Once upon a time, a car was a car, and a truck was a truck. No longer. In the utilitarian quest to consolidate people and things atop a wheelbase, cars first morphed into station wagons, then into minivans; trucks evolved into sport/utes, then into crossovers. Whereas, formerly, vehicle comparisons were category-driven, so that a Chevy sedan was evaluated alongside a Ford sedan, today's shoppers have to be more cross-disciplinary.
At first sight, Volvo's V50 station wagon and Buick's Terraza minivan wouldn't necessarily compete for the same customers. The Volvo seats five; the Terraza seats seven. The Terraza swallows twice the maximum cargo. But look a little closer: power and torque are very similar; and both base and as-tested prices are only about $500 apart. In the ever more complicated quest to support and even to express one's lifestyle via vehicle, it now pays to survey the changing automotive landscape with a nuanced eye.
2005 Buick Terraza CX
The arrival of a minivan from Buick is confirmatory evidence of General Motor's endemic institutional schizophrenia. No fewer than four GM divisions hear different voices as they attempt to define the minivan in proprietary terms using the same platform. Whereas the Chevy Uplander, Pontiac Montana and Saturn Relay aim for the entry-level market, Buick's Terraza is intended for the pricier, "near-luxury" segment.
It is, therefore, a crossover vehicle not only in the sense that it's part minivan, part sport/utility vehicle. The Terraza also hopes to lift minivan functionality out of the domain of mere plebes and into the gated communities of the posh.
Although exterior styling is uninspiring, the vehicle cockpit is a rich setting of leather and faux-grain wood accents. Two pairs of captain's chairs provide comfortable seating for four, and a third-row bench seats three more in somewhat more cramped conditions. But when seven seatbelts are what an occasion calls for, a little extra intimacy with a fellow passenger certainly beats thumbing for a ride.
One important way Buick distinguishes the Terraza from its stable mates is with a suspension design dubbed "QuietTune." A combination of tighter handling characteristics and sound-deadening materials give the Terraza a more sophisticated, even posh, ride. Four wheel anti-lock disc brakes, as well, come standard on Terraza, as does the StabiliTrak traction and stability control system.
What Terraza does best is to provide a wide variety of ways to accommodate people and things. Second- and third-row seats fold flat in 50/50 sections so that, for example, a long item might be stowed behind the driver while three passengers ride in comfort on the right side of the vehicle. Even with all seats in use, Terraza provides 27 cubic feet of cargo spaceroughly two sedan trunks' worth. With the rear bench flattened, 74 cubic feet of clear space appear; with middle and rear rows flattened, capacity is almost 137 cubic feet.
That's a lot of versatility for $30,474, as-tested. Alas, one of the hidden costs is in powertrain performance. GM's venerable pushrod, 3.5-liter V6 mates up to an almost old-fashioned four-speed automatic transmission. Output is 200 horsepower for this 4,500-pound vehicle. Spry acceleration, in other words, is not one of Terraza's standard features.
Front airbags are standard, of course, but side airbags are optional and available for front occupants only. Head curtains from front-to-rear are not even offered.
For its upscale but competitive price, Terraza offers convenience, capacity and comfort at the expense of updated powertrain and safety technology. It's an interesting strategy for Buick in its quest to maintain an identity as a near-luxury brand.
2005 Volvo V50 T5
From the very start, Volvo's stylish V50 T5 establishes itself as a sport wagon. It's nimble and fast, techie and attractive. And it, too, borrows engineering from siblings within the Ford Motor Company conglomerate.
Specifically, the V50 shares a chassis platform with the award-winning Mazda3 and the Ford Focus models designed specifically for Europe. The Volvo wagon is a bit longer, but the fact remains that this is a compact wagon and thus not nearly so capacious as Buick's similarly priced Terraza.
The V50 seats five in relative comfort. If Terraza is all "country club" within the cockpit, the V50 interior evokes more of a hip, uptown feel. Especially eye-catching is the "waterfall" central console, for example. It seems to pour off the dash like a ribbon of brushed metal, and yet it still manages to house climate-control and audio functions.
Within its compact cabin, the V50 manages cargo very well. Its basic trunk space of 27.4 cubic feet, in fact, is slightly better than Terraza's. Folding both sections of the 60/40 split rear seatback, moreover, reveals 63 cubic feet of maximum capacity.
Lifestyles entailing fewer people and things, in other words, will be well served by the V50. And driving enthusiasts will be delighted. The V50's turbocharged, twin-cam 2.5-liter motor is a five-cylinder pocket-rocket. Mated to the standard six-speed manual transmission, it's an aficionado's dream. Power is a quick-revving 218 hp, and torque is 236 foot-pounds over the broad range of 1,500-4,800 rpm.
Weighing a full 1,200 pounds less than the Terraza, the V50 is understandably more sporty by far, with a suspension well tuned to moderate between handling and comfort. It's a good bit more frugal at the pump as well, posting mileage specs of 25 mpg/city, 31 mpg/highway versus the Buick's 18 mpg/city, 24 mpg/highway. Premium fuel, however, is the V50's beverage of choice.
Standard safety features dominate Volvo's reputation. Accordingly, the V50 comes equipped with front airbags and side and head-curtain bags for front and rear seats. At $31,040 as-tested, a V50 wagon is pricier-per-cube than Buick's crossover wagon; but it's arguably safer for all occupantsnot to mention more fun for its driver.