Versus the competiton:
Minivans get no respect.
Hopelessly domestic, totally uncool. Those who drive them get called soccer moms and Scout leaders. Anything but hip.
But the fact is, most people who burden themselves with the popular, image-laden sport-utility vehicles would be better off driving minivans, which are roomier, seat more people, drive and handle better, and get better gas mileage.
They’re just not as cool. They don’t have those big, knobby tires or the capability of scaling mountainous jeep trails, which hardly anybody ever does anyway. SUVs remind people of wilderness adventures, while minivans make them think of baby car seats and yardwork.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the latest generation of the bulbous critters are very good, boasting powerful engines and carlike handling, and roomy interiors that are loaded with amenities.
Chrysler remains in the lead in minivan development, which is only natural because it designed the format that everyone else copies.
I recently tried out two variations on the theme, the Chevrolet Venture and Ford Windstar, fierce competitors but brothers under the skin. Really, it’s hard to tell most of these apart.
Most surprising about this generation of minivans is how well they drive. Much better, in the case of the Venture, and its corporate twins Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette, than the minivans they replace, whose looks were compared with Dustbusters and space probes.
For ’98, Venture is refined and competent, not only in the realm of minivans but also as one of the best Chevrolet products I’ve ever experienced. Power, handling, accommodations and amenities are all first-rate, plus there are some really usable features.
For instance, there’s an optional electric-powered sliding door on the right side that glides open or closed at the touch of a button or remote control. Between the front seats is a small cargo net for packages, purses, etc.
And on our tester, there was an optional “sport” suspension system that made the high-profile vehicle feel balanced and well-controlled, and that also adjusts automatically for loads.
Besides a decent load of standard safety features, such as anti-lock brakes, Venture also is equipped with dual side air bags, the only vehicle in this class so equipped, along with its Pontiac and Oldsmobile siblings.
Although Venture’s engine is the standard-issue, 3.4-liter, push-rod V-6, it feels more powerful and polished, for some reason. Steering is up to snuff, and the brakes work well, despite a slightly mushy pedal feel.
The Venture is one of the new four-door minivans, with sliding rear doors on both sides, like the Chryslers and the Toyota Sienna. Multiple doors have become a big deal among minivans and stretch-cab pickups, so in terms of pure quantity, this is where the Windstar falls short.
Instead of a left-side rear door, Windstar has an extra-wide driver’s door and a sliding driver’s seat to ease entry and exit. This wo rks well, though I’m sure Ford loses sales over the door issue.
The Windstar is about 14 inches longer and three inches wider than the Venture, although a long-wheelbase version of the Chevy is available. Inside, the wider Ford feels roomier, though it also feels bulkier when maneuvering in traffic.
Otherwise, the Windstar is very smooth and sophisticated on the road, its strong V-6 accelerating briskly without a hint of harshness. Highway manners are exceptionally good, quiet on the freeway and tractable in curves and corners.
The dashboard on the Windstar is the best among minivans, simple and refined with a step-down design for a greater feeling of spaciousness. Switches and controls are nice, except for the small, fussy stuff on the stereo system.
Our tester was the uppity Northwoods model, which was great-looking, with a gorgeous paint job and upscale amenities. But I have to wonder about any minivan that breaks the $30,000 barrier.
Both the Ford andC hevy feel solid and stable, the Venture being better equipped at a lower price, the Windstar being more sophisticated, roomier and more powerful. I’d be hard pressed to recommend one over the other.
Both have the luggage-space problem inherent to this wheelbase class: With all three rows of seats occupied, space behind the rear seat is lacking.
As minivans go, the Venture and Windstar are both on the leading edge, competing head-to-head with the Chrysler veterans and the Toyota newcomer. And Nissan soon comes out with a replacement for its pleasant but outdated Quest (also known as the Mercury Villager).
That’s crowded competition for a class of vehicle that is stagnating behind the booming popularity of sport-utility vehicles.
1998 Chevrolet Venture
Vehicle type: Seven-passenger, four-door minivan, front-wheel drive. Base price: $21,429. Price as tested: $25,850. Engine: 3.4-liter V-6, 180 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 205 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,699 pounds. Length: 186.9 inches. EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city, 25 highway.