Pontiac Trans Sport (1996)
This review could very well be called "A Tale of Two Trans Sports." Allowme to explain. Several weeks ago, I was called to urgent business at NPR inWashington. They were threatening to cancel us again or something, and itwas my turn to go and grovel. My brother had gone several weeks earlier,and Dougie had gone the week before that. When I got there, I went to therent-a-car place and, lo and behold, there, sitting in the lot, was a brandnew Pontiac Trans Sport, one of the new GM minivans. I hadn't had a chanceto drive one yet, and it looked a hell of a lot more interesting than the 38leftover Cavaliers sitting in the lot. Now, I have to admit that I waspredisposed not to like the Trans Sport, because I never liked the previousincarnation (remember that incredibly stupid looking Dustbuster, with theanteater snout and a dashboard the size of Kansas?). But, looks aside, Ialso was never impressed with how the old Trans Sport was put together, orwith the ride or handling.
The car I rented that day was the base model. It was a standard(short)-wheelbase, three-door, no-frills Pontiac Trans Sport. Base price: alittle more than 20 grand. GM has certainly improved the appearance of thisminivan. It now looks a lot more like the competing Chrysler and Fordminivans, which is a significant improvement over the Dustbuster design.So, how was it to drive? Moderately lousy. It didn't handle particularlywell, and it wasn't particularly quiet or comfortable. The engine waspowerful enough, but nothing special. In all respects, it was simplyadequate. I parked it in the NPR garage, and after some begging, pleadingand general sucking up, NPR decided to give us a reprieve and keep us on fora few more weeks. I headed back to Boston, happy to still have a (nice,easy) job, but sadly disappointed in GM's latest attempt at the minivan.
Skip ahead a few weeks, when what shows up at Car Talk Plaza but anotherPontiac Trans Sport. I was fully prepared to try to foist it off on mybrother, but he had just put gas in our long-term Toyota RAV 4, and Iwould've had to peel his rigor-mortised hands from around the wheel. Now,this next Trans Sport was the top-of-the-line model. It was theextended-wheelbase, four-door (a slider on each side) Trans Sport SEMontana, with leather seats, electric everything and, most importantly, aride and handling package. What's in the ride and handling package? I haveno idea, but I will tell you that the extra 8,000 bucks worth of optionsmade an enormous difference. It transformed the Trans Sport from a mediocrevan into a pretty luxurious cruiser. The Montana was quiet, smooth andcomfortable, and it even handled decently. It still had some of thatpatented GM "jello" suspension feel, but no worse than Chrysler's minivan,if memory serves me right. Certainly a major improvement over thelast-generation GM minivan, and quite acceptable. One mechanical note: Withthe 3.3-liter engine, the ABS system and everything else that's under thehood, the Trans Sport looks like it would be a particularly difficultvehicle to service. The designers have really managed to fill up everysquare inch of the engine compartment.
So, my conclusion: If you can afford to gussy this thing up to the gills,you can make quite a nice minivan out of it. Perhaps GM can use that as itsnew motto: "Don't like our cars? Well, just watch what we can do with$8,000 worth of options!"
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