Today, everybody’s a specialist, and the vehicles that we drive have got to measure up to our custom-built lifestyles in ways that make an auto-writing opinion-monger’s life almost excruciating. It’s not just that the contemporary automotive scene is all such a blur. There’s also this nagging suspicion that automakers may be trying to hide something just out of focustrying to make some of their models seem like something they’re not. Two cases in point are examined below. One vehicle would prefer to dissemble its true identity; if you somehow mistook it for an SUV, that would be just fine. The other just wants to be taken seriously as a grown-up so that it too can crash the SUV party.
2000 Pontiac Montana
Don’t dare call this bulky, brawny bus a minivan. Minivans aren’t cool anymore, doncha know. If you’re going to talk about this vehicle, you’re going to be talking about a Montana. Because Montana is coolat least it is in between forest fires.
Pontiac re-monickered the TranSport minivan last year in hopes of distinguishing it from its Chevrolet Venture and Oldsmobile Silhouette siblings. If they all had chromosomes, they’d be perfectly identical minivan triplets. But because the new Montana has this toothy cowcatcher of a front grate under the bumper, along with ribbed plastic spats running down the sides, Pontiac obviously means to leave the other two-thirds of the trio to their individual fates while Montana stakes out a turf of its own.
And just what turf would that be exactly? Well, if you need seating for up to eight, if you want two hinged doors up front and two big sliding doors in back, and if you need the versatility of mix-’n’-match rear bucket seats to attain an optimum mix of kids and cargo, you’d certainly find a pleasant enough piece of turf here in Montana. I’m just not sure that you’d find the view so remarkably different from the ones in, say, Caravan or Windstar, just to pick two competing models.
From the standpoint of driving and function, I’ve very few quibbles with Pontiac’s Montana. I actually prefer the individual rear bucket seats over the bench seats in most competitors. The buckets weigh only 38 lbs. each, so they’re remarkably easy for almost any adult to remove and reinstall without assistance.
Montana’s basic running gear, likewise, is trusty and capable. The 3.4-liter V6 makes a decent enough 185 horsepower. Torque, though, is the better deal: 210 ft.-lbs. means good, gutsy starts and passes, even with a full load. My tester included a $930 “sport performance & handling” option that I highly recommendnot because you’re suddenly doing Formula One in Montana, but because the automatic self-leveling suspension keeps the ride stable and predictable no matter who or what is coming along for a ride. And because Montana can tow up to 3,500 lbs., the self-leveling option is more or less mandatory in this circumstance.
I really can’t even complain about the Montana’s price, which, for the eight-seater extended version I tested, starts at $24,535. Deluxe power and convenience options add $1,935; and then there’s this blow-’em-away TV/VCR, audio, and entertainment system optionMontanaVisionfor $2,595 more. Including other goodies, my tester stickered out at $31,940, which may not be a bargain but certainly is bull’s-eye competitive in the, um, family-size minivan market.
In the end, though, I’m left with the odd impression that Montana is a solid, albeit goofy-looking, value in a category where Pontiac seems embarrassed to have a contender. For all Montana’s attributes, that’s not a particularly reassuring state to be in.
2001 Subaru Forester
Listen.... From the far side of the Pacific, you can just make out the words: “Wish we had a miniva-a-a-n....” But tiny, plucky Subaru has neither minivans nor trucks of any distinction. There are only two basic but versatile platforms: the larger Legacy platform and the smaller Impreza platform. Yet trucks and SUVs, the headlines remind us daily, are the kings of the road. What’s a Subaru to do?
Make lemonade, of course. In the early ’90s, “Crocodile” Dundee made an awfully convincing case for Subaru’s Outback Wagon, based on the larger Legacy models. That this turned out to be a brilliant stratagem is proven by the flattery of so many competing imitations, including Volvo’s V70 “Cross Country” and new AWD wagons from VW and Audi.
But Outback doesn’t really look like an SUV, and looks seem to supply more than half the motivation to the SUV-buying herd. So Subaru next drafted the Impreza platform into service and transformed this tiny subcompact sedan and coupe line into a somewhat (but not much) larger miniature SUV, the Forester.
What’s best about Subarus in general is best about Forester too: one of the finest motors in the business mated to what is, arguably, the industry’s superior all-wheel-drive powertrain. The Forester gets the 2.5-liter version of Subaru’s trademark “boxer” or horizontally opposed four-cylinder. It makes 165 horsepower and 166 ft.-lbs. of torque. Its personality is willing and able. It doesn’t feel especially zippy or quick, but torque is always abundant, always smooth. Because of the motor’s low-profile, low-mount design, it actually lowers the Forester’s center of gravity and enhances stable handling feel.
But because of its Impreza pedigree, the Forester’s five-passenger capacity is a sardine-squeeze of an afterthought. As a result, the brilliance of the boxer/