There comes a time in many a growing family’s life when function rules over style and getting a minivan was in order. That was the realization that my wife and I came to when it became apparent that the GMC Jimmy she had been driving simply would not fit two car seats side by side. We needed to make room for the imminent kid #2 and the occasional mother in law. Neither of us were thrilled about getting a minivan “mom-mobile”, especially since I was working for GM and had to settle for GM’s “U-boat” minivan, a Chevy Venture, Pontiac Montana, or Olds Silhouette. We looked some minivan alternatives, including Pontiac’s brand new Aztek (!), or Buick’s even newer Rendezvous. But nothing beats the utility of a minivan, so a U-van would have to be it.
GM’s new-for 1997 “U-van” was a conventionally styled evolution of the Dustbuster Lumina APV based on the W-car platform. In a stroke of genius or luck, GM designed the U-van for global markets that included both RHD and LHD, and thus they were able to fit sliding doors on either or both sides of the van. So when Chrysler introduced dual sliding doors on their all-new 1996 minivans, GM was able to respond quickly by adding it to their redesigned 1997’s, unlike Ford who was caught with their pants down with the Windstar. Unfortunately, designing for the European market also meant a compromise, that the van had to be made narrower than its US-market competition, at a sacrifice to interior space, so important in a minivan.
With this history in mind, we set about looking for the right family minivan for us, the plain Chevy Venture, sporty Pontiac Montana, or pretentious Olds Silhouette. Now a sporty minivan is a bit of an oxymoron, but Pontiac tried its best on the boxy U-van body, slapping on multi-ribbed lower body cladding and adding raised white letter tires on some pretty nice-looking 5 spoke aluminum alloy wheels. We ended up choosing the Pontiac, but in the suburban parking lots where minivans rule (think schools, churches, and shopping malls), we looked on with minivan envy at Chrysler’s slick Town and Country and Honda’s impressive Odyssey, which most of our non-GM friends drove.
However, our Montana had a couple of useful party tricks which we could show off when it was our turn at the carpool. One was dual power sliding doors, which was pretty rare at the time. Loading up the Montana was a snap when you could just push two buttons on the key fob and both sides of the vehicle open up. Then you push two buttons on the overhead console and the doors smoothly glide shut. No yanking and jerking of handles and door slamming needed.
Another trick was 3-across 2nd row seating, which was unique to the GM U-van. Most minivans had 2nd row captains chairs which were more comfortable, but our Montana had 3 individual bucket seats in the 2nd row, which could hold 2 child seats and a 3rd passenger without banishing one of them to the 3rd row. And it could seat 8 people where other minivans only could fit 7. So we got this new Montana and were generally satisfied with this vehicle. The utility was fine and the power, ride, and handling were all acceptable; this was not going to be a sports car anyway despite the Pontiac’s attempt to look sporty.
That all changed when the Montana committed the ultimate unforgivable sin of a family vehicle, endangering its precious cargo. It was only a few months old when my wife was driving the two kids on a busy expressway in Detroit and smoke started pouring out from under the hood. Soon, massive billows of white smoke engulfed the whole front of the vehicle as my wife pulled over to the shoulder and stopped. Thinking fire, heroic mom fought to free two young children from their car seats and yank them out to safety. A young mother holding a baby and toddler on the shoulder of a busy expressway next to a burning minivan attracts a lot of attention, and thankfully they were rescued quickly by good Samaritans. After the smoke cleared, the dealer reported that a hose clamp was not properly installed, and the radiator hose letting go was only a matter of time. A torrent of hot coolant poured directly onto a hot exhaust manifold resulting in the massive billows of white smoke.
On two other occasions, the van would unexpectedly stall in the middle of the road and not restart, causing a “walk-home”. Luckily these happened on quiet suburban roads instead of a highway so there was no immediate danger, just massive inconvenience. Towed back to the dealer, he incredulously reported back an “NTF” – no trouble found, in both cases.
