EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

Personally, I hate minivans.

But it has to do mainly with having to drive to high school every day in a bloated barge of a station wagon. Practical, yes. Psychologically scarred for life, you bet. It’s not easy to attract members of the opposite sex when you’re driving a vehicle only slightly smaller than a parade float. (Actually, it was probably the car’s yellow exterior and brown interior that did it in.)

So I don’t care how practical these family haulers are — it’s hard for me to work up enthusiasm for them. That is, until my television died.

OK, OK, so I’ll eat my words.

I hate minivans until I have something oversized to haul, like, say, a new TV in its monstrous box. Then it’s nothing but kind words and loving gestures for this most sensible automotive appliance. Chrysler has half the market. Chevy has little. But Chevy was pushing a plastic-bodied van whose looks resembled a Dustbuster. Customers didn’t exactly flood showrooms. But with the new Venture minivan, it looks like Chrysler will have a fight on its hands.

For starters, the stylists were reined in. GM’s new van is tastefully conservative, falling visually somewhere in between Chrysler’s two generations of minivans. The only questionable item is the gigantic chrome-y grille smacked on the Chevy’s proboscis. You won’t mistake it for anybody else’s van. That said, it looks less garish when teamed with a subtle, sophisticated color, such as the test van’s scum-green color. (GM calls it Medium Lichen Green Metallic.)

But there’s more to talk about than just the looks. Look through the windshield. At the top, you’ll find the radio antenna, neatly embedded, never again subject to vandalism or the car wash. Other niceties include a separate tape player for second-row occupants, a large array of storage bins and cupholders, front-seat convenience net (perfect for a purse or six-pack cooler), integrated child safety seat, seatbacks that fold forward into tray tables, front-row under-seat storage drawer and a rear air compressor.

Even getting in the van is innovative. GM is one of a growing number of manufacturers to offer rear sliding doors on both sides of the minivan, with the option of a power sliding door that opens and closes at the touch of a button. The left-hand side door also has an interlock so it won’t open while you’re refueling the vehicle.

It’s all so thoughtful, even a minivan hater like me can grow to appreciate it.

Two different wheelbases (112-inch and 120-inch) are available, as is an extended length cargo van. The test vehicle was an up-level LS extended wheelbase version.

Like in many Chevy vehicles, power is plentiful. There’s only one engine available, a 3.4-litre, overhead-valve V-6 possessing 180 horsepower and 205 pound-feet of torque. It’s easy to get going quickly, despite the vehicle’s 3,792-pound curb weight. The drive train is smooth and unobtrusive, except if the eng ine gets pushed, when it shows its lack of aural finesse. Handling is as good as it gets in a minivan, superior in many ways to the Chrysler version. This van can really be tossed about. Possessing less body lean than its competitors, it is extremely confident, even if its lack of communication prevents it from being fun. (This is a minivan, so let’s not get carried away.)

Braking is good despite the rather small front-disc and rear-drum brakes with anti-lock. Traction control is available as well.

Hauling, as you might surmise, is easily handled. The second and third row seats fold flat. The third row flips forward, revealing a huge cargo hold that easily swallowed that TV I bought. Chevy claims the space in this van will carry a 4 by 8 sheet of plywood with rear gate closed.

In many ways, this van is enough to make any minivan hater love it. While not as stylish as Chrysler’s entry, it’s every bit as convenient, offers better handling, more power and more ga gets than you could possibly want.

And the price is competitive in today’s minivan market, with the nicely optioned version tested topping out in the mid-20s.

Okay, I like it a lot. Just don’t expect me to buy one.

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