When building a minivan, some of the traditional car-building priorities go out the window because even the magazines don’t really care too much about how a minivan drives. You could build a minivan that gets around the Nurburgring in eight minutes flat, has astounding brake pedal feel, and communicates volumes through the steering, and nobody will care about it if the seats aren’t comfortable and storage cubbies aren’t abundant. These are living rooms on wheels, 80-mph mess traps that will likely see harder lives than most crew cab pickup trucks because kids aren’t easy on things. If a grown adult eats too many Cheerios and pukes in a moving vehicle, that’s embarrassing. If a young child does it, that’s Tuesday. As such, GM didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. While Toyota and Honda went supersized with the 2004 Sienna and 2005 Odyssey respectively, GM took the familiar bones of its existing minivans and gave them some calcium to produce what it called Crossover Sport Vans.
That sounds like an odd metaphor, but it makes sense. Take a look at this IIHS crash test footage of the 1997 Pontiac Trans Sport and tell me that isn’t terrifying. The entire A-pillar deforms to an acute angle, while the footwell buckles to potentially trap the driver as the firewall moves toward the seat. Given the prevalence of these vans and their rebadged brethren, it’s a wonder anyone survived at all. Unsurprisingly, GM made some serious alterations to the structure underpinning the Crossover Sport Vans, and the result speaks for itself.
In addition to safety, GM updated the styling of its garden-variety people carriers. Here are vans with longer, more horizontal hoods that shoppers were used to, and they did a good job of latching onto some crossover styling cred. Mind you, it certainly helped that GM had many versions to go around. Oh yes, it’s rebadge round-up time.
Let’s start with the obvious, the Chevrolet Uplander. No relation to the Mitsubishi Outlander, of course. This large-nosed minivan replaced the tired Chevrolet Venture and was a marked improvement over its predecessor. Despite having a very similar roofline to the old van, the new nose really punches things up.
While Chevrolet ditched its old van’s name, Pontiac tacked on some extra characters to create the Montana SV6. Inarguably the most plastic-clad of the Crossover Sport Vans, it was short-lived in America but production ran well into 2008 for Canada and Mexico.
For those who thought every Pontiac and Chevrolet dealer was basically Big Bill Hell’s Cars, there was the Saturn Relay with no-haggle pricing and the famous Saturn dealership experience of salespeople dressed like they want to be barbecuing. Unsurprisingly, this was also largely a plastic rebadge with different bumpers, cladding, wheels, and little else separating it from its long-wheelbase Pontiac and Chevrolet equivalents. This was actually the shortest-lived CSV variant, in production for just two years, four months, and 28 days.
By the time 2004 rolled around, Oldsmobile was dead, so who would sell the Cadillac of minivans? That’s right, it’s Buick with the Terraza. More wood, more leather, and more chrome could all be found on yet another mostly plastic re-badge of GM’s corporate minivan. Oh, and weirdly, this one got independent rear suspension regardless of drivetrain.
Based on reworked old bones and re-badged to death, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Crossover Sport Vans weren’t very good. However, if you needed a minivan and didn’t have a local Nissan, Toyota, or Honda dealership, you’d have picked one of these GM vans every time. Here’s why.
Let’s start with the interior, often a sore spot for pre-bankruptcy GM products. While not as upscale as the cabins in the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, the crossover sport vans were alright on the inside. Sure, not every plastic surface is soft-touch, but the materials were class-competitive overall. We’re talking tightly-grained hardwearing plastic that was perfect for minivan use. Dashboard design wasn’t bad either with intuitive controls and reasonably tight shut lines.
Unlike just about every other minivan at the time, the Crossover Sport Vans’ seats didn’t fold into a well behind the rear axle. Instead, GM installed a slightly elevated storage bin in the cargo area, and the third-row folded flush with that. While the liftover lip was mildly annoying, it was nicer than craning way down to retrieve cargo from a well.
However, while GM compromised on folding seats, it went all-out on interior storage. The backs of the bucket seats featured available hard-faced plastic storage compartments as kick-resistance places to store small items, while a novel track system in the headliner accommodated several overhead storage modules for everything from CDs to sunshades. You could even get a 110-volt outlet for powering air compressors and the like.
Now let’s talk powertrains and dig into why these vans are such tanks. In 2004, GM pulled a new cam-in-block 60-degree V6 out of its hat which eventually got used in the Crossover Sport Vans in both 3.5-liter and 3.9-liter forms. Granted, it didn’t get off to a brilliant start with technical service bulletins out for head gasket failure, but issues with early models were generally sorted under warranty and models produced after 2007 are pretty much in the clear. Paired with the tried-and-true 4T65-E, and you have a durable powertrain capable of outlasting much of the domestic competition. You could even get these vans with all-wheel-drive if you lived in snowy locales.
So, what we have here is a very practical vehicle, but it wasn’t well-received. On the face of things, it was a half-hearted attempt at keeping up with the Joneses with an under-powered, under-geared re-work of a 1990s minivan for the iPod age. Unsurprisingly, it was a flop in America, and was often derided as one of GM’s worst products of the time. The New York Daily News included the Uplander on its list of the ten worst Chevrolets of all time, while Car And Driver claimed that “On paper, the [Buick] Terraza is overpriced in comparison with competitors that offer higher power, greater sophistication, and more flexible interior configurations.” Add it all up and we have to call this one as a miss then, right? Not so fast, because I’m not from the United States. North of the border, things were a little bit different.
See, our money hasn’t historically been worth a whole lot, and real estate in that tiny strip of Ontario a good chunk of Canada resides in is awfully expensive. As such, we love a good bargain, and the GM vans were the bargains of the bunch. Because you could still get a standard-wheelbase Uplander or Montana SV6 after everyone else decided to only make long-wheelbase minivans, you could saunter on down to your local Chevrolet dealer in 2009 and see Uplanders stickering for $24,390 in loonies. That was more than $4,500 cheaper than the basest of base Toyota Siennas, and everyone knew damn well that nobody paid full sticker price for a mass-market GM product.
Back in the days of the recession, I remember brand new short-wheelbase base-model Uplanders marked down to around $20,000 in Canada. That’s like two real dollars for an entire minivan. Long-wheelbase models were trading for around $25,000, which was still way cheaper than a Sienna. Regardless of wheelbase, you got a stronger motor than the wheezy 3.3-liter V6 in the Grand Caravan, and you could often score the Uplander or its Pontiac Montana SV6 for a cheaper price. Not only that, the Crossover Sport Vans were actually better in some ways than their pure crossover successors. Sure, the Buick Enclave may have wowed when it launched, but how many do you see sitting in junkyards as the result of timing chain failure?
Yes, the GM Crossover Sport Vans prove that anything can have a redemption arc so long as favorable conditions align. If the price is right and the market is accepting, certain flaws can be overlooked, especially if the low-end competition has more impactful flaws. While these vans never took off in America, they found enough of a Canadian following to get an extended production run, which makes them just barely a hit. Plus, they’re a lesson to other automakers: Repackaging old bones isn’t always a bad thing so long as the resulting product can somehow be sold cheap enough.
(Photo credits: GM)
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