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Standard ABS and side airbags, optional traction control and power sliding right-side door, powerful V6 engine, available sport package, SUV-like styling camouflages Mom-mobile.
Uncomfortable rear seats, some interior bits lack quality feel.
The entire line gets a name change this year, from Trans Sport to Montana (the name pulled from '98's sporty trim package). Regular-wheelbase models come with one or two sliding doors, while extended wheelbase vans get two only with a right-side power-sliding door option. Side-impact airbags are standard, as are 15-inch 215-70R white-letter puncture sealant tires. New two-tone paint jobs are available and four new exterior colors are offered, as are options for front-row leather seats and an overhead video system. Better still, a special sport performance package adds cast-aluminum wheels, traction control and a specially tuned sport suspension for soccer dads (and moms) who are sport sedan wanna-bes.
The difference is like night and day. Pontiac's Montana is so much better than the previous version that there is really no comparison. So forget about the bullet-nosed, plastic-bodied, Dustbuster Trans Sport of yesteryear. Pontiac is rewriting Chrysler's book on minivans.
For starters, the Montana features a standard 3.4-liter, 185-horsepower V6 (up five ponies from last year), which tops the 180 horses that Chrysler offers with its top-of-the-line optional motor. Like Chrysler, Pontiac offers driver-side sliding doors on both wheelbase sizes, but Montana adds a power option for the passenger-side door on extended wheelbase models. And Pontiac's minivan can accommodate eight-passenger seating, while Chrysler and Ford models cannot. Yes, Chrysler vans do feature roll-away bench seats, but they're heavy suckers to unload. Montana can be equipped with modular seats that weigh just 38 pounds each and are relatively easy to remove.
In the safety column, dual front and side airbags are standard, as are antilock brakes and daytime running lights that operate the parking lamps rather than the headlights. Puncture-sealant type tires and a rear window defogger are standard this year, while traction control remains optional, though it must be ordered with the automatic load leveling suspension.
The Montana performed well during federal head-on crash runs and meets current side impact standards, too. Take note, however, that it fared poorly in offset crash testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (there are no federal standards governing offset crashworthiness).
The sliding door on the right side of the 120-inch wheelbase van can be equipped to open automatically with the push of a button. The ventilation system features a replaceable pollen filter, which is good news for allergy sufferers. Optional rear audio controls allow rear passengers to listen to a CD, cassette or stereo via headphones while front passengers listen to their choice of any of the three mediums simultaneously.
New this year is a sport performance and handling package that offers upgraded tires on sporty alloy wheels, a luggage rack, saddlebag storage and a sport-tuned suspension featuring automatic load leveling and traction control. Who says minivans have to be boring?
Around town, Montana feels downright spunky, with good throttle response and car-like handling. Braking is excellent for a 4,000-pound vehicle. Visibility is uncompromised, thanks in part to the huge exterior mirrors that eliminate blind spots. Front seats are quite comfortable, and most controls are easy to see and use. If it weren't for the expansive windshield and high driving position, drivers might not realize the Montana was a minivan.
Product planners claim that the Montana bridges the gap between sport/utility and minivan. While we think it takes more than body-cladding, white-letter tires, alloy wheels, fog lights and traction control to match an SUV when it comes to capability, we understand what Pontiac is doing. It's tough to stand above the crowd today amid a slew of new and improved minivan models, and a sporty, SUV-fighter theme is unique among them (but not to station wagons, right Subaru?). Give Pontiac credit for sticking with the division's performance brand image here. Montana does blur the line between minivan and sport/utility in terms of styling, but don't worry, nobody will mistake this Pontiac for a Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The Montana is well-packaged and versatile. It isn't perfect, however. If you opt for the modular seats, understand that they provide little in the way of thigh and leg support. When sitting in one of the rear chairs for an extended period, adult passengers will grow uncomfortable quickly. While the automatic sliding door is great, it doesn't behave exactly like an elevator door. Designed to reverse direction when it determines that an object is blocking its closure path, it needs a stern reminder that you are in its way. Teach children that they are strong enough to push the door back, and not to be afraid of getting squished if the door doesn't stop immediately. Other flaws include difficult-to-reach center console storage, lack of a power lock switch in the cargo area and excessive amounts of cheap-looking plastic inside.
Basically, we like Montana for its array of standard and optional features, sporty yet functional image and surprising fun-to-drive demeanor. So long as adult passengers drive or ride shotgun, Pontiac's people mover makes perfect sense.
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