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General Motors has had two unsuccessful tries at building a minivan that the American public wants. Finally, GM may have found a workable formula with a selection of all-new long-nose family haulers: the Pontiac Montana SV6, the Chevrolet Uplander, the Saturn Relay and the Buick Terraza.
The long-nose design gets the engine completely forward for additional crash protection, and out of the way, and lets the interior open up so that real American families can use every cubic foot. GM also believes that the long-nose design makes the minivans look more like SUVs and thus makes them more acceptable to those buyers who attach some kind of less-than-macho stigma to minivan ownership. Montana competes against the Honda Odyssey, the Toyota Sienna, the Dodge Grand Caravan, the Ford Freestar, and the Nissan Quest.
We found the all-new Pontiac Montana SV6 to be pleasant and easy to manage, though not bristling with horsepower. It's roomy and competent, though it doesn't offer the latest in interior innovation. The Pontiac may be the best of the GM minivans with sporty, distinctive styling in a vehicle class not noted for those attributes. All-wheel drive is available, a key feature for owners who battle wintry weather. The Montana SV6 is priced well below the Odyssey and some of the other minivans, and cash incentives can sweeten the deal considerably.
After having driven and tested three of the four models in this family, including the Montana SV6, the Buick Terraza, and the Saturn Relay (with only the Chevy Uplander left to go), we'd have to classify the Pontiac as the best-looking, sportiest and most stylish of the bunch, which befits Pontiac's traditional role as the excitement division. The split grille up front tells everyone this is a Pontiac, while the Buick and Saturn will have to create their own identities in this long-nose minivan family. Between the nose, the headlamps, roof rack, and the side cladding, everything says this is a Pontiac, and that it's ready for some heavy family adventuring.
One of the things we like about modern minivans is the remote-actuated power sliding doors. The GM system, though, seems slow to unlock, slow to draw back, and slow to return and lock down. Perhaps they view this deliberate, slow operation as a secondary safety feature for passengers, but we'd like it all to speed up a bit. They've been working on this feature for close to a decade, and it should be faster, with more powerful motors, by now. And, as long as they're at it, how about a power liftgate?
The way GM does these things, there's only about a nickel's worth of difference inside any one of the four long-nose minivan interiors, perhaps a little bit of wood trim here, a chrome dress-up ring there, but all the basic elements are in the same places in any of the four. That doesn't mean to say the interior is bad, by any means; just a lot of sameness among the four. There is absolutely nothing difficult to find, use or understand in the Pontiac Montana, especially if you've owned GM vehicles before. Materials, grains, fits, and finishes are all within acceptable norms for this class.
There's plenty of room for average-sized adults in the first two rows of seats, and for average-sized kids in the last row. All the seats can be folded and/or removed quickly and easily, they just don't disappear into the floor as they do on the Honda and Chrysler products. There's a maximum of 136 cubic feet of cargo space, with 25 cubic feet behind the third seat and 74 cubic feet behind the second seats.
The driver's seat is comfortably roomy and comes with six-way power adjustment and an armrest full of power controls for mirrors, windows and locks. The hefty three-spoke steering wheel includes buttons for the cruise control and sound system, all big, round and easy to use. The gauges in the central cluster are large, with large numerals, easy to read and use. The instrument panel, center console and door panels are well integrated, and follow GM interior schemes to the letter. Most of the materials look good and are soft to the touch.
Going down the road, the Montana is about as good as anything else in the $30,000 minivan class in terms of storage, amenities, and accommodations. The multi-functional overhead rail system is slick, providing storage cubbies as well as a home for the rear-seat DVD entertainment system. The optional PhatNoise entertainment system features a 40-gigabyte hard drive that pops into and out of the overhead rail system. It can store up to 10,000 songs in MP3, WMA or WAV formats, store and play up to 40 movies, or a combination of songs and movies. It can play video games, and has a voice-browsing interface. It can transfer digital photos through a USB port in the cartridge and play them back on the DVD screen.
Driving the Pontiac Montana in the American heartland is pleasant. The engine is smooth and quiet, though not exactly rippling with musculature. Its 200 horsepower will accelerate at a good but not a quick pace. Performance for making passing maneuvers is acceptable. This minivan weighs in at over 4300 pounds empty. It wouldn't be our choice for hauling the family and a 3500-pound trailer at the same time. Just not enough grunt here to do a job like that.
Steering is typically GM over-assisted, very light and lacking in road feel, but it turns the truck. The anti-lock brakes work well at light loads and perform extremely well in panic stopping situations.
Two different suspensions are used. The front-wheel-drive models have MacPherson struts up front with a simple, inexpensive twist-beam axle at the rear mounted on trailing arms, with coil springs. Opt for Versatrak all-wheel drive, however, and you get a fully independent double-wishbone rear suspension that's a bit more aggressive and flatter in the corners. It adds considerably to the bottom line, however.
Our Montana was EPA-rated at 18 mpg City/24 Highway, but got 25 mpg overall after draining one tank on a highway trip, which would give a cruising tank range of 625 miles with its 25-gallon tank.
The all-new Pontiac Montana SV6 is a nice minivan that appeals to budget-conscious buyers who need room for family, dogs, and cargoes of all shapes and sizes. We found the Montana to be the most pleasing of the new GM minivans. Retailing for less than $32,000 including destination and delivery charges, the Pontiac Montana SV6 retails for $6,000 less than a Honda Odyssey, the current class leader in minivans. Cash incentives can sweeten the Pontiac deal considerably.
New Car Test Drive contributor Jim McCraw filed this report from Detroit, Michigan.
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