2003 Chevrolet Venture
2003 Chevrolet Venture; photo courtesy GM. Click image to enlarge


By Chris Chase

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Photo Gallery: GM minivans, 1997-2007

General Motors’ first minivans were the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari, which debuted in 1985. They were solid vehicles, but their truck-based underpinnings meant they couldn’t boast the car-like driving dynamics of the Chrysler minivans that created the segment in 1984.

It would be five years before GM launched its own car-based minivans, the Chevrolet Lumina APV and Pontiac Trans Sport (the Oldsmobile-badged Silhouette wouldn’t be sold in Canada until the late 1990s) arrived, sporting space-age styling that prompted journalists to nickname these vans “the Dustbuster.”

Verdict

Highs: Low prices; low fuel consumption
Lows: Poor reliability, lacks versatile interior features of competitors

For this week’s review, however, I’ll skip ahead to 1997, when GM introduced its second-generation GM minivans. Pontiac and Oldsmobile’s versions kept their original names, but the Chevrolet version was now called the Venture. Designed to be sold both in North America and Europe (as the Opel and Vauxhall Sintra), the new Venture, Trans Sport and Silhouette were actually narrower than the vans they replaced: good for Europe’s crowded roads, but not so much for North America, where the narrow platform made for limited interior space compared to the competition.

2003 Oldsmobile Silhouette
2007 Saturn Relay
2003 Oldsmobile Silhouette (top) and 2007 Saturn Relay; photos courtesy GM. Click image to enlarge

In 1998, Oldsmobile sold the Silhouette in Canada for the first time, and in 2000, the Trans Sport became the Montana (previously a top-line Trans Sport trim level).

These vans got new styling inside and out for 2005. The new front-end was a failure aesthetically, but it did good things for crash safety (see below). There were new names (again), too: the Chevy Venture was now the Uplander, and Saturn and Buick got their first minivans (the Relay and Terraza, respectively).

Right off the bat, the first of these second-generation vans earned criticism for poor performance in crash testing. In European testing, the steering wheel broke off in the frontal offset test and the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave these vans a “poor” rating in frontal offset crash tests.

The only remotely decent result came from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which gave the vans four stars for driver protection and three (1999 and 2000) or four stars (1997 and 2001 through 2005) for front passenger protection in frontal impact tests. In side impact tests, 1999 and newer versions earned five stars for front-seat occupant protection in side impacts, and 1999 and 2000 versions earned five stars for rear-seat occupant protection, while later versions got four stars.

2005 Chevrolet Venture
2007 Saturn Relay
2005 Chevrolet Venture (top) and 2007 Chevrolet Uplander; photos courtesy GM. Click image to enlarge

As I mentioned, the 2005 redesign didn’t do anything for these vans’ looks, but it improved crashworthiness: The NHTSA gave these restyled versions four and five stars all around, while the IIHS bestowed upon them its “good” rating in frontal offset crash tests, but only granted an “acceptable” rating in side impact tests. Note that side airbags were standard from 1999.

A 3.4-litre V6 paired with a four-speed automatic was the only powertrain offered in 1994-2004 models, while the redesigned 2005 models got a newer 3.5-litre engine instead. A 3.9-litre V6 was added to the options list in 2006, and this motor became the only choice in 2007, but the four-speed automatic remained as the only gearbox option throughout. All-wheel drive was available from 2002 through 2006.

Back in 1997, Natural Resources Canada’s fuel consumption ratings were 13.7 L/100 km (city) and 9.7 L/100 km (highway). In 2004 (the last year for the 3.4-litre engine in these vans), fuel consumption was down to 12 L/100 km (city) and 7.8 L/100 km (highway) for front-wheel drive models, and until 2005, a front-drive Venture or Trans Sport was the most fuel-efficient minivan you could buy, according to NRCan. Newer vans fitted with the 3.5-litre motor were rated at 12.6 L/100 km (city) and 8.3 L/100 km (highway); in all versions, opting for all-wheel drive will mean higher fuel consumption. If you take home a 2005 or newer version, keep in mind that the torquier 3.9-litre engine doesn’t use much more fuel than the 3.5-litre, according to NRCan.