From that point forward the Montana ceased to be our go-to vehicle for trips around town involving the family. That responsibility passed to our Chevy Malibu. We only used the Montana when we absolutely needed the space or for road trips, where the possibility of another catastrophic breakdown was constantly on my mind. We never ventured more than 4 hours from home in the Montana, and I made sure to keep the OnStar subscription up to date.
Three years later, my work relocated me and the family on a long term assignment to China and I put both vehicles up for sale. The Malibu was quickly snapped up while the Montana languished in the used car ads and in our garage, unwanted and unloved. I drove the Montana to my parents house in Columbus on our final weekend before moving out of country, handed Dad the keys, and told him to get rid of it.
I’ve been enjoying your COAL series, Gene. Your vehicle choices make sense given your employment with GM at the time, but it seems like every one except the Malibu has been a substantial disappointment. Is there a GM redemption story coming up, I hope? Something that plays more to their talent set, like a half-ton pickup or Cadillac sports sedan?
Website is still eating comments.
I found it in the trash pile for some reason and restored it. Thanks for the warning.
Thanks JP. Still not sure why that happens, even when I log in they will get shunted into the spam folder. Perhaps I write like a bot?
I make $3000 a week as a worthless lump sitting in my underwear at home at my computer! Click here to learn more!
As CC begins its 13th year, this comment takes the lead for my favorite!!
“Send your check for $10 to learn how I make money.”
“Thank you. This is how I make money.”
Mine appears to have landed in never-never land—————
Ahh there it is 🙂
I restored your comment – thanks for letting us know.
It happens randomly to me. I could partially restore them and then wait for someone with more privileges to fully return them…but I generally take a more zen approach and figure that if they get found, they were meant to be found. Otherwise, I should accept their fate. 😉
When these were first out, I thought that the Montana might be a hit. They got the look right, and the ability to seat that 8th passenger was huge. Many was the time with my big Club Wagon that a place for an 8th passenger would have avoided a second vehicle being needed for moving a group of people.
It is also interesting how GM was prepared for the 4-door minivan boom that was set off by the 1996 Chryslers. I had assumed that GM either forsaw the need before Ford did or just reacted quickly. Now I know that it was more or less a happy accident.
I have known of people in the midwest who worked for auto manufacturers who bought a lot of cars through the employee plans, often to use for a short time then resell to relatives and friends. I would think that if a trade on another van would have made financial sense, it would be for someone buying through an employee plan. But then I have never been in that position, so I probably lack a complete idea of how these things work. Anyway, it is a shame you couldn’t dump this turkey and try another before you learned of your transfer.
It was a monday car!
3 seats across row 2 is why I got an Odyssey in 2015. No problems after 8 years and 75k.
What a downer that must have been, to buy the products of your employer to have them come up untrustworthy.
I hope in China you got yourself a nice Jeep Cherokee and not a 3 wheel truck!
My ex-inlaws had a new Montana when I was dating their daughter. It was kinda the color of that Malibu. They also had a Bonneville SSE and an Astro, so it fit right in. I drove it a few times and thought it drove pretty well, and they put over 100k miles on it with no major failures. Certainly no “stranding” type failures, which are not acceptable in a modern vehicle IMHO.
That ex and I went through the same hesitance to get a minivan, but after the “utility” vehicle being an Escape and then a Durango, and with a THIRD baby on the way, I convinced her that nothing made more sense than a minivan and we bought a brand new Mazda MPV in 2005. 2 power remote doors and built in DVD. The ZOOM-ZOOM of minivans LOL (I actually liked it as I had 2 Miatas at the time).
Replying to myself to add, my current and forever wife and I have had a BUNCH of various minivans….. she had a Sienna when we were dating (both had kids already), then I went through several as “extra” vehicles for me, and shuttling my 3 kids around when they were smaller. An MPV (not the one I bought new), Freestar (better than a Windstar, but only slightly), Venture (a shorty with the big V6, it hauled), a newer Sienna, a Villager (the small one with the Maxima engine), and my most recent that I finally sold recently, an Odyssey. No grandkids yet but when that time comes I could see getting another, they really are quite handy.
