Second-Hand: Pontiac Trans Sport, Chev Lumina

General Motors' plastic minivans have been called a lot of things - most of them unflattering.

  • The image of cars in a showroom

Aardvark. Dustbuster. Shuttlecraft. Tupperware van.

General Motors’ plastic minivans have been called a lot of things – most of them unflattering.

The world’s largest automaker was desperate to build a van completely unlike the segment-defining Chrysler trio.

So it employed exotic technology – and architecture – to create some distance between the unequivocal leader and GM’s products.

The result was a trailing position for the General in the sales race.

Yet, six years after the last plastic-bodied Chevrolet Lumina and Pontiac Trans Sport popped off their assembly line, the vans appear to have a considerable following. Although, as this e-mail suggests, many owners just might be Trekkies.

“It happens to look a lot like a shuttlecraft from the USS Enterprise (the original Star Trek series), which is really why I bought it and put Starfleet Academy stickers in the rear win-dows.” CONFIGURATION The Lumina APV and Trans Sport arrived in 1989 as 1990 models (U.S. shoppers got a third version, the Oldsmobile Silhouette). They followed the Chrysler blueprint in as much as they were front-wheel-drive vans with two hinged doors, a sliding right-side door and a rear hatch.

They deviated from Chrysler’s Magic Van recipe in a number of ways. The galvanized steel unit-body skeleton was covered with plastic body panels – some made of thermoset polyester, and others (such as the fenders) made of reinforced polyurethane, which were flexible enough to take a beating.

Inside, drivers were confronted with a steeply raked windshield, supported by a pair of A-pillars that were, like, way out there. More than one critic noted that piloting a Trans Sport felt like driving the van from the middle-row seats.

It made for a lousy first impression. But as one longtime owner pointed out: “You get used to the expansive dash after a few hours behind the wheel. Too bad most test drives only last five minutes.” One other unusual (and in this case, appealing) interior feature was the use of individual bucket seats throughout the van. With seating up to seven, it meant the owner could tailor the space to fit the exact number of passengers and cargo requirements on a given day. Each detachable seat weighed only 15 kg.

The vans were motivated by GM’s 3.1-litre V6, putting out a lacklustre 120 hp (but more useful 175 lb-ft of torque). In 1992, the General’s 165 hp 3.8-litre V6 became a popular option, hooked up to a four-speed automatic instead of a three-speed.

For 1996, the last year of the plastic-bodied vans, both powerplants were scrapped in favour of a 3.4 L V6, which put out 180 welcome horsepower.

ON THE ROAD With the weakling 3.1-litre engine, GM’s front-driving vans felt sluggish. Highway velocity came up in 13 seconds – not far from diesel territory. Despite the extensive use of plastic, the vans were no lighter than their steel-bodied competitors.

The bigger engines reduced the acceleration time to a more respectable 11 seconds.

What the drivetrain gave up in neck-snapping thrust, it delivered in terms of smooth, faultless composure. The engines and transmissions worked seamlessly together.

The suspension was reasonably well engineered, but the wheelbase was shorter than that of rivals.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED There’s something to be said for plastic construction: “I love this car. I had a tree fall on it and it bounced off!” Many owners were happy with their Lumina APVs and Trans Sports; so much so, some resented GM for replacing the plastic vans with the wholly conventional Chevy Venture and Pontiac Trans Sport/Montana in 1997.

They liked the vans for their composite body panels, “bulletproof” engines and transmissions, comfy ride, distinctive styling and flexible seating.

There were a lot of gripes, but not enough to faze most owners. Among the notable problems: frequent brake repairs, the requisite GM alternator/battery snafus, radiator and cooling system failures, head gasket replacements and electrical glitches.

While the body panels held up remarkably well, it seems all the other plastic parts give up the ghost early. Owners complained about broken door handles, interior trim, knobs, hinges, cupholders – the list was long. Non-functioning seatbelts were another common problem.

Some owners mentioned that their seat moved while driving.

Interior rattles were frequent.

If you can get past all that – and many can, when the engine turns over every morning – the Lumina APV and Trans Sport are good cheap alternatives to the pricier vans out there.

But watch your head. “I opened a huge gash on my forehead the day after buying it by hitting (my head) on the sharp corner of the front door,” read a posted e-mail. How did Pontiac respond? “They sent me a yellow sticker that I could paste on the door, saying: ‘Be careful, you might hit your head on this sharp door corner.'” Embracing an edgy design has its costs.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadlines: Jaguar XJ6/XJ8 by April 3 and Dodge Durango by April 17.Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, 2060 Queen St. East, P.O. Box 51541,Toronto, Ont. M4E 1C0. E-mail: toljagic @

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