2005 Chevrolet Venture
2007 Saturn Relay
2007 Chevrolet Uplander (top) and 2007 Pontiac Montana; photos courtesy GM. Click image to enlarge

Reliability has been uninspiring. The 3.4-litre V6 in earlier models is one of several GM V6s prone to coolant leaks into the crankcase via intake manifold gaskets that fail regularly after three or four years on the road. Check this thread at Topix.net for comments from owners who have experienced the problem.

Browse other forums for these vans and the gasket problem crops up more often than any other technical topic. However, the lack of an enthusiast following for these vans (does any minivan inspire enthusiasm?) means that the Internet doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of really useful reliability information about these vans. There are many posts in Venture and Trans Sport forums discussing electrical issues and transmission problems; all of these types of problems are confirmed by Consumer Reports, which gives these vans a “much worse than average” used vehicle verdict. Yahoo Autos in the UK called the Sintra “Britain’s worst car.” That might be a little harsh, but I’d agree in the sense that, at least from a reliability standpoint, the Venture and its platform mates are best avoided, unless you get one new enough that it still has some of the factory warranty left. Also, make sure all the recalls issued for these vans over the years have been addressed before you buy.

2005 Chevrolet Venture
2007 Saturn Relay
2007 Saturn Relay (top) and 2003 Chevrolet Venture; photos courtesy GM. Click image to enlarge

But hey – used values are cheap, which may be the only positive aspect of buying one of these vans used. Canadian Red Book values start at $2,900 for a 1997 Venture to $28,600 for a 2007 Buick Terraza. There’s lots of depreciation at play here: as of this writing, many 2007 models, barely a year old, have already lost close to a third of their value from new. If you were dead set on buying a GM minivan, I’d advise stifling your gag reflex and going for a 2006 Uplander or Montana in a lower trim level. Why? First, go simple, and you’ll be spending as little money as possible – you should be able to get one for well under $20,000 – and fewer extras means fewer expensive fixes down the road, and second, go newer, and you’ll get some factory warranty coverage as part of the deal. The 2005 redesign didn’t include any serious mechanical updates, but reliability may be somewhat improved from 2004 and earlier versions.

In the end, I’d recommend a Dodge Caravan as far as domestic minivans go. Sure, these guys aren’t much more reliable, but at least the overall package is more innovative, what with the Caravan’s available (since 2005) Stow ‘n Go seats in the second and third rows and the numerous other features that have kept these Chrysler Corp. products at the top of the minivan sales heap for so many years.

Things are looking good so far for GM’s newly-launched crossovers; makes you wonder what GM could have done with a minivan had the company really put some thought into it. Sadly, though, with nothing but a low price to recommend them, I think these GM minivans are just too risky a venture as a used vehicle purchase.


Online resources

There’s no one source I can recommend as the definitive place to go on the web for information on these vans. There’s a Venture section at ChevroletForum.com. You’ll find a number of Venture-related threads at Topix.net; Topix.net is also home to numerous, though less-useful, threads on the Pontiac Montana and the Chevy Uplander. The forums at Edmunds.com have discussion sections for the Venture, Relay and Uplander, and there’s some Saturn Relay info to be had at SaturnFans.com.


Related stories on Autos

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  • Test Drive: 2003 Pontiac Montana GT
  • First Drive: 2005 GM minivans


Manufacturer’s Website


Recalls

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000080; Units affected: 200,580

1997-1999 (affects other models): In areas of high salt use, the spare tire hoist cable may corrode and eventually break. This would allow the spare tire to fall off the vehicle possibly resulting in a road hazard for other vehicles. Correction: A letter will be sent to owners of affected vehicles with maintenance and inspection instructions for spare tire hoist cable assemblies. Additionally, the letter will advise the owner that, if the cable breaks during that inspection, their dealer will repair the assembly. This policy will be in effect until December 31, 2002.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002199; Units affected: 238,877

