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1999 Oldsmobile Silhouette

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

Although it has been on the Canadian market since last November, the 1998 Oldsmobile Silhouette is undoubtedly the least known of General Motors' new gen minivans.

One reason is that GM of Canada doesn't advertise the

Silhouette.

Instead, it chooses to invest its ad dollars in the Olds' siblings, the Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Trans Sport.

"The dealers prefer it this way," GM spokesperson Chris Douglas says. "They promote the Silhouette with their customers."

The General brought the Sil to Canada with a specific sales mission in mind: to take on top of the line rivals in particular, the Chrysler Town & Country.

In GM's brand universe, the Chev and Pontiac lack the clout for this assignment.

"Say you have an older, retired couple who want a van," says

Douglas. "A Chevrolet or Pontiac doesn't suit the image they choose to project, but the Olds does.

"It's refined, mono chromatic look appeals to them."

Hardcore pragmatists of the Consumer Reports school might sneer at such considerations.

But after a week with a four-door, extended wheelbase Silhouette GLS, done in tasteful Neutral Beige Metallic with matching leather interior, I have to admit Douglas has a point.

The Venture's big, back to the '50s chrome grille shouts family values, while the Trans Sport bulks up with in your face cladding.

The understated Silhouette, in comparison, is a study in Eurocool. Olds should find it a major asset in meeting the division's goal of attracting import intenders.

Now in their second model year, all three front-wheel-drive vans are built only in Doraville, Ga.

The same plant also turns out the German Opel and British Vauxhall versions, known as the Sintra.

Besides the highline GLS trim level, the Olds is available in GS (four doors and regular wheelbase) and GL (four doors and extended wheelbase).

All have a right-side power sliding door as standard. You can operate this portal from a button on the overhead console up front, one on the passenger side B pillar or via the keyless remote.

As with practically any power accessory, use this one for a while and you start to wonder how you ever got along without it.

The only powertrain for the Silhouette (as well as Venture and Trans Sport) is a 180 hp, 3.4 L, pushrod V6 lashed to a four-speed, electronic automatic. It's a supple package, although I wouldn't say no to another 400 or so cc of displacement.

My lavishly equipped, tautly riding copy had two comfortable buckets in front, two in the middle and a threeperson bench

out back.

Other combos available: two buckets/two person

bench/three person bench and two buckets/three buckets/three person bench.

Some things I liked about the tester:

*Its slabsided body (width 1850 mm vs. the more porpoise-like Town & Country's 1950 mm) was reasonably roomy, yet well suited to city driving and parking.

*The low stepping height. It feels like you're climbing into a car.

*The side airbags (new for '98) in the front bucket seats.

*The storage net between the front seats. The world needs more of these.

*You can open all three windows on each side.

*Each seating position has its own head restraint.

*The compass in the overhead console. Any seasoned traveler knows the value of this item.

*The three-speed fan and heat controls above the centre seats.

*The dashboard dimmer switch that also lets you turn on six interior lights at once when mega illumination is needed.

Some things I wasn't so crazy about:

*The labour intensive wheels that adjust the four buckets' seatbacks. This is one European tradition we could do without. What's wrong with a good, honest, North American style lever?

*The centre buckets' seatbacks only go forward to the upright position. They don't flop down, so rear passengers can use the seats as footstools if they wish.

Even the first generation Chev Lumina and Pontiac Trans Sport offered this amenity.

*Doing a squat walk between the middle buckets to clamber in or out of the rear. The alternative tilting a bucket forward with a loop so you can squeeze by was also a bit arduous. I'll take a centre bench anytime.

*The humongous temperature and fuel gauges flanking the large speedo. Is Oldsmobile implying that the typical Silhouette buyer is blind as a bat?

A groundbreaking entertainment system for rear passengers is coming shortly for the Olds van to further differentiate it.

Expect a dash mounted VCR and a flat panel screen hung from the ceiling behind the front seats.

The tester carried a base price of $33,840. A $195 trailering package and a $130 CD player booster the bottom-line to $34,165.

Incidentally, the Pontiac Trans Sport Montana won a Car and Driver fourvan comparo back in February, edging the segment's heavy hitter, the Dodge Grand Caravan ES, 93 points to 92.

The Toyota Sienna XLE was third with 88 and the Ford Windstar LX fourth with 84.

Despite some initial teething problems, GM's appealing new minivans virtually cars with three rows of seats are becoming fixtures of Canadian roads.

While its siblings are getting the attention at the moment, the Silhouette has the talent to more than hold its own over the long haul.

Short Turn is an occasional column describing quick impressions of new vehicles supplied by the manufacturer.

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