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By Jeremy Cato
No doubt about it, for the 1997 model year General Motors (finally) became a serious player in the kidmobile game.
Unfortunately, it took the General twelve years to figure out that minivan owners want pure practicality and functionality. So for ’97, gone was the dust-buster nose of GM’s previous minivans. The latter’s shape prompted plenty of guffaws from observers, not to mention complaints from driver’s about lack of visibility. Instead, GM introduced new vans sporting 26 separate storage compartments, 17 cupholders, a nifty “purse” net between the front seats and a variety of flexible seating arrangements.
And in terms of interior space utilization, GM did its homework. To learn its lessons, GM went to school on Chrysler and its minivan owners of the day. GM officials willingly admit they tore apart Chrysler’s vans when designing their ’97 model. The also interviewed more than 4,000 minivan owners (half of them driving Chryslers) to uncover all sorts of useful data.
The end result: GM created a lineup of minis with a strong powertrain (engine/transmission), good ride and handling and a versatile passenger/cargo area. Quality in the newer vans was also much better than those they replaced, but still not quite at the head of the class.
Both Venture and Trans Sport have come in long- and short wheelbase versions, with only the bigger vans getting the driver’s side sliding door. GM was also the first maker to offer an electronically-powered door operated from the driver’s seat or via the key fob. It’s a pretty handy feature, although some vans have come with doors that failed to work properly.
The longer GM vans still weren’t quite as roomy inside as Chrysler’s Grand vans, but they did nip Ford’s Windstar of that model year (’97) for overall interior space.
Inside, the Venture has been offered with up to three different seating combinations, although in all of them the rear seating position is quite low and somewhat uncomfortable for adults. It’s a simple but not necessarily an easy process to remove and re-install the second and third seating rows – whether you’ve opted for bench seats (weighing 22 kg./49 lbs.) or individual buckets (17.6 kg/39 lbs.).
The rear seatbacks fold flat to act as tables or load areas. A 4×4 sheet of plywood can rest between the wheel wells or lay on the seatbacks. The side doors, meanwhile, open wide enough to accommodate that plywood sheet. Other smart features in the rear: an available cargo-area air pump, standard auxiliary power outlet; and separate rear audio controls.
These vans use the same basic front suspension as GM’s Grand Prix of the late ’90s, so it’s no surprise they ride, handle and steer as well as many sedans and better than some, even though the rear suspension is a trailer-like twist beam/coil spring arrangement. The rack-and-pinion steering is particularly good for a minivan. The brakes, with standard anti-lock, pull things to a stop as well as most competitors.
Under the hood is GM’s no-frills pushrod 3.4 litre V6 linked to a four-speed automatic. It delivers sufficient power for most applications. Do-it-yourselfers, however, take note: the 3.4’s underhood accessibility is good only for checking fluids and changing oil; if you want to change the three far-side spark plugs, I’m told you must remove two engine mounting bolts and rock the engine forward. Thank goodness it comes with standard 160,000-km. platinum tipped spark plugs. Traction control, for slippery starts, has been optional.
Ventures are solidly constructed vans, although they have not been without some quality issues. But attractive pricing on the used market makes them worth a thorough test drive.