Striking. That's the best way to describe the Oldsmobile Silhouette. Though it has undergone only minor exterior trim changes since its debut in the 1990 model year, the Silhouette, with its Space Age design, remains one of the most innovative looking vehicles on the road. The '92 van offers an incredibly smooth, carlike ride, yet its ample people-carrying, cargo-hauling capacity won't let you mistake it for a car. The most often heard complaint about the Silhouette and its sister vans, the Chevrolet Lumina APV and Pontiac Trans Sport, is about the seemingly endless front end. ''How can you tell where that thing ends?'' and ''It has got to be impossible to park'' were comments I heard from friends who sat in the front seats. I found the front end a little intimidating at first, but it didn't take long for me to get comfortable with it. It's a complaint that I believe most people will overcome after an extended test drive. Oldsmobile's approach for the '90s is to make ''smart contemporary vehicles,'' and the Silhouette is a first-class example. The list of features, standard or optional, is impressive. Few things have been overlooked. ENGINE, PERFORMANCE With early versions of the Silhouette, Lumina APV and Trans Sport, General Motors fielded complaints that the vans were seriously underpowered. GM responded by offering an optional 3800 V-6 engine for '92. The test vehicle was equipped with the optional engine, which produces 165 horsepower at 4,300 rpm. The 3800 V-6 has a towing capacity of about 3,000 pounds. Its performance was strong, and acceleration from a stop was impressive. Oldsmobile says the high-powered Silhouette has trimmed two seconds from last year's 0-to-60 mph time of 13 seconds. The 3800 engine is paired with the sophisticated Hydra-Matic 4T60 four-speed, electronically controlled automatic transmission that GM introduced last year in some of its '91 luxury models. Shifts were smooth and timely. Along with its improved engine come enhanced mileage figures of 24 miles per gallon highway and 16 mpg city. For drivers who don't feel the need for more power, the standard Silhouette engine is a 120-horsepower, 3.1-liter V-6 with throttle body fuel injection. STEERING, HANDLING, BRAKING Being a minivan owner myself, I was impressed with the Silhouette's smooth ride and ease of handling. It definitely feels like a car, but I still experienced a bit of sway on the interstate. If you were to close your eyes and steer the Silhouette, which I don't recommend, you would believe you were behind the wheel of a large station wagon, not a van. The Silhouette's power rack-and-pinion steering is weighted perfectly for the vehicle. The Silhouette's brakes - power front discs and rear drum - worked flawlessly. A couple of quick, unexpected stops were made without a problem. Anti-lock brakes, which help keep the vehicle under control dur ing panic stops, are standard on all Silhouette models. FIT, FINISH, CONTROLS The only changes you'll find on the outside of the '92 Silhouette are folding, power-operated rear-view mirrors, which are standard, and an optional pop-up sunroof. Oldsmobile also uses an integrated roof antenna that eliminates the conventional mast unit. The test Silhouette's sliding side door closed with minimal effort. That's a nice feature when your hands are full of packages. Now for the best part - the interior. The analog gauges are big and a breeze to read. Controls for the windshield wipers, radio and air conditioner are uncomplicated and easy to operate. The test Silhouette was loaded with an auxiliary rear air conditioning unit and numerous air vents throughout. With the front and back AC units running at once, the van cooled down within minutes on a hot day. I couldn't detect any strain on the 3800 engine, either. The test vehicle was equipped w th full individual rear bucket seats that fold down to form a table top. Each seat al so can be removed easily by releasing two latches. Some extra features that bear mentioning are the built-in eyeglasses holder concealed in the ceiling console and a garage door opener button, also in the ceiling console, that allows you to keep your opener out of sight. The only complaint I have with the interior design is the obtrusive ''A'' pillars on the front windshield. They were distracting at first, but as the week went on I became less aware of them. All in all, the Silhouette is a wonderful alternative to a full-size van or a large station wagon. It was enjoyable to drive, and even though its design has been out for almost three years, it still managed to attract a lot of lookers.
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