As an aside, the BEST of all those had to be the second Sienna, it was a low mileage LE fresh off lease that had been custom ordered with the 8-seater pkg, JBL Synthesis sound system with giant subwoofer in back, and alloy wheels. Everything you needed, no extra fluff. Nicest cloth seats ever. Nicer even than in the ONE and only LS400 I ever saw w/ cloth.
Once in China I would think a Buick….
As a mechanic, I can say there’s always a reason why a vehicle unexpectedly quits running. It just takes a good mechanic and maybe more good heads working together to find the problem. Having said that, there have been times that the problem was so buried, that it’s near impossible to find the answer. How about the cruise control not working because of a fault in the upper rear glass brake light?
MX5-Racer beat me to it, on my last few visits to China I probably saw more of these vans in Buick form than all combined in the US, and even rode in more than a few.
My wife and I got a new 98 because 3 kids in car seats and our sedans weren’t cutting it. I tracked down the specific model we wanted through the gmbuypower site
I remember the irony of buying the most expensive car in my life up to that point and it was a van
There was lots to like with the 2 sliders, seating for 8, easy to remove seats, and it drove just fine
Unfortunately I had to do the head gasket after a few years, then I missed the warning signs the second time around and in year 7 the engine seized.
The only other problem was a recall on the power door I think
So not a long list of problems, just a catastrophic one.
IIRC these also didn’t fare well in collision tests
In the end we took a lot of trips and made some good memories in that van so I have mixed feelings. But it was replaced with a Honda Pilot.
The U-Body was the worst performer in IIHS’s 1996-1997 minivan crash test, despite being the newest design.
There’s something quietly toxic about a culture where employees are strongly “encouraged” to buy the company’s own product, and it’s not even good. I suspect you would have been far happier with a 3.8-liter Chrysler minivan.
My sister had one and indeed it drove great.
However replacing the tranny would have gotten old…..
I worked with a guy who joined our company after many years at Ford. He arrived from Michigan with a VW and an Isuzu Trooper. My company was not in the automotive industry, but supplied many big corporations and we had some supplier discount plans occasionally. GM was one of those, and there were some killer deals on Saabs I was very tempted by a 9-2X Saabaru or even (in brief moments of delusion) by a Saablazer, aka 9-7X.
Hey, but the TrollBlazer (as the 9-7X was also often called) gave you that nifty center-mounted ignition with its own variant of the corporate GM key fob. Bahahahaha.
If you consider the 9-7X a competitor to other premium midsize SUVs of the day (Touareg, GX 470, Aviator, XC90, LR3…) it was mostly a bust, but in Aero guise with the 6.0 Vortec and advanced AWD system, it made a compelling case for itself.
As for the 9-2X “Saabaru,” that one was fascinating. It was nicer than the WRX and, thanks to GM’s generous discounts at the time, could be had cheaper than a WRX. I’ve only seen two or three 9-2Xs in my life.
Thanks to GM owning 20% of Subaru at the time, they also sold the Forester in India as a Chevrolet. And they even were working on a third “Saabaru,” the stillborn 9-6X, which was a lightly restyled Subaru B9 Tribeca. But it was canceled at the eleventh hour, after the tooling was done. indeed, when Subaru had to do an emergency facelift on the B9 Tribeca for 2009–dropping the B9 prefix–it used some of the cancelled Saab’s tooling. In turn, GM agreed not to release any public images of the 9-6X until after the facelifted Tribeca had debuted.
CC Effect: an hour or two after mentioning the Saabaru, I saw one near my house, a 9-2X. I didn’t see any Pontiac Montana’s however.
