01/13/05 — Blurring the lines between minivan and SUV

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Blurring the lines between minivan and SUV

Pontiac Montana SV6 (2005)

Pontiac calls it a “crossover sports van” and backs up the name with a new look that gives the 2005 Montana SV6 a more SUV-like persona than the previous Montana, or any typical minivan.

Most prominent is a longer, more angular nose. The new vehicle is taller, negating somewhat the long minivan look. A big kidney-shaped Pontiac grille and wrap-around headlights are designed to convey the image of a car-based sport utility.

Pontiac Montana SV6, 2005

Pontiac says the SV6 has the rugged look of an SUV and the utility of a mid-van. Jim Brunnell, Pontiac general manager says, “The Montana SV6 has the best attributes of SUVs — aggressive styling and a powerful stance — and the convenience of a van, including a low step-in height, interior versatility and dual power sliding rear doors. It also has a sporty character and attributes that have made Pontiac’s other crossover vehicle, the Vibe, resonate so strongly with customers.”

The new Montana is one of four new “crossover sport vans” from General Motors. In addition to the Pontiac, they are the Buick Terraza, Saturn Relay and Chevrolet Uplander. All are now on sale.

They replace GM’s former lineup of minivans — the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Montana and Oldsmobile Silhouette.

Their more SUV-like styling and the availability of all-wheel drive are the two things that separate these new guys from the rest of the minivan field.

Call the SR6 a crossover if you must. But we discovered after a week behind the wheel that it is, plain and simple, a minivan. Perhaps a rugged looking minivan, but a minivan just the same.

If you have any doubt, notice the sliding door tracks are still in plain sight. Several automakers have learned how to disguise these rather ugly creases. So you would think the automaker desiring the SUV image would surely find a way to eliminate the telltale minivan sign.

From the driver’s seat the SR6 is a rather delightful rendition of the traditional people mover. It has adequate power, goes where you point it, delivers up a comfortable ride, offers a relatively quiet interior, provides good visibility and has a sedan-like step-in height.

In many vehicles, it is the driving experience that trumps all else. And if it was just the driving experience, the Pontiac would rank up with the best. With the minivan, however, its people-hauling and cargo-carrying capabilities are also paramount. Otherwise, what’s the point of purchasing one?

And in that regard, the SR6 doesn’t quite match up with the competition. General Motors has elected to sell a new minivan without many of the new features that are standard equipment on other vehicles including the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan and Ford Freestar.

For instance, all of the above have rear seats that tumble and fold into the floor in a couple of easy motions. The new Chrysler minivans even have stow-away second-row seats.

The Montana retains the old-style seats where the seatbacks fold flat, but not into the floor. They are harder to use, particularly to raise back up once down, and eat up valuable storage space. And the load floor is not quite level with all seats folded.

Of course, both the second and third row seats can be removed and stored if space is essential.

When transporting people is a priority, accessing the third-row seat is no walk in the park either. You must squeeze between the second-row captain’s chairs. That’s OK for young folks, but for those of us rapidly approaching retirement age it’s a chore.

We found that knee room in particular was at a premium in the second row, especially if the front passenger needs his or her chair pushed back on the tracks.

The second-row captain’s chairs do slide fore and aft, but they don’t go far enough back to create decent leg room. That’s something you’d expect from a compact or mid-sized sedan, not a minivan.

And one passenger complained that the easy step-in provided for front-seaters is not so easy in the second row because the seats are positioned higher. She had to do some climbing, and didn’t much care for it.

The Montana is not without a large number of desirable features, but first one other downside. Side curtain airbags for second and third row occupants are not available even as an option. That’s a major oversight because people are buying as much safety as possible these days, particularly when it comes to vehicles that haul their families.

Virtually all large sport utility vehicles and minivans have the side curtains available for 2005.

On the plus side, the Montana comes with 4-wheel antilock brakes as standard equipment. And GM’s antiskid system, StabiliTrak, can be purchased as a $450 option. Side impact airbags for the front seat passengers are also available for an extra $350.

And Pontiac stresses its energy-absorbing frame built from high-strength steel with extra crush space in front.

What makes the SV6 a more attractive vehicle, particularly in northern climates, is the availability of all-wheel drive. That feature will push the price up about $2,300.

We found the SV6 to be a relaxing driving companion. The seating position is comfortable and the view out is excellent. The suspension is tuned to a ride bordering on the soft side. But we think that’s probably what minivan owners desire.

And the interior solitude is noteworthy. Pontiac has done a commendable job in reducing wind, road and outside noise from intruding.

All SV6’s come with a zesty 3.5-liter 200-horsepower V-6 mated to a 4-speed automatic. With a light load, the Montana has a quickness to its step. Four adult passengers slowed it down a bit, but we had no complaints over performance.

The engine is quiet unless forced into action with a firm plant of the right foot.

One of the Pontiac’s highlights is its entertainment system. Our test vehicle came with a DVD entertainment system, which includes headphones and a flip-down screen, as standard equipment.

XM Satellite radio was also a pleasing part of our week’s test drive. For the real music and movie lovers, Pontiac has an option called Mobile Digital Media powered by the PhatNoise system.

PhatNoise is a wallet-sized 40-gigabyte hard drive cartridge capable of storing and playing back 10,000 songs in MP3 format and storing and playing back up to 40 movies in MPEG format.

We were afforded a demonstration of the PhatNoise system in Detroit last summer and it is, indeed, amazing.

The SV6 comes in two trim levels, the 1SA starting at $25,235 and the 1SB starting at $28,605. All-wheel drive versions begin at $28,415 and $30,925.

A few desirable and interesting options on our test vehicle included power sliding doors, rear parking assist, 110 volt power outlet, remote vehicle starter system and rooftop luggage rails.

The bottom line was $31,790. If you can deal with the rear seating issues, the new Montana has a lot of interesting things to offer a family including a myriad of cupholders and storage nooks and crannies.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on January 13, 2005 3:48 PM