A minivan that imitates an SUV

Friday, July 15, 2005

You can test drive cars for a week, read all the articles, and still buy the wrong car if you aren't completely honest with yourself. It happens all the time. How else can you explain the huge trucks and SUVs parked in our driveways? If we chose vehicles strictly on practicality, 90 percent of the cars on the road would be minivans. What other vehicle gives you so much for so little?

Take the Chevy Uplander, for example. It replaces the Venture minivan, but the design people were told by the marketing folks that it better not look like a minivan! So GM added a strong dose of SUV look to it. The new Uplander screams, "I am not a soccer mom."

The new minivan is available in base, LS and LT trim levels in either front or all-wheel-drive variants. I test drove a LT, and was impressed by its practicality, ride, decent fuel mileage, and driveability. Let's forget about the minivan stigma, and focus on what this multipurpose has to offer.

My test Uplander was broiling in the hot sun, but the interior was nice and cool because I had pressed the engine start button on the remote fob a few minutes before getting in. Another button push and the powered sliding doors on each side opened. I loaded my equipment, lightly tugged on the door handles, and the doors slid closed. I could have also closed them with the buttons on the overhead panel or a third set of buttons on the left and right middle pillars. I felt very pampered.

The newly designed interior is comfortable and spacious. Chevy only offers an extended wheelbase length to the U.S. market, but offers a regular (short) wheelbase to Canadians, where the minivan market comprises more than 25 percent of all new vehicle sales. (In French-speaking Quebec this figure reaches 65 to 70 percent of sales.) The third-row seats are removable or can be tumbled down to make a flat loading floor. The second row doesn't fold into the floor like its competition, but rather the seatbacks fold forward making a flat surface to load longer items on.

Uplander's rivals feature deep wells behind their rear seats, which hold tremendous amounts of cargo when not filled with the folded rear seat. Lifting that cargo in and out can be challenging, however, a point Chevy salespeople were quick to point out. When the Uplander's rear seats are folded you are required to hoist cargo a half foot or so higher than the regular load floor. So if you anticipate carrying really tall cargo in the Uplander, plan on removing the rear seats. No tools are required.

The Uplander offers great interior comfort in all seating positions. I sat in both second- and third-row seats and found them quite comfortable. The middle-row seats are expansive, and front-seat room is also more than adequate, with plenty of space around the shoulder and hip areas. Chevy did a great job in the fit and finish department. The interior's plastics are some of the best in its class. The unique "protein vinyl" covering the tops of the door panels is especially good, more leather-like than some vans I've examined. It nicely complemented the leather seating surfaces of the well-optioned example I drove. I was also impressed with the quality of switches, vents, cruise and audio controls on the steering wheel, as well as those used for adjusting the climate-control system. GM has made big improvements here.

A DVD entertainment system with a foldaway 7-inch screen is mounted on an overhead adjustable rail system. A system dubbed "PhatNoise" can be added on, consisting of a wallet-size 40 gigabyte removable hard drive that can hold up to 10,000 songs, 40 movies or any combination of up to 100 hours of audio and video. Since it's removable, the hard drive can be connected to a home computer or laptop to download files for playback. This is one feature that is sure to revolutionize the industry. A 115-volt outlet in the rear center console is perfect for recharging batteries or powering small appliances.

Uplander sticks with GM's tried and true 3.5-liter V-6 engine, new to GM vans. This engine is at 200 horsepower, up 15 hp in comparison to the old 3.4. Torque is up too, with a maximum of 220 pound-feet instead of the 2004 model's 210. It won't run away from a 255-horsepower Odyssey, but it will beat it in fuel economy, which GM feels is a more important issue to the average cash-strapped family. The motor powers the front wheels via a 4-speed automatic transmission, which been relatively trouble-free for GM over its long tenure. GM and Toyota are the only manufacturers to offer all-wheel drive as optional equipment in its minivans.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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