I owned one (9-2X Aero) and actually got it when GM was having that huge sale at the time, as I recall it was something like 6 or 7,000 off the sticker which put it right around $20k or so. As you said it was cheaper than the equivalent WRX and I really liked the color which was sort of Saab’s corporate color at the time despite the shade being ever so slightly different than on the Sweden-built cars. It wasn’t really significantly nicer inside (did have leather) but also wasn’t any worse in any respect. Being a fan of both Saab and Subaru it worked out well, like a Peanut Butter Cup…
The hardest part was actually deciding on it as everything else Saab was also significantly reduced making for some other temptations there. I didn’t look at anything from any other GM brand though.
9-2X’s are not uncommon here in Colorado, I probably see more than the WRX of the same year(s), which likely has to do with who was buying them and how they were driving them. I do believe ALL of them were affected by the Takata recall making it a bit of a gamble when purchasing now as a used car.
My wife and I rented an early-2000s Chevy Venture once, and (even though we turned up our noses at minivans at the time), we found it a comfortable, decent-handling, and seemingly well-built car. It’s unusual to be surprisingly impressed by a rental car, but that Venture pulled off the impossible. However, had we been in the market for a minivan, I’m not sure we would have bought one due to GM’s reliability reputation back then. The thought of a new-ish family car leaving the family stranded repeatedly is pretty unacceptable these days.
We eventually did go the minivan route in 2010, with a Honda Odyssey. That van now has 155,000 mi., and is my daily driver to work. So, even though the initial cost was higher than I would have liked, we got our money’s worth from that purchase.
I’ll echo MX-5 Racer above that minivans are extremely handy vehicles. As uncool as they might appear, if I were able to own just one car right now, it would likely be a minivan.
I believe the platform for the U-van is still in Chinese production as the Buick GL-8.
I had no idea the U-body was the first to offer dual power side doors, as well as the 8th middle-row jump seat. Those two features, alone, should have propelled this version of the GM minivan to the forefront.
OTOH, I don’t think GM had yet caught onto the allure of the Odyssey’s ‘magic’ fold-into-the-floor 3rd row seat (Chrysler hadn’t yet, either) with the only other minivan having it being the ‘right-sized’ Mazda MPV. The other party-trick the Mazda and Honda had over the GM and Chrysler products was roll-down side glass.
So, it would appear that folding 3rd row seat and roll-down sliding door glass trumped dual, power sliding doors (Chrysler thought their only-in-class power hatch was a winner, too) and 8th jump seat.
For whatever reason, GM just never had a winning minivan. Maybe the previous ‘dustbusters’ left a bad taste in potential minivan buyers mouths? Or maybe it was simply that the market was now, most definitely, shifting to SUVs and no one wanted to be seen in a soccer-mom mobile, particularly a domestic one. For a lot of people, it just screamed that they’d given up on anything but sensible shoes.
I would think the real nail in the coffin of the U-vans was the ascendency of the SUV. My wife ABSOLUTELY did not want to be seen in a minivan… Ever!
Even the last-ditch effort to disguise the crashworthiness fixes was to style the van as a SUV.
Oddly, Kia is doing the same thing with it’s Carnival van, but I suspect it will have the same effect on sales as the same tactic did for GM.
Gene, as others have said, it seems pretty unfortunate that you felt/were compelled to buy a GM minivan when you clearly would have rather purchased a Chrysler product or an Odyssey. It sounds like you went into this already not wanting the vehicle, which I’m sure didn’t make ownership particularly enjoyable.
I too approached the whole minivan ownership with trepidation. I wasn’t keen on “having to” have one, and I know that my wife also wasn’t wild about the whole “mommy vehicle” thing. Nevertheless, we developed the compelling reasons for getting one once we did the math and had a good long look at our needs. So, armed with that awareness/data, we went for the Chrysler product as a tried and true choice (i.e., the thing was the most popular van in the nation for SOME reason). And sure enough, it worked out well for us…until our needs changed and then we got rid of it pronto. So anyway, I just wonder if you’d bought something that you felt better about if you would have had a better experience overall.