1997-1998 (affects other models): On certain vehicles, the lower pinion bearings retainer tabs were not crimped properly. These and some other retainers used in vehicles assembled between January 1, 1996 and October 31, 1997 may fail and permit the ball bearings to escape. If the problem were to occur, the driver would have to exert more effort to turn the steering wheel. Correction: Dealers are to inspect the condition of the lower bearing, and replace the lower pinion bearing or the rack and pinion steering gear assembly, if necessary.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001236; Units affected: 38,064

1997-2001: Certain 1997-2001 Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Montana/ Trans Sport, and Oldsmobile Silhouette mini vans equipped with passenger side power sliding doors that were serviced in campaign 01013 (01v-067) from April to August 2001. Also 2001 Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Montana, and Oldsmobile Silhouette mini vans equipped with passenger side power sliding doors assembled in January through April 2001. These vehicles have inadequate front welds. If a front weld fails, the actuator can jam in the unlatched position and, when the sliding door closes, it will not be latched. If this happens, the power sliding door can open while the vehicle is in motion, particularly when the vehicle ascends a hill, makes a turn, or travels over a rough road surface. An unrestrained occupant could fall out of the van and be injured. Correction: dealers will inspect the actuators for certain date codes and, if necessary, replace the actuators.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998066; Units affected: 9,103

1997-1998: note: vehicles equipped with traction control. When the windshield wipers are turned on, the windshield wiper linkage arm may contact a brake line connected to the traction control system (tcs) modulator. This could result in brake fluid leakage, reduced braking effectiveness and increased stopping distances. Correction: a brake line clip will be installed which will assure proper clearance. Additionally, vehicles will be inspected for brake line damage caused by this condition and damaged brake lines will be replaced.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998152; Units affected: 18,936

1997-1998: note: vehicles equipped with bucket seats or a split bench seat in the middle or back row. The seat latch release mechanisms on bucket seats and on the 40% portion of the split bench seat in the second and third rows do not have protective covers. When activating the release mechanism to roll a bucket seat forward, an operator’s fingers may be severely injured or severed if they are not kept clear of the mechanism. Correction: dealers will install a protective cover over the release mechanism.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1999059; Units affected: 29,004

1997: On certain vehicles, ice may accumulate on the rear brake pipes located approximately under the driver’s side floor mat. If a large amount of ice accumulates on the brake pipes, the weight of the buildup may pull the pipes away from the underbody of the vehicle which could cause the pipes to drag on the ground and be damaged. Damaged brake pipes could result in loss of brake fluid and reduced brake effectiveness. Correction: A brake pipe retainer clip will be installed to the underbody.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001059; Units affected: 54,759

1997-2001: Certain vehicles may exhibit a condition in which the power sliding door closes, but is not latched. If this happens the power sliding door can open while the vehicle is in motion, particularly when the vehicle ascends a hill, makes a turn, or travels over a rough road surface. An unrestrained occupant could fall out of the vehicle and be injured. Correction: Dealers will install a new power sliding door un-latch actuator assembly.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004446; Units affected: 105,755

1997-2005: On certain vehicles equipped with second-row bucket seats or captain’s chairs and power sliding door on the passenger side, if a passenger uses the interior handle to open the power sliding door and holds onto the handle while it is being opened by the motor, the passenger’s arm may be pushed into the seat back or armrest and a wrist or lower arm injury may result. Correction: Dealers will replace the original interior power sliding door handle. The original handles are offset from the door panel and a passenger can wrap his or her fingers around them. The replacement door handles are essentially flush with the door trim, preventing a passenger from gripping them in the same fashion.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998021; Units affected: 17,225

1998: note: vehicles equipped with a 3.4-litre engine. Water may be drawn into the evaporative emission canister when the vehicle is driven in slushy snow conditions. The water is then delivered to the engine which can result in setting an mil (malfunction indicator lamp), misfire, rough idle, lack of power and eventually engine stall if driveability and mil are ignored. Correction: evaporative emission canister vent solenoid valve assembly will be relocated to a protected area. Rear heater, ventilation and air conditioning equipped vehicles will have a shield installed under the assembly.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998119; Units affected: 11,653

