Review
Comment

1997 Chevrolet Ventures

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

MARKHAM — You can hardly accuse General Motors of picking

their spots.

Their major product intro for 1997 tackles the Canadian auto

market's minivan segment, which is dominated like no other by a

single manufacturer.

Chrysler's Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager got there first

and, despite a valiant effort by Ford's Windstar, the

second-generation Chrysler Magic Wagon continues to own about half

of this large and growing business.

GM types figure their new Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Trans

Sport finally get the world's biggest carmaker into the arena.

The new vans are part of a global program that has also

spawned the Oldsmobile Silhouette (in the U.S. only) and the

Sintra, badged as a Vauxhall in England and as an Opel elsewhere

in Europe.

The North American versions will be available in either

shortor long-wheelbase form. All the Euros are shorties.

All share major structural pieces, including platform,

suspension, some exterior panels and window glass.

Styling details, engines, transmissions, trim and features are

tailored to the specific needs of each market.

All of them, including right-hand drive Vauxhalls, are built

in Doraville, Ga. The major development work was done in the GM

Tech Centre in Michigan, with plenty of input from colocated

European design staff.

This strategy kept costs down, since the development budget

was denominated in dollars, not marks.

The smaller, more congested roads and higher gas prices in

Europe tended to push the size of the new GM minivans smaller;

the North American need for interior room pushed in the other

direction.

As Fred Schaafsma, GM's vehicle line executive for minivans,

put it: "The challenge was to find ways to meet divergent sets

of customer needs within the same basic package.

"Things like smaller seam weld flanges, and techniques to fit

body side mouldings closer to the sheet metal, allowed us to

make these vans about 75 mm narrower than Caravan, but with a

very competitive interior package."

The narrow width, he said, is important to the European

customer.

"The North American customer doesn't really care how wide the

outside of the van is as long as the interior space is there. At

every stage of this program, we continually checked each

decision against what our customers wanted and needed."

Schaafsma added: "We've learned you can't tell customers what

they should want.

"On the other hand, they can only tell you what they need,

within their understanding of what's possible.

As an example, he cited market research by the segment's

players in which only about 20 per cent of customers said they

would like a driver's side rear sliding door.

Ford decided not to cater to that small segment with its

Windstar. Chrysler decided they would.

"Guess what? About 80 per cent of Chrysler customers are

opting for it, and Windstar is scrambling to catch up. Once the

customers saw it, they decided they loved it."

Needless to say, General Motors will offer four doors

initially as an option on long-wheelbase versions only.

"We'll start building fourdoor, short-wheelbase Ventures next

February, with Trans Sport to follow," Schaafsma said. "All

variations will be available in the 1998 model year."

He stressed he has tremendous respect for Chrysler's minivans.

"They're terrific."

But he is scarcely giving up. "We think we have a lot of

features that won't just satisfy customers, but will delight

them."

He doesn't say so in so many words, but the basics of what a

minivan should be have been pretty much sorted out.

Effectively, copy Chrysler.

Aerodynamic box-on-wheels, seating at least seven people. As

much flexibility in seating configuration as you can invent.

Sliding rear doors, preferably on both sides.

Transverse-mounted V6 engine in the mid-3-litre range,

producing around 200 horsepower. Front-wheel drive. Cupholders

everywhere.

The new GMs meet all these criteria. Where Schaafsma hopes to

make hay is in details and value.

Details? The Venture and Trans Sport offer but a single

powertrain, the same 3.4 litre pushrod V6 (son of 3.1, grandson

of 2.8) that powered the last iteration of the outgoing Lumina

minivan and Trans Sport. The engine is mated to an electronic

four-speed automatic.

This six develops 180 horsepower at 5200 r.p.m. and a healthy

205 poundfeet of torque at 4000 r.p.m.

These are very competitive numbers. Based on a day driving

both Venture and Trans Sport around the Haliburton Highlands, I

can tell you the combination works extremely well.

While 1997 Transport Canada numbers haven't been finalized, in

last year's listings this was the most fuel-efficient powertrain

in the minivan business, apart from the little-loved

four-cylinder in the Magic Wagon and VW's Eurovan diesel.

Good performance; good economy. Good deal.

The transmission shifts very smoothly, although the torque

converter is a little quick to unlock on slight upgrades.

GM has also gone to great lengths to dial in fine road

manners. The ride quality is excellent not as floaty as

Windstar, perhaps a bit cushier than Magic Wagon.

The steering was a little sticky in the oncentre position in

the Venture I drove, but the handling is very pleasant.

Cornering is confident and stable, body roll is minimal –

remember, we're talking minivans, not Formula One race cars

here.

Braking is strong and easily modulated. Hitting the binders in

a corner does not upset the vehicle at all.

ABS is standard, as it is on virtually all GM cars these days

kudos to them for that.

The fit, finish and surface quality of the interior trim are

of a much higher level than typical recent GM efforts. I suspect

the influence of German engineers from Opel here.

The seats in the Trans Sport have deeper contours than those

in Venture. These perches alone might make a Pontiac worth the

extra few hundred dollars it will cost you.

Seating flexibility? There are no fewer than 32 different

seating combinations available on this platform.

Some are exclusive to Europe, but you can choose from

sevenor eight-seat combos. Buckets, captain's chairs, benches and

split-benches are available in various permutations.

And just about every one of these seats has a folding seat

back and can be flipped forward for added storage space or

removed altogether.

The Venture/Trans Sport features "theatre" seating each row

is about 25 mm higher than the one in front.

GM found that the added visibility this provides helps reduce

motion sickness in some riders.

There's enormous headroom in the rear two rows. That makes me

wonder why they didn't put those seats a bit higher off the

floor, for more comfort for adults. There's lots of room to do

it.

Among the "delightful" details are standard height adjustment

for the driver; standard power locks and mirrors; an available

dual-channel audio system that allows your teenager to plug

headphones into the rear audio outlet to listen to his Phish CD

while you enjoy CISSFM.

The CD-cassette holder in the centre stack can be removed and

stored in the lockable glovebox.

The glovebox door doesn't bang your knees when you open it a

detent stops it about halfway open.

An intake air pollen filter can be easily changed from inside

that same glove box. Research shows that if this procedure is

too difficult, customers simply won't bother and lose the value

of the thing.

The value story?

Venture prices start at $23,185 for a three-door short

wheelbase with an impressive array of standard equipment.

A comparable Trans Sport is $23,690. The long wheelbase adds

$1,515, about $7 a millimetre.

The fourth door seems a bit pricy at $2,250 on a Venture,

$2,305 on a Trans Sport.

The Venture and Trans Sport are impressive newcomers. And if a

new vehicle ever called out for a comparison test, these two do.

Caravan/Voyager versus Venture/Trans Sport versus Windstar?

Sounds like a natural to me.

It's what minivan shoppers are going to do. We'll do our best

to help them out. Watch for it in a Wheels section coming to a

doorstep near you.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

    Avatar
    Show Comments