GM's redesigned minivans look more like SUVs, which is good. But is it enough?
After years of focusing their development dollars on SUVs, automakers have rediscovered the minivan. Just since 2003, for instance, Toyota has redesigned its Sienna; Nissan, with its Quest, has tried to put "sexy" and "minivan" in the same sentence; and Chrysler has bestowed upon its bestselling vans second- and third-row seats that fold flat into the floor.
This fall General Motors finally responded. But rather than starting from scratch, the automaker has subjected its minivan platform to a mild redesign, along with a major change in branding: With the demise of Oldsmobile, Buick is now fielding the upscale model, called the Terraza. The Chevrolet minivan is now called the Uplander, while Saturn gets its own minivan, the Relay.
Oh, and they're not called minivans anymore. Nope, GM has dubbed this family of family-haulers "crossover sport vans." Accordingly, the vans' exterior styling is reminiscent of SUVs: a longer, squared-off hood; a big, aggressive grill; and a roof rack. But spend more than a few minutes with the GM vans, and it's clear that all this SUV bluster is just that — this van is a sheep in wolf's clothing.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. When we test-drove the most upscale of the bunch, the Buick Terraza, we found it to be an appealing van overall, and the styling was a big part of the appeal. It's not going to fool anyone into thinking it's an SUV — the sliding rear doors are a dead minivan giveaway — but its angular lines and copious chrome accents make it one of the best-looking minivans on the market.
Of course, people who buy minivans want a lot more than good looks. The Terraza provides tight, responsive steering. It also earns its Buick badge with its trademark soft, silent ride. At 200 horses, the Terraza's engine lags the horsepower leaders in the category, but it feels reasonably powerful in most situations.
And in terms of comfort and entertainment, the Terraza really cleans up. The interior on the top- of-the-line CXL version I drove is quite elegant, with soft leather seats and faux wood trim. It's about as luxurious as minivans get, and for a good $4,000 less than the top-of- the-line Sienna. (The Terraza CXL I drove was priced at $33,330.)
But besides comfort and entertainment, there are two even more important factors for anyone considering a minivan: convenience and safety. And in these areas, the Buick is at a serious disadvantage versus some of its rivals. It lacks the sort of Transformer-like features — such as seats that disappear into the floor, captain's chairs that convert to bench seats and so on — that have become huge selling points for the Sienna, Town & Country and Honda Odyssey. The rear windows don't roll down as they do on some of the newer competitors. And with second-row seats that don't slide forward, extracting a sleeping child from the third row is difficult.
A bigger problem is the safety issue. The third row, which has seat belts for three passengers, is equipped with only two headrests, potentially leaving the center passenger susceptible to whiplash. Moreover, side-curtain airbags for second- and third-row passengers — you know, those people who are the reason you're buying a minivan — are not even available. This is perplexing, given that nearly every other minivan sold these days offers them and that the federal government is even planning to make side head protection mandatory. A Buick spokesperson says, "We expect to get a five-star safety rating (on both front- and side-impact crash tests) even without the airbags." If that does happen, the Terraza may appeal to some folks who care more for posh looks and ride than extreme utility. But does that sound like any minivan drivers you know?