COAL – 2001 Pontiac Montana – Yes, Lemons Come In Red Too

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.   

Brown Malibu on the right got used a lot. Red Montana collected dust.

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. 

Leaving the country. House is sold. Malibu is sold. But nobody wants a used Montana.

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.