Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
It's not like we think the world needs another minivan. Even a casual observer can see that there are already three or four really good vans for sale (new Sienna, newer Odyssey and the Stow-'n-Go-equipped Grand Caravan). And with Kia promising an all-new, budget-priced Sedona in the next few years, the case gets even less compelling. However, Saturn has billed itself as a family-friendly car company and has even put its money where its collective mouth is by equipping its dealerships with a kids' play area and ditching the divisive and decidedly unfriendly high-pressure sales tactics of many Honda, Toyota and Nissan dealerships. While nice dealerships are, well, nice, the one thing lacking from Saturn has been a vehicle that could effectively carry more than five people. Sure, you may only have two kids, but if each of them wants to bring a friend on a fun-filled summer outing of mini golf and Big Gulps, then you'll have to bring another car or make two trips. Yes, Saturn has been family-friendly, but only to a point — the lack of new and usable products has been its biggest failing.
That's where the Relay comes in. As the first Saturn that can seat more than five people, the Relay is a vehicle that has great potential.
Unfortunately, we don't see quite the same potential for Buick's first entry into the minivan segment. The Terraza is also a new minivan but we just can't see many folks sitting around waiting for, or even looking for, a Buick minivan. This is not to say that GM has lost its marbles, as premium minivans clearly have a place in the segment. The top-of-the-line Toyota and Chrysler minivans are both based on "utility first" family haulers but then up the ante by adding leather, a fancy stereo and upscale features like wood trim. Add the options of chrome wheels, adaptive cruise control (only on the Toyota), a DVD player and a navigation system, and you start to realize a Buick version of a family van might not be so crazy after all.
But don't tell the GM corporate types that the Relay and Terraza are "just another minivan" — they'll quickly correct you and point out that the vehicles are "crossover sport vans." We're not sure exactly what a crossover sport van is, but it seems to be very similar to a minivan. While the Relay and Terraza are essentially redesigned versions of GM's previous-generation vans, they do offer several notable styling differences as well as functional features that make them worth considering when shopping for a new family vehicle.
The exterior styling cues are intentionally SUV-looking with a long hood, upright grille and well-defined rear window openings. These new vans also offer an extra inch of ground clearance over the previous-generation GM minivans. Large front parking lights that mimic foglights, a high front bumper and prominent roof rails are also intended to give the Relay and Terraza a more SUV-like appearance. Although neither has yet been subjected to government or IIHS crash testing, GM says the new minivans were designed to achieve a five-star crash rating for first- and second-row occupants, thanks in part to the longer, more prominent front-end treatment. Unfortunately, neither the Saturn Relay nor Buick Terraza is available with side curtain airbags, a worthy safety item that you can get on almost all of their competitors.
Both vans come with some interesting standard and optional features. They offer a standard DVD entertainment system, standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and optional all-wheel drive. The options list also includes features like remote-start, a 40-gig digital media storage system for music and movies and a hands-free OnStar system. The Buick employs the new "Quiet Tuning" feature that includes a unique crankshaft, extra sound-deadening materials and an exclusive independent rear suspension with a load-leveling feature. A curiously absent feature is an available navigation system; although, we're told this feature will be available by 2006.
Ask GM officials and they'll tell you they have a new commitment to interiors, and both the Terraza and Relay benefit from this shift in thinking. We met this claim with much skepticism as the same exact proclamation was made at Ford a short time ago. Sure, the new Ford Freestar's interior looks better, but as soon as you start touching the interior surfaces, it's obvious that Ford's promise was only skin-deep. Thankfully, GM went the extra mile with the interior of these new vans, as both models feature upscale cabins that are a vast improvement over any of GM's previous people movers.
Inside, the Relay and Terraza impart a sense of quality and, dare we say, luxury. The Terraza's interior is clearly more upscale-looking (and maybe geared for a more mature crowd) with dark wood grain and softer seats, but it's the Saturn that really shines in the interior department. The center stack and front armrests sport light-colored wood-pattern trim that is so attractive it's cause for a double take. There's also a noticeable lack of hard plastic surfaces inside these vans and many of the surfaces are pleasing to the touch. The radio control knobs have a rubbery feel not unlike that found in Audi products. Even the headlight switches, heating and ventilation controls and steering wheel-mounted buttons feel solid and well made. Our only real complaint is the typical GM turn signal stalk-mounted cruise control — hardly a deal breaker.
But the real test is the driving experience and neither van disappoints in this regard. The Buick is noticeably quieter and smoother. That's to be expected given the "Quiet Tuning" claims, but here again the real surprise is the comfortable feel of the Relay. This new van is easily the most refined vehicle in Saturn's history. The engine is reasonably quiet, and the suspension soaks up rough pavement with little of the noise making its way into the cabin. Both vans use a 3.5-liter V6 good for 200 horsepower. While not quite as snappy as the Honda Odyssey, the Relay and Terraza do provide adequate acceleration. The Buick delivers that power with a little less noise than the Saturn. In all-wheel-drive guise, both vans feel a little heavy, and the suspension is clearly tuned to deliver a comfortable ride rather than sporty handling. The front-wheel-drive versions feel slightly lighter on their feet but again, neither version comes close to the nearly perfect balance struck by the top-tier vans.
With plenty of good minivan choices available, any new entry into the segment is going to be a tough sell. Still, GM has given its new vans interesting and competitive features that should ring true with many buyers. The Buick Terraza, with its upscale intentions and Quiet Tuning measures, adds an extra bit of plushness to the usual minivan formula and provides an additional choice for those who need to haul seven people without sacrificing too much luxury. But it's the Saturn Relay that really impresses with an overall demeanor that is quieter, more comfortable and better-looking than any previous Saturn. In fact, the Relay seems to us to be the best-looking of all GM's new minivans. Our initial impression of these vans is that they are resting firmly in the middle of the minivan pack. Better than some, but not quite up to par with Honda and Toyota, they should be very appealing to those who hate the look of minivans but need the features and convenience of a seven-passenger vehicle.
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