(first posted 8/6/2015) The mid-2000s was a pivotal time for the minivan. For starters, this would be the point when minivans would begin drastically losing significant ground, as SUVs and now crossovers were becoming the preferred family vehicle. These years would also see Honda and Toyota finally release truly full-size minivans that could match and even outdo the longtime industry leader, Chrysler, in minivan versatility, features, and refinement.
While Chrysler would attempt to keep its vans competitive with meaningful updates, added features, and ultimately full redesigns, GM and Ford more or less raised the white flag in surrender with their final minivans released during this time.
Both automakers’ answer to the Odyssey and Sienna was to take their current aging minivans and merely give them new noses, redesigned interiors, new names, and little else. These minivans, which weren’t even top of their class when they were originally introduced in the late-90s, were predictably pitiful in comparison to the modern vans from Honda, Toyota, and even the slightly outclassed Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Caravan and Nissan’s funky new Quest.
Whereas Ford took the more conservative route, selling its utterly forgettable refreshed Windstar as the Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey, GM’s approach was more creative and intelligent, at least in theory. In execution, well… not so much.
It was already clear that crossovers were becoming the “hip” choice of vehicle for families. GM’s response to this was to make its U-body minivans more crossover-like in appearance, and even going so far as to refer to them as “Crossover Sport Vans” in marketing material. Not that this fooled anyone.
In terms of styling, GM ditched its minivans’ traditionally low hood for a more upright, SUV-like snout. While this may have sounded clever on paper, in living flesh it came across as rather clumsy-looking and prosthetic. It did, however, help improve the vehicle’s front-impact crash test worthiness, an important consideration for families. Regarding its appearance, the Saturn Relay, with its higher-placed grille and black lower cladding, best pulled off the integration of this new nose.
Moving around the sides, lower body moldings were updated for a smoother, better-integrated look over the old Venture/Montana/Silhouette. Adding to its crossover pretensions, B- and C-pillars were made body color (in long-wheelbase versions). Previously, B-pillars were black and C-pillars were externally covered by side window glass. Around back, more squared-off rear bumpers completed the exterior transformation.
At the very least, body panel gaps appeared to be reduced greatly over the 1997-05 U-bodies, for a cleaner and higher quality look. Furthermore, these updates did give the vehicle an overall taller and narrower appearance, whether or not that did anything for anyone. Needless to say, these exterior modifications didn’t do much convincing for the case that these vans were even remotely “crossover” or “sport”-like, and of course, sliding doors were retained. More crucially, what these cosmetic changes could not accomplish, was to disguise the fact that these minivans were merely refreshed versions of the same vehicle that GM had been producing since 1996.
Yet, as odd as this whole “crossover sport van” charade was, there was one thing possibly even more bizarre about the 2005 U-body minivans: one of them was a Buick. To some, the Buick Terraza may have been a predictable move, as with the Rendezvous and Rainier, Buick had already begun to diversify its lineup to include more “youthful” and family-oriented vehicles instead of just its traditional sedans. Additionally, the Terraza wasn’t even Buick’s first minivan. The brand had been selling the GL8 in China since 2000.
However, most people outside of China had never heard of the GL8, and to them, a minivan was truly the last type of vehicle they’d expect to see wearing the Buick tri-shield. Selling the Terraza as a Buick, especially when identical minivans could be found in the showrooms of three other GM brands, was a flagrant sign for help, and a possible signal that GM did not have a long-term plan for the Buick brand at this point in time.
When it came to the unique styling of Buick’s rebadged minivan, the Terraza was made the least-SUV looking of the bunch, eschewing gray lower body cladding and skid plates for a monochromatic body-color look. Up front, its large waterfall grille and high-placed headlights effectively combined for a modern take on Buick’s “dollar grin”.
Brightwork was prominent, with the grille, door handles, roof racks, badging, wheels, and lower body-side trim all consisting of chrome or some other type of shiny metal-like material. Body-side trim, however, looked all too un-integrated and last-minute, as if dealers had applied these pieces with a hot glue gun as Terrazas were being unloaded off the truck.
