Buick has entered the minivan segment for the very first time with the 2005 Terraza. This offering is seen as a draw for new and younger buyers. Indeed, the Terraza name well might get the attention of those same suburbanites who leaf through each issue of the Crate & Barrel catalog and then deploy their credit cards. However, whether the Terraza appeals beyond the just-looking stage remains to be seen; the Terraza's fancy features can't mask its ancient roots.Let's start with the high points. Chief among them is the tan-and-mocha leather interior of the CXL model we tested. (Buick's name for this dcor scheme is Cashmere, but we fear printing that word too baldly, lest the reader think the deck-stitched upholstery is pashmina.) Matching carpets are tasteful, and the plastic surfaces are attractively textured. Wood inserts and brushed-metal accents highlight the cabin.
The instrument panel presents modern gauges inside metal bezels. Ergonomics are satisfactory; in fact, the stalk-mounted cruise-control system surpasses that offered by Cadillac. There are plenty of cup holders and map lights, and several handy seatback storage pockets for headphones and other items. The overhead center console and rail system also has snap-in pockets for storage of CDs and DVDs, and there's even a first aid kit.
Two models are offered: the CX ($28,825) and CXL ($31,705). Front-wheel drive is standard, and the General Motors StabiliTrak vehicle control system is optional. Versatrak all-wheel drive is available on both models. Power-operated sliding side doors are standard. So is an overhead, rear-passenger DVD entertainment system with infrared wireless headphones.
Our well-equipped Terraza CXL came with all-wheel drive, dual-stage front airbags and a sensing system for the right-front passenger, optional side airbags, rear parking assist, and OnStar. It also included eight-way power front seats with two-position driver's seat memory, dual-zone climate control, and rear air conditioning. The very good audio system features a six-disc CD changer and MP3 player, and of course there are controls on the steering wheel. Our Terraza CXL rode on all-season touring tires mounted on attractive 10-spoke, chrome-plated, 17-inch wheels. A roof rack of brushed aluminum added functionality and class. We enjoyed the optional XM satellite radio that allowed us to listen to the Bluesville channel and learn all about Lightnin' Hopkins's first trip to the recording studios in California. The two-stage, heated front seats and remote starting served us well during a cold, snowy week. The grand total for all this came to $36,290. Sticker shock is going to be a factor with the Terraza, because it's trying to go shoulder to shoulder with the best from Chrysler, Honda, and Toyota.
Does it offer comparable value? It rides and handles well enough. The fully independent front and rear suspension features cast aluminum control arms and keeps the Terraza poised. The Versatrak AWD system makes the power steering rather heavy at low speeds, but we ran this van during a snowy week and gratefully benefited from its sure-footedness. With power disc brakes at all four corners, the Terraza stopped surely. Automatic rear level control compensates in case of a heavy load.
In the powertrain department, though, the Terraza is on the woeful side. It shares the engine and transmission used in the Saturn Relay. This 3.5-liter V-6 is lazy, and the four-speed automatic transmission is unambitious. The accelerator pedal has an abrupt tip-in that makes the minivan lurch forward, but that's not to be mistaken for real power. And the column-mounted shift lever virtually precludes any manual control while the vehicle is in motion. (Say, for example, that second gear is desired in order to take advantage of engine braking on a snowy downhill slope; when we moved the lever back to high gear, we went too far and hit neutral.) Top competitors have moved their shifters to the center stack, which is ideal in a minivan.
For a more detailed analysis of the powertrain's shortcomings, we refer you to our assessment of same in the Saturn Relay, elsewhere on this Web site. Or just accept our word that it's grossly insufficient. And incidentally, fuel economy of 17/23 mpg is at the bottom of the class. At this price point, another problem the Terraza faces is lack of feature content. Whether we're talking molded plastic hooks in the cargo area for plastic grocery bags, or a tri-zone automatic climate control system, the Terraza keeps coming up a bit short. (The rear cargo and convenience area, which is an array of molded plastic compartments on the floor, didn't impress us very much.) The unavailability of a power-operated liftgate is inexcusable.
Finally, we arrive at the critical issue of the chassis and body, which are architecturally outdated: too narrow, too long, too tall. The sliding side doors operate on guides that intrude into the passenger compartment. Even though a male driver of less than average height scooted the seat as far back as it could go, his left knee was always touching the door; elbow and head room were awfully precious, and cargo volume (136.5 cubic feet) is less than expected. Sitting in the second row meant our knees always clunked against the first-row seatbacks--and there's no fore-and-aft adjustability for the second-row seats. (It's actually more comfortable in the 50/50-split third row.) Finally, add to this equation the outmoded second-row captain's chairs that are beastly to remove and obstruct entry and exit for third-row passengers.
Despite a good effort by planners and engineers, the Terraza is handicapped by the inherent disadvantages of GM's minivans, and it never quite manages to overcome them. It offers only one class-leading feature: the mobile digital-storage module, PhatNoise, which interfaces with computers and other devices, giving you lots of say-so as to the infotainment content. There's also a Sit-N-Lift second-row seat for the person who needs help entering the vehicle. These reasons might be good enough to buy the Terraza. Or maybe you've just been desperately awaiting the first minivan from Buick. For the rest of us, better alternatives exist at the Honda, Toyota, and Chrysler dealers, and they aren't any more expensive.