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 major product intro for 1997 tackles the Canadian auto
market's minivan segment, which is dominated like no other by a
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
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
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
"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.
But he is scarcely giving up. "We think we have a lot of
features that won't just satisfy customers, but will delight
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
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
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
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
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
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.