately to the driver's commands via the gas pedal. Shift quality (smoothness) is as good as it gets.
That said, the Uplander's 3.5-liter 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 and don't mind putting up with a little road v
The Chevrolet 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 for some buyers and it's innocuous at worst. Fit, finish and build quality rank with the best in the class. Uplander is easily Chevrolet's best minivan yet. It falls short when it comes to power, ride and handling, although a new, larger V6 option should improve things considerably when it's available later in the model year. However, few minivans deliver as much room or equipment for the money.
J.P. Vettraino filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Detroit.