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1997 Pontiac Trans Sports

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The story goes that when Chrysler introduced the third-generation Magic Wagon at the Detroit auto show back in January, 1995, a good smattering of General Motors executives were in

attendance.

As the new minivan was unveiled, the GM folk exchanged knowing glances and relieved smiles.

Apparently, they'd seen drawings and mock-ups of their own firm's next attempt at a minivan and were gratified to discover that they were on the right track. The right track being, of course, a minivan very much like Chrysler's.

With their first try, the aardvark-shaped and plastic-bodied APV/Trans Sport, GM could rightfully be accused of trying too hard, trying too hard to be different. This time out we can thankfully report that the General tried just hard enough to be the same.

Minivans derive their appeal to the eye and in practical terms from a shape and proportions laid down by the initial K-car based Caravan/Voyager. Take that basic box and round off the

corners and the results will inevitably be similar, whoever is doing the rounding.

As an exercise in design and esthetics, the Chryco effort scores points for its harmonious simplicity and the continuous flow of its outline.

GM's handsome new Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Trans Sport combine a fully aeroform (rounded off) front end but retain more of the box through the cabin and at the back end.

The Venture shows off the shape to best advantage with a grille that supports the hood's lines and minimal use — of eye-distracting plastic cladding. Pontiac's version falls prey to busy addons and a reprise of the twonostril grille that evokes uncomfortable memories of the model it replaces.

Sizewise, the GM mini hovers near to the Magic Wagon in almost all relevant exterior dimensions, including the 284.5 cm standard wheelbase and the 304.8 cm of the extended model. (Just a little shorter and a little longer, respectively, than the Chrysler's.)

Where the Venture and Trans Sport part company with the Caravan and Voyager is in width, more than 7 centimetres narrower. GM Canada spokesman Richard Jacobs informs me that the

skinnier front profile is designed for the slim roads of the lucrative European market where the vehicle will be sold as an Opel Sintra.

When translated to inside space, the missing centimetres show hardly at all, testimony to the effort GM's designers have put into the interior. Yes! If you take the rear seats out of the long version, a 4 by 8 sheet of building material will fit in and the rear hatch will close. (It will on the Chrysler, won't on the Windstar.)

The fit, however, is very close. In the measurements of our forefathers, the cab's interior width near the rear wheels is 48 inches and a hair. The length clears more easily at just over 96

inches. For those of you who are not binumeral, that's 121.92 cm by 244 cm.

It would be easy to dismiss the rest of the interior as expected fare in a contemporary minivan. And it is, but that evaluation is unfair to GM. The Venture/Trans Sport designers have taken on the Chrysler interior team at their best game and for the most part they've equalled the Magic Wagon (bins and cupholders everywhere) or bested it (dash layout, switchgear, overhead rear console).

Plus, they've added some innovations of their own. For example, there's a twostage door on the big glovebox. Pull lightly and it stops short of crashing into your knees. Pull again and it opens all the way.

The wasted floor space between the front seats has been reclaimed by a "purse net" strung between the seat bases. No longer does my note pad, sound level meter, stop watch, whatever, slide under the pedals at every stop.

And, my fave pet peeve: the helltoremove removable rear bench seat can be replaced by an optional 50/50 split bench.

Each side still weighs a hefty 23 kilograms, but that's a lot better than a backbreaking 46.

The door complement numbers three on the standard model and gusts to four on the extended version. The unique power sliding door is available on the '97 fourdoors and at $490, I recommend it. The door is at least as safe for kids as a manual slider, probably safer because the parents are in control — and so convenient.

My only real complaint with the entire cab relates to the tall lip found on the floor of the load area, just inside the door frame. The floor is a mere 60 cm off the ground; the superfluous lip raises the liftin height to over 67 cm.

As I mentioned above, the praiseworthy package and contents were to be expected. GM could not afford to blow it a second time. Taking the admirable convenience and creature comforts for granted, however, I come at minivans from another angle. To wit:

If we are to deploy so many of these things on the roads and if we are to trust ourselves and our families to their talents as vehicles, then the minivans should match our cars in active safety. The legislators will see to it that we're belted and air-bagged and door-beamed. I want minivans to go, stop and turn as well as a good car.

To help discover just how good, or bad, our little vans are, I performed some vehicle dynamics tests on the Ford Windstar and Voyager/Caravan and compared them in Wheels last Feb. 24.

Running a '97 Trans Sport $30,525 including the $915 sport suspension through the same tests revealed just how competitive the new entry is.

Handling is excellent. Understeer is kept in check; off-ramps groove by in the absence of huge steering inputs and unaccompanied by tire squeal. Avoidance manoeuvres were completed with a minimum of fuss and no nasty surprises. It's true that our "good car" would outrun the Trans Sport on a race course. But, when a sharp diversion is necessary, the GM mini serves it up.

Don't let that "sport suspension" business turn you off. There is no penalty in ride comfort that I could detect and the competent handling makes this the most important option you select.

GM wins hands down for the Trans Sport's brakes. The Delco Moraine ABS IV fourwheel antilock binders provide nearly perfect pedal feel on initial application and, short of lockup, the actuation is powerful and nicely linear. (That is, the amount of braking action relates to the amount of pressure from your foot.)

The ABS is a little too sensitive for my taste, coming on too soon under severe braking. As a result panic stops from 100 km/h used up about 56 metres of road. That's roughly on a par with

the Chrysler and Ford vans, but about six or seven metres more than our good car.

GM has also done a decent job on the drivetrain. The old 3.4 L V6 now delivers 180 h.p. and 205 poundfeet of torque through a four-speed automatic that is every bit the equal of the Chrysler's brain box. In both, the flow of power is absolutely seamless. The almost imperceptable 4-to-3 down-shifts never fail to impress.

The Windstar continues as the performance champ, clocking very fast 0-to-100 times of 10.2 seconds and taking only 7.25 seconds to complete a 90to120 pass. At 7.3, our Trans Sport almost matched that quick passing time but took about a second more to reach 100 klicks. The Pontiac's fuel economy surprised the heck out of me, using only 10.1 L/100 km for the entire test.

There is another of my minivan pet peeves to report on. Early examples were plagued by noisiness, especially pavement roar and road thump, augmented by the van's boombox shape. Again, my contention is that if we have to live with these things they should be as carcomfy as possible.

Until now, the Windstar held the NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) crown with tolerable thumps plus 80 and 100 klick cruising sound levels of only 62 and 70 decibels.

The new Venture/Trans Sport tops the category by taking all the aural sting out of its road thumps and delivering levels of 64 decibels at 80 km/h; 68 at 100; and a mere 70 at 120. Better than most cars.

Trans Sport/Venture

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