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How Pontiac Works


Pontiac Trans Sport
Although the 1990 Pontiac Trans Sport was regarded as a quality minivan, its futuristic design lacked appeal and generated poor sales.

The Trans Sport minivan was a peripheral player in the 1980s, generally drawing fewer than 30,000 yearly sales, a fraction of what the top-selling Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager achieved. GM had missed the minivan mark with its new-for-'85 rear-drive Chevy Astro/GMC Safari, so it drew up a Chrysler-like front-drive platform for Trans Sport, a new Chevrolet Lumina APV, and a luxury-oriented Oldsmobile Silhouette.

All placed plastic-like body panels over a steel skeleton like the late Fiero, unique among minivans but debatable here. So, too, was the shared "dustbuster" styling, with a long pointy snout grafted onto a practical minivan box.

Car and Driver likened the look to something out of "Star Trek." Equally weird was a dashtop that stretched way ahead to a steeply raked windshield flanked by large, fixed triangular side windows ahead of the front doors. Visibility, needless to say, wasn't the best.

More useful was available "2+2+2" seating for the uplevel Trans Sport SE. This involved lightweight individual seats for the second and third rows that could be rearranged to suit various passenger- and cargo-carrying requirements -- a bright new minivan idea.

More useful was available "2+2+2" seating for the uplevel Trans Sport SE. This involved lightweight individual seats for the second and third rows that could be rearranged to suit various passenger- and cargo-carrying requirements -- a bright new minivan idea.

At first, Trans Sport and company only had a 120-bhp version of GM's 3.1-liter V-6, with less-efficient throttle-body fuel injection instead of a squirter at each cylinder. That was hardly a selling point for a vehicle that could be loaded with seven ­people and/or lots of cargo.

But GM made amends for '92 by adding an extra-cost 165-bhp 3.8 V-6, plus available antilock brakes. The 3.8 gained five bhp for '93, when a pop-up sunroof, leather upholstery, and steering wheel-mounted audio controls joined Trans Sport's options roster.

The next year introduced a standard driver-side airbag and automatic power door locks, plus an optional power sliding right-rear side door -- and an oddly blunted nose paring 2.3 inches from overall length, an attempt to silence style critics. Optional traction control arrived late that season.

Progress slowed as a planned redesign drew near: just a shift interlock for '95, and a new 180-bhp 3.4-liter V-6 as the sole engine for '96. In all, these minivans were another example of how GM so often stumbles when attempting to innovate.

A redesigned Trans Sport arrived in 1997. Like that year's Olds Silhouette and new Chevy Venture, it reverted to conventional all-steel construction with mainstream minivan styling that might be termed "attractively forgettable." Buyers could now opt for five-passenger and extended seven-seat versions on separate wheelbases, a nod to the top-selling Chrysler Corporation minivans, themselves overhauled the previous year.

Also aping Chrysler's latest was an available left-side sliding rear door, which later became standard and could be electrically operated like the power right-side door GM had pioneered.

All the new GM models were widely judged the best-handling minivans. Trans Sport went furthest with a Montana Package comprising tighter suspension, alloy wheels and traction control, plus jazzy two-tone exterior.

Reasonably priced at around $1000-$1200 depending on model, this option proved so popular that Montana replaced the Trans Sport name for '99 (except in Canada), though most previous Montana features continued in a Performance and Handling option.

This new blend of minivan practicality, Pontiac flair, and affordable low-$20,000 pricing more than doubled Trans Sport sales for 1997. But volume went little higher afterward, and Dodge moved more than four times as many Caravans each year. Though all minivans were increasingly regarded as uncool "soccer mom" vehicles, with a consequent softening in overall demand, GM's entries had another problem in being visibly narrower than their rivals.

This reflected a basic design created partly for the tight streets of Europe, where it was sold as the Opel/Vauxhall Sintra. Most Americans didn't like their minivans so skinny, and thus shopped elsewhere.

A relatively static product didn't help Pontiac's cause, either. Indeed, the only changes of note after '97 were an optional "MontanaVision" rear-seat DVD video system (1999); standard OnStar (2001); and available fold-flat third-row seat, "Versatrak" all-wheel-drive, and ultrasonic rear-obstacle-detection system (2002).

The benign neglect was unfortunate. Like other GM efforts approaching the new millennium, the Trans Sport/Montana was basically a good vehicle, just not quite what the market wanted.

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

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