Chevrolet moved to distinguish itself in the crowded minivan segment by refurbishing and renaming its old Venture. The Uplander, as this vehicle is now known, looks quite different than its predecessor, but has basically the same running gear. The larger nose addresses increasingly stringent safety standards, with the buzz-ready benefit of giving the Uplander a visage more common among SUVs, which have been siphoning minivan sales over the years. If you believe Chevrolet marketing, it's a "crossover" with "the bold styling of an SUV."
Aside from minor cosmetic differences and unique footwear, there's little to distinguish the Uplander from its General Motors siblings, the Pontiac Montana SV6, Buick Terraza, and Saturn Relay. And when it goes toe-to-toe with segment leaders, such as the Honda Odyssey and Dodge Caravan, the Uplander has a hard time measuring up. This is true not only of the dynamic aspects such as powertrain performance, ride, and handling, but also of crucial features such as seating convenience. For distinction, the Uplander turns to gimmicks such as programmable infotainment. A new advertising and cross-promotional deal with the Nickelodeon cable network aims the Uplander, just like sugary breakfast cereals, right at kids. A uniquely badged variant of the minivan will install Nick's programming in this vehicle from the beginning. Like other Chevrolet trucks, the Uplander is available in LS and LT trim. Buyers may specify either front-wheel drive or Versatrak all-wheel drive. A commercial cargo version is also available.
Oversized windows and an elongated snout help the Uplander, and its corporate siblings, standout among the competing one-box minivans. Being low-waisted and long-nosed affords it a generous amount of outward visibility, so the driver never misjudges where the corners are. Body-colored trim and a minimum of plastic cladding add purposefulness to the appearance. Moldings under the front and rear are supposed to call to mind the skidplates found on serious off-road vehicles. The optional, 17-inch alloy wheels look exceptionally good. However, the body is tall and narrow, carrying a more top-heavy appearance than other minivan models. True to older minivan designs, the sliding door tracks are exposed on the rear flanks, rather than sculpted into the bodywork, or concealed beneath the rear side glass.
A handsome, well-organized layout confronts the Uplander's driver. Everything about the instrument panel and center stack is just as it should be. Each gauge is easily read, and every control and knob falls readily to hand. The cruise control stalk actually surpasses those found in some of General Motors's high-end vehicles. Unlike the minivan class leaders, which choose to position the shift lever in the center stack, the Uplander's shifter is located on the steering column. The trim is all perfectly fine, even when it's obviously fake wood.
Seating is for seven occupants. (Some competing minivans will accommodate eight.) The narrowness of the chassis is felt in the lack of elbow and hip room. Second-row seats fold and tumble against the front row, or they may be taken out to maximize cargo capacity at 136.5 cubic feet. The third row splits 50/50 and folds flat, though the load floor height is higher than that of most other minivans. The overhead rail system locates snap-in storage compartments for placing such items as headphones and DVDs. A rear, flip-down DVD screen is available. XM satellite radio will brighten up those waits outside the preschool.
Vented disc brakes with anti-lock are standard equipment. A principal reason for the lengthened nose is to improve crashworthiness. Each seat is fitted with its own three-point safety harness. Both of the second-row chairs are outfitted for child safety seats, and the middle position in the third row has the necessary top tether for this same purpose. Dual-stage front airbags are capable of primary or secondary deployment, depending on the severity of impact. Sensing an unoccupied seat or the presence of a small and lightweight passenger who is properly restrained, the front-passenger airbag will not deploy. Front- and second-row side airbags are optional.
Critics of General Motors routinely vociferate about pushrod-operated, overhead-valve engines like this 3.5-liter/201-horse V-6, citing them as examples of what's wrong with the entire corporation. The powerplant--with its block of cast iron and heads of cast aluminum--drones, moans, and strains under load. The Honda Odyssey's engine of the same displacement effortlessly generates 27.5 percent more horsepower, earns a higher fuel-economy rating, and recalls Vivaldi instead of Deep Purple. Acknowledging the base powertrain's shortcomings, Chevrolet will introduce a fresher 3.9-liter/235-horse V-6 that employs modern technologies like variable valve timing and active intake technology. Likewise, the four-speed automatic transmission fails to equal the competition, lacking one ratio and some electronic sophistication by comparison.
There are no surprises with the Uplander dynamics; it reminds us of the Venture. Loose, numb steering, body roll, and cushioned ride define the handling, providing comfort on straights and numbed response through turns. The all-wheel-drive version is the more delightful configuration, as it offers fully independent rear suspension with cast aluminum control arms. With the rack-and-pinion steering and disc brakes, this is a pretty good setup and performs nicely in the snow. The front-wheel-drive version has only a semi-independent rear suspension and can't match the other setup's agility. The 3.5L engine ties the Mazda MPV's 3.0L V-6 for horsepower, though that minivan weighs 700 pounds less. The result is the most challenged minivan powertrain on the market. Acceleration from a standstill and when passing is certainly livable, but the performance trails the segment. The 3.9L engine should effectively address the powertrain weakness. Overall, the Uplander is certainly a capable driving machine, but it faces tough competition that's frankly better in the dynamics department.
With an outmoded powertrain and hard-pressed chassis, the Uplander emphasizes convenience, offering enticing features such as an available remote starter, PhatNoise infotainment system, OnStar hands-free calling, and Sit-N-Lift seat. In addition to these unusual attractions, the Uplander possesses all the core minivan features needed to shuttle kids to school and take long-distance trips, but it just doesn't match the power, refinement, and road manners of the segment leaders. Its appeal would be greatest to brand-loyal Chevrolet customers and those able to secure a great, incentive-fueled deal. Even the warranty protection is ordinary, at three-years/36,000 miles. The standout configuration is the AWD variant, though historically such trims do not hold their value as well. Be sure to check the latest IntelliChoice Cost of Ownership research before finalizing an Uplander purchase.
Although a good minivan, the Uplander doesn't measure up against segment leaders--unless features like Sit-N-Lift, AWD, or the digital entertainment center are a must.
Sit-N-Lift mobility OnStar voice-activated phone PhatNoise programmable infotainment system
High load floor Dowdy 3.5L powertrain No power-operated tailgate
For 2006, the new additions are limited to second-row side airbags, the 3.9L V-6, and two new exterior colors.
A boon for mobility, the Sit-N-Lift seat mounts to original right-side, second-row attachments. It operates by a hand-held remote-control device, rotating and extending outward and providing transfer from a standing position or a wheelchair. Introduced in 2005, PhatNoise brings portable infotainment programmability to the minivan. This 40-gigabyte hard-drive cartridge installs in the overhead rail system. It stores and plays back up to 10,000 songs or 40 movies--or combines them in lesser numbers. Video games and audio books are other possibilities.
Controls on the steering-wheel spokes let the driver interact with the voice-browsing interface. Rear passengers can tap PhatNoise for their own programming. It's even possible to port digital pictures through the cartridge and display them on the flip-down rear screen. Then, arriving at home, you can remove the cartridge and completely reprogram it for the next trip to Grandma's house.