Timing, they say, is everything.

Just when General Motors finally gets it right with its new trio of minivans - the Pontiac Trans Sport, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Chevrolet Venture - American families turn to rugged sport-utility vehicles.

Though no one is predicting the demise of the minivan, a dozen years of solid growth appear to be over.

Chrysler, you may recall, introduced the minivan in 1984 and still owns a commanding share of the market. As of late, other automakers have been able to at least equal Chrysler in innovation, features and user-friendliness.

The previous Chevrolet minivan offering, the wedge-nosed Lumina, was just too weird looking to be a mainstream hit.

But this week's test van, a short-wheelbase, four-door Venture, is the first minivan from Chevrolet that can be considered a viable competitor to all comers, foreign and domestic.


Only one drivetrain is available in the Venture: a 180-horsepower, 3.4-liter, push rod V-6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission.

Not to worry. Acceleration is strong, and there's plenty of power on tap for muscling past slower traffic. The Venture doesn't need overhead cams and four valves per cylinder to keep pace with the competition.

Generally, the Venture's engine and smooth-shifting transmission deliver refined performance. However, under extreme acceleration, too much engine noise finds its way into the cabin.

Also, I experienced a bit of torque steer - that's when the front wheels pull slightly to the left or the right - when the van is accelerating quickly from low speeds. If driven normally, the van exhibits none of these traits.

Our test van came with the optional sport suspension system, which adds better tires, alloy wheels and a self-leveling system that keeps the van even regardless of how much cargo you load into it.

The ride is firm but smooth and very quiet. Chevy engineers did a superb job tuning the suspension system. The Venture is outfitted with front struts and a rear semi-independent suspension system mounted on a rugged steel frame.

The Venture is about as easy to drive as a mid-size family sedan. A standard power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system offers crisp and responsive turns. Chevy says the short- wheelbase Venture can turn a complete circle in just 37.4 feet, which makes it easy to make a U-turn or ease into a tight parking space in a crowded lot.

Initially I was disappointed in the front disc/rear drum anti-lock brake system. The pedal seemed to have quite a bit of travel, and it felt soft. But when I pressed the brake pedal hard, the van stopped quickly and in a straight line. The anti-lock system worked flawlessly - which is a relief. I've tested some Chevy vehicles with anti-lock brakes and wondered if the vehicle would ever stop.

In city driving, the Venture averaged 19.5 miles per gallon. On the highway fuel mileage was 26 mp g, according to the vehicle's computer.


The Venture is available with an optional sliding door on the left side and in either short- or long-wheelbase models.

Our four-door, short-wheelbase test van seemed ideal for an average-size family. My girlfriend and her infant daughter helped me test the Venture's interior for ease of entry and exit and for user-friendliness. The van passes with flying colors.

For an extra $385 you can buy the Venture with a power sliding door on the right side. All you have to do is press a button on the key fob, and the door opens or closes automatically. Moms and dads should appreciate this feature. You can hold a baby in one arm and a bag of groceries in the other and still easily press the button and open the door.

The dual sliding doors and the center row of captain's chairs make it a breeze to buckle in a baby seat from either side of the van. In our test van, the two rear seats fold up and forward, creating additional cargo space. The seats also could be removed.

The front bucket seats are firm, comfortable and supportive. The fold-down arm rests between the driver and front passenger are a nice touch.

Between the seats, a cargo net holds small items, such as wallets and CDs. There's also a foldout cup holder that can accept a coffee mug as well as soda cans and cups. In fact, there is no shortage of places to store things. An overhead console has a fold-down sunglasses holder and a compartment for a garage door opener. The doors have map pockets.

Our test van came well-equipped. It had power door locks, mirrors, windows and cruise control, air conditioning, rear window wiper and an AM/FM stereo with a cassette and a CD player. Rear passengers have their own radio control mounted in the roof.

Visibility is excellent. The nose slopes down, and the big windshield provides a good view of the road.

When it comes to styling, the Venture probably won't turn many heads. It's fairly average looking.

A last-minute production change added seat-mounted side-impact air bags on all models. Those bags, coupled with standard anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights and optional traction control, give the Venture class-leading safety features.

If you are in the market for a minivan, it's time to add the Chevrolet Venture to your list of vehicles to test drive. It's a solid mainstream minivan that offers good performance and handling, a generous amount of equipment and excellent quality for a reasonable price.

Specifications: Base price: $21,429. Safety: Dual air bags, side-impact air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, daytime running lights and front and rear crumple zones. Price as tested: $26,320. EPA rating: 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway. Incentives: None.

Truett's tip: Chevrolet's new Venture minivan is a solid competitor against all foreign and domestic vans. It doesn't break new ground in styling and performance, but it's a good value.