Once inside, things were much more familiar, despite Buick’s positioning as the “flagship minivan” (a role which it assumed from the 2004 Oldsmobile Silhouette). The interior did receive somewhat of a redesign, with new controls and panels over an otherwise identical layout. Quality of materials was noticeably improved over previous years, but with plenty of hard surfaces, the Terraza’s interior was nowhere near as refined as other minivans at its price point.
Predictably, interiors were virtually identical between the GM foursome, though the premium Terraza marched to a slightly more upscale tune, with a few niceties such as chrome door handles, watch-like analogue gauges, and piping on its leather seats. Faux woodgrain with the appearance of burled elm was richer looking than woodgrain found on its siblings. With satin aluminum outlinings, this more generously applied “wood” did effectively give off a more premium vibe than the others.
The Terraza did bring several interesting features to the table, such as an overhead rail system for the rear seat entertainment system, rear audio controls, and further storage compartments. Hard-shelled plastic storage compartments were also located on bucket seatbacks and the ever-important cupholder count totaled twelve. Moreover, if it made the Terraza any more attractive to buyers, the Terraza frequently placed high on lists of America’s Least Stolen New Vehicles. In a 2008 IIHS study, the Terraza was the 4th least stolen vehicle in America for the years 2005-2007.
The base Terraza CX came with seats in a leather/cloth combination, while the Terraza CXL gained standard leather, though not of particularly high-grade, as common in GMs (excluding Cadillac) of this period. All Terrazas came with seven-passenger seating, courtesy of front and second row buckets, and a 50/50 split third row bench.
By the time the Terraza was released, competitors were offering several innovations in rear seating, most notably seats that folded completely flat into the floor. A sign of its age, Terraza buyers were forced to make due with heavy second row buckets which could only be removed for extra space and a non-removable third row bench which folded, but only on top of the floor, making for less usable cargo space. Even Ford’s Freestar and Monterey came with a flat-folding third row.
The Terraza was also lacking of other comfort and convenience features available on most competitors, such as tri-zone climate control, roll-down second row windows, and GPS navigation. This wasn’t quite as big of a problem on the Buick’s three less-expensive siblings, but for a minivan at the Terraza’s price point, this was very unattractive.
Over the course of its short production span, the Terraza was available with two V6 engines. Initially, just a pushrod 3.5L V6 was offered, generating 200 horsepower and 220 pound-foot of torque. Mated to an elderly 4-speed automatic, the 3.5L-powered Terraza was expectedly slow and under-powered, even by minivan standards. Fuel economy was rated at a disappointing 18 city/24 highway in front-wheel drive configuration, 17/23 with all-wheel drive.
Originally found in the significantly lighter Chevy Malibu, this engine was not an ideal match for the 4,500-plus pound Terraza. Nearly all competitors, including Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota were offering significantly more powerful engines in their minivans, with Honda offering cylinder deactivation technology. Several vans such as the Odyssey, Sienna, and Sedona also had already moved on to 5-speed automatics for better performance and increased fuel economy.
For 2006, a much-welcomed 3.9L V6 joined the lineup, increasing horsepower and torque both to 240. Unlike the 3.5L, which was available in both front- and all-wheel drive versions, the 3.9L could only be had with front-wheel drive. The 3.5L and, subsequently, all-wheel drive would be dropped for the Terraza’s swansong in 2007. It should be noted that the Terraza also gained an independent multilink rear suspension in all models, something that was only offered on its siblings in all-wheel drive layout.
Predictably, buyers were not fooled into thinking the Terraza and siblings were all-new or remotely close to a “crossover sport” vehicle. Furthermore, in the case of the Terraza, it’s assumable that it didn’t bring many young, well-heeled suburbanites into Buick showrooms. In its relatively brief lifespan, Terraza sales in the U.S. and Canada totaled just 43,877. If it’s any consolation, it’s plausible that GM never intended to keep these vans around for long, seeing them as placeholder models until the Lambda crossovers were ready.
More importantly, the Terraza’s replacement, the Enclave crossover, was an all-new vehicle that was immensely better and more competitive in every way. Above all, the Enclave has been very successful in increasing sales, lowering Buick’s average buyer age, and improving Buick’s overall brand image. If rather pitiful vehicles like the Terraza had to briefly come before it in order to set the stage, it appears it was worth it in the long run.