Contrary to popular opinion, mini-vans come in a variety of flavors, not just vanilla.

The front-wheel-drive Pontiac Montana is for folks who need the room for the family but want the same sporty ride and handling they've come to appreciate in the Grand Prix sedan.

The front-wheel-drive Toyota Sienna is for folks who need the room for the family but want the soft ride and handling they've come to appreciate in the Camry sedan.

The all-wheel-drive GMC Safari is for folks who need family room and want sure-footed ride and handling for winter driving they've come to appreciate in their GMC Denali four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle.

And the front-wheel-drive Volkswagen EuroVan is for folks who need room for the family but want the rock-hard ride and handling they came to appreciate when they drove a VW Bus to Woodstock.

We tested each in 1999 form and found each had something that set it apart from its rivals. Best of the lot?

Montana, a new name to replace the sterile Trans Sport moniker.

The obvious lure is Montanavision, an entertainment system offered in the Oldsmobile Silhouette and Chevrolet Venture.

Montanavision brings the house to the car by adding an LCD monitor that pops down from the roof, videocassette player with remote control in the center console, six headphone jacks front and rear and video game player when you tire of watching movies. The package runs $2,595.

Montanavision is billed as a system to keep the kids under control on long trips or visits to the grandparents.

Montanavision alone makes the Pontiac van desirable, but there's a bonus. Montana comes with sports-tuned suspension to set it apart from its Silhouette (luxury) and Venture (value) siblings but keep it in character with Pontiac's performance cast.

For 2001, Pontiac will bring out a new vehicle called Aztek billed as a sport wagon, a sport-ute built off the Montana mini-van platform and with the same 3.4-liter V-6.

Montana is evidence Pontiac won't sacrifice performance and sportiness in Aztek because it owes its heritage to a mini-van.

Montana will stay in the Pontiac lineup as a performance machine for the family. Aztek will be a performance vehicle for youth or the young-at-heart whose family has come and gone.

Montana base price: $23,875. You can get manual slide-open doors on both sides or a manual driver-side door and a power passenger slider for $450. A $150 power door would be even nicer, however.

Noteworthy is a most pleasant 18 m.p.g. city/25 m.p.g. highway mileage as well as dual front and side air bags and anti-lock brakes as standard; traction control is a recommended $195 option.

>>1999 Pontiac Montana
© 1999 Chicago Tribune Wheelbase: 120 inches Length: 201.3 inches Engine: 3.4-liter, 185-h.p. V-6 Transmissio n: 4-speed automatic Fuel economy: 18 m.p.g. city/25 m.p.g. highway Base price: $23,875 Price as tested: $29,105. Includes $775 for option group package with tinted glass, remote keyless entry, power side and rear quarter windows; $2,595 for Montanavision system with LCD monitor, videocassette player with remote control, six headphone jacks and videogame player; $550 for AM/FM stereo with remote compact-disc player, leather-wrapped steering wheel with radio controls, rear-seat audio controls and extended-range speakers; $450 for power sliding-side door; $280 for cast aluminum wheels; $280 for eight-passenger seating; $175 for luggage rack; and $125 for two tone exterior finish. Add $580 for freight. Pluses: Montanavision. Watching videos keeps kids from asking, ``Are we there yet?'' Above average ride and handling and sporty performance. Side-impact air bags and ABS standard; traction control an ($195) option. Minuses: Few realize Montanavision is a vailabl e, and then find it a $2,595 option when they do.