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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that Pontiac Montana is giving off real Subaru vibes
I worked at Enterprise rent a car when these vans were out. Even though the Caravan was slower believe it or not they were tanks for the most part compared to these. Now the GM’s constantly had electrical problems, sliding doors that opened on their own, gauges that worked occasionally as well as having to exchange a vehicle with another rental because they would break down due to mechanical issues. Even die hard GM customers who would come to rent would specifically ask not to give them one when rented. They would always brag about how reliable their truck/suv was but didn’t understand why the vans were so bad.
And that’s the real reason why these failed, yea they were the cheapest but spending just a little bit more at Dodge gave you better seating configuration. I think they debut the stow and go seating while these vans were still around. Not only did the 3rd row fold flat but the second row folded flat also. Then when the seats were up and not in use the covered storage in the floor can be used to store items that don’t fit in cubbies or glove boxes. GM no longer wanted to develop a from the ground up product to compete due to bankruptcy coming up and they were discontinued for the enclave/traverse crossovers.
I have lived in and currently daily drive one of these vans and love it. Parked next to other vans the extra girth sure does show.
So you said it’s mechanically better than the domestic competition. Idk man, I don’t see many of these around any more, and there’s plenty of dodge vans much older still going strong.
It would be more accurate to say that it’s mechanically better than a Windstar. Which says literally nothing, because Windstar are as junk as it gets.
This vehicle confirmed (for me, anyway) the death of Saturn.
When I was in middle/high school both my parents drove Transports. Same generation at that crash video. Holy shit I am glad we never got in a wreck. I used to drive my Dad’s some time, and being a dumbass teenage I drove that thing like a race car. Feeling pretty lucky now.
I never loved the look of the CSVs at the time but they’ve grown on me. Could be because when my family needed a van I went with the Carnival. Caught my eye specifically because of the less sloping, longer hood.
These things were the epitome of “also ran”. Safer than their immediate predecessors in a crash test yes, but just awful to look at and probably to drive(I wouldn’t know). Point taken though on the way the seats fold. Can’t stand the deep well in the backs of some that you have to bend over and reach into to retrieve items from.
The deep well does mean that you can haul two parents, an entire string quartet, and their instruments in one go, though. Without that deep well behind the third row good luck cramming a cello back there!
Generally speaking for as ergonomically poor as the deep well behind the third row is, it’s the key defining factor making minivans actually practical for 6+ passengers plus some amount of luggage unlike most unibody three-row CUVs where the trunk space behind the third row is comedic.
GM didn’t even really hide too hard the fact that these were just a graft job onto the Venture front end. Especially on the ubiquitous Buick Rendezvous of the era, when you pop the hood you can see where the minivan fender line is lurking that the proto-crossover schnoz is built on top of.
I love minivans, and I personally never hated this design. I spent a lot of time in a Montana as a teenager.
But man, every person I’ve ever known to own one of these (smallish sample size, 5 that I can rememeber) HATED these vans. Just pure vitriol. My aunt who drove the Montana preferred her previous MERCURY COLONY PARK WAGON over this thing because the Montana had so many issues. Personally, I was just glad to have a real seat in the Montana, versus the sideways third row seats in the Mercury wagon. I’m getting motion sickness just thinking about it.
Edit: Just took a moment to think about it, and the Montana was the first gen, not one of these second gen cladded versions. The other people I knew owned Uplanders though (not Ventures).
Edit again: I forgot how miserable looking those pre-bankruptcy GM steering wheels looked.
I had a friend who drove one of these in highschool. He went around a corner, went to speed up and the throttle hung at 100%. He drove into an embankment near a house, going over it and tearing the front end off.
Surprisingly, he walked away from the crash. The firefighters who arrived were stunned he was OK. After seeing those videos, I see why they were.
Fuck these shitboxes.