1998: These vehicles may not comply with C.M.V.S.S. 102 – transmission shift control sequence. Vehicles may have a broken shift cable fitting or loose shift linkage swivel tubes. With either condition, moving the shift lever to “park” may not shift the transmission to “park”. This could result in vehicle roll away and a possible crash without prior warning. Correction: dealers will inspect and, if necessary, replace the automatic transaxle range selector cable.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1999067; Units affected: 34

1999: Certain vehicles may exhibit a condition in which the left and/or right front lower insulator to cradle centre metal sleeve is collapsed, which can result in loss of clamp load in the joint. If the clamp load is reduced or lost, the bolt can be lost or broken and the joint can separate. If not repaired, separation of the opposite side joint could occur and result in steering shaft separation. If this were to occur while the vehicle was in motion, a vehicle crash could result without prior warning. Correction: Dealers will replace the left and right front lower cradle to suspension insulators and the attaching bolts.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1999180; Units affected: 44

2000: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 301 – Fuel System Integrity. Vehicles have inoperative fuel tank rollover valves and fuel leakage could exceed the permissible amount in a rollover. In the presence of an ignition source, a fire could occur. Correction: Fuel tanks with inoperative rollover valves will be replaced.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000196; Units affected: 16,621

2000: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of C.M.V.S.S. 209 – Seat Belt Assemblies. Vehicles may have seat belt assemblies that will not withstand the force requirements of the standard. In a crash, if the belt buckle fails, there is an increased risk of injury to the occupant. Correction: Suspect buckle assemblies will be replaced.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002234; Units affected: 127

2001: On certain vehicles, the passenger air bag was manufactured without a check pin. An air bag without the check pin could produce increased pressure at the onset of the air bag deployment and reduced pressure afterward. This could increase the severity of injury to a person who was not properly restrained and who was close to the passenger air bag at the time of deployment. It could also reduce the ability of the air bag to protect a restrained front seat passenger. Correction: Dealers are to inspect, and if necessary, replace the passenger air bag.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001272; Units affected: 11,337

2002 (affects other models): Certain vehicles have an improperly programmed vehicle theft deterrent system. Correction: dealers will reprogram the system.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002151; Units affected: 14,654

2002-2003: Certain vehicles may have a driver’s side airbag inflator that could fracture at a weld during a deployment. Pieces of the inflator could strike and injure vehicle occupants and the airbag cushion would not inflate fully, reducing the capacity of the bag to protect the driver. Correction: Dealers are to inspect and if necessary replace the driver side airbag module assembly.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003037; Units affected: 28

2003: On certain vehicles, the driver’s side air bag may not deploy as designed, resulting in reduced capability of the air bag to protect the driver. In addition, the air bag inflator may fracture. If this were to occur, pieces of the inflator could strike and injure the vehicle occupants. Correction: Dealer will inspect, and if necessary, install a new driver’s air bag.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003172; Units affected: 54,634

2003 (affects other models): Certain vehicles do not comply with CMVSS 225 and 210.2. The Owner’s Manual does not include the location symbols for the Lower Universal Anchorage System for Restraint Systems and Booster Cushions and an explanation of the meaning of the symbols. Correction: Owner’s will receive an Owner’s Manual supplement.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2006199; Units affected: 49,116

2002-2004: On certain vehicles equipped with independent rear suspension, when operated in extreme cold temperature and on rough roads, water and salt can intrude past the ball joint seal. The combination of theses conditions may then lead to premature wear of the ball joint. If the ball joint wear progresses to the point of separation from the lower control arm, a loss of vehicle control may occur. Correction: Dealers will replace both ball joints with new ball joints which have a revised boot and ball stud to improve the seal to the ball stud shaft.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

Chris Chase is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist.

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