Looking forward to hearing what comes next!
Unfortunate you had bad luck with your Montana. When we were in the market for a van, our first one was a used Toyota Previa – since as you mentioned, not getting stranded with two small kids was our primary goal. Our first one had high miles, but as expected, it was totally trouble free. From then on, it was only Previas for us.
Speaking of Columbus, that’s my home town also – North HS and OSU grad – grew up in Clintonville.
The Montana is one of the more attractive minivans out there and holds up today in looks if only in that almost every other car out there has adopted a similar look. Pontiac – way ahead of their time!
But the crash ratings were terrible as noted above and thus it wasn’t even considered when we were buying our minivans (Honda and Toyota), and to be fair the domestic offerings were not really on the radar in NorCal at the time anyway.
Still, the color you got was was excellent, the size was handy, and the three separate seats in the second row is attractive, and FAR better than the half-width skinny-ass-required “filler” third seat in both Sienna and Odyssey that was an optional extra. The european-market Ford Galaxy / VW Sharan joint venture had the same configuration actually and worked great when on a vacation with one some years ago now. I recall one of the best parts was that every one of them could fold flat separately and thus the middle one kind of served as a “table” for both the side seats as well as the back one for us (with three kids at the time).
These vans had terrible headlamps—bad enough to support a quip about GM benchmarking Chrysler perhaps a bit too closely. The U-van headlamps used technically the poorest kind of bulb allowed in the US—the HB1 (or 9004), Ford’s cheap and nasty “better idea” for 1983. It is a weak, optically-sloppy light source which makes good beam focus impossible, all but guaranteeing poor seeing and excessive glare. It was severely outmoded well before the start of U-van development, but it cost a literal couple of pennies less than the second-worst option (9007, Ford/1992). These sorry bulbs were put in a lamp with grossly inefficient, poorly-focused optics. The lamps were made of underspecified materials, which aged quickly and badly. The lamps, and their adjacent front turn signals, tended to become fishbowls (full of water) because breathers were not provided. They racked up big warranty expenses for GM. The export headlamp was differently but equally bad. But for whatever political reason, the midsize car team had been given authority over the headlamps on the U-vans, and—just as they’d done with the ’91 bathtub Caprice—they disregarded all factors other than piece cost, and shouted down GM’s (legit) subject matter expert when he accurately predicted all of the problems these lamps had and caused.
The weird thing, I think illustrative of an uncooperative development process, is the rear lights were much costlier than they needed to be for US requirements: five bulbs (+ sockets + wires) on each side; three lens colours, etc, when two bulbs on each side would have met the regs. Those rear lights had power and ground problems, because the wiring harness had also been cheaped out on, but.
GM sunk over $1 Billion dollars into their minivan project and really struggled to get that money back over the next decade. We all know how the dustbuster vans flopped. Then GM updated the van in its second generation to eliminate the first generation’s appearance. It was a pretty competent update, and sales improved. All the while, GM was needing to offset the billion-dollar investment in other markets. This ended up being used as the Buick Rendevous and the Pontiac Aztek.
The third generation GM minivan was shaped to look more like the popular CUV design. They had a longer nose, more muscular styling and the Oldsmobile was replaced by Saturn and Buick, (VUE and Terrazza). It still used the original engine and frame configuration from the dustbuster generation. These were still using three-speed automatic transmissions on old six cylinder engines.
However by the third generation, sales got worse due to the popularity of the CUV boom. GM kept the Chevrolet van, gave it a new name and sold it in fleets and rentals. The other vans were phased out. The Aztek was axed, but the Buick Rendevous remain for a couple more years.
I’d be interested if GM ever got that billion dollars back from their minivan venture. They really gave it a go and really showed a lot of ingenuity and creativity in hiding that van under mutliple brands and body styles.
Our Saturn 3 minivan was an excellent van, but the transmission and engine sent it to the junk yard at 165,000 miles. Which was sad as it was still a great family van with very nice luxury touches.
When I think of the 3rd generation, quasi-CUV GM minivan, the thing that immediately hits me is how much it’s like the 1st generation Mazda MPV. That one was a textbook example of bad timing. Imagine if Mazda had brought that out a decade later as a true, AWD crossover.
As to why GM’s minivans kept bombing, I think one big reason was GM never put any money into developing the very popular ‘magic’ 3rd row, fold-into-the-floor rear seat. IIRC, the best GM could do was have the 2nd and 3rd row seats fold flat, but that flat area was still well above the cargo floor. I suspect a lot of potential minivan buyers took one look at that half-assed compromise, said, “nope”, and went straight to Honda, Chrysler, or Toyota for a minivan.
As I remember, Chrysler’s fold-flat seats really compromised seat comfort. Perhaps they were okay for kids.
One thing I didn’t like about every minivan I’ve tried is the driver’s seat doesn’t go back quite far enough. The uprightness helps, but I haven’t been comfortable in any of them. The minivan low floor is so much nicer than any crossover or SUV when it comes to getting in and out.
The 1997 and later U-vans only came with the 3.4L and 4T65 transmission. After 2005, they could come with the 3.5L V6 or the 3.9L V6 (after 2008? IIRC), but those were also backed up by the 4T65, too.
When I donated my Olds, it had 185,000 miles on it, but the rust monster was eating it alive…
I’ve had several examples of the U-van, mostly Pontiac Azteks (3) but I had a 2004 Olds Silhouette, too. It’s a bummer you had a bad experience with your Montana, but mine was somewhat above average. I bought mine used, and so much is based on how the previous owner(s) treated the vehicle. I’ve been fortunate to find decent examples of my used cars, but that hasn’t always been the case. I got lucky with this one.
In my opinion, I think after the debacle of the Dustbusters, GM decided to throw in the towel and straight-up copy the 2nd generation Chrysler minivan. Having been involved in Scouts, church and rec league soccer in the 2000’s through the 2010’s, I got to see, ride and drive a bunch of minivans. Many of my friends and family had the 2nd generation Chrysler vans and when I first got in the Silhouette, I wondered why it felt so familiar…
My van was loaded to the gills, with power everything. I really wanted to get a Stow and Go Chrysler minivan, but at the time I purchased the Silhouette, the seller made a much better deal. Shortly after getting the van, the automatic leveler in the rear suspension stopped working, but luckily it was not a particularly expensive repair. For the most part, little really went wrong with the van and never stranded me. It was my daily and we drove it everywhere.
The 3.4L V6 and 4T65 four speed automatic never missed a beat, although at the end of my time with the van, the electronic solenoid started malfunctioning. I just put up with the harsh shifts, as I knew I would be looking for a replacement soon. Rust never sleeps, and it was taking its toll on my van.
I regretted not looking for a better deal on a Stow and Go as I use my vans to haul my bikes, various building materials and antiques. In the Silhouette, you could take out the seats, but they were heavy! I also had the rear organizer in my van, which was kind of a pain to remove. If I took all of that crap out, I had a fairly flat floor, but with the seats in a comfortable position for me to drive, I could not take a 4×8 foot sheet of plywood or paneling without strapping down the rear hatch.
Stow and Go is nice, but since you don’t remove the seats, the van remains rather heavy. I currently have a 2010 Chrysler Town & Country and the fuel mileage is about 2 MPG less in both city and highway driving. OTOH, I can stuff a lot more in there than the T&C than I ever could in the Olds.
One thing that was on my mind while driving the car in heavy traffic were the abysmal crash ratings. I frequently prayed that no one would accidentally jump into my lane and cause a head-on crash. It was kind of a weird sense of relief when I got my T&C as this was no longer a huge issue any longer.
I was happy with mine, but I didn’t have the same issues as the OP. I can definitely understand his lack of enthusiasm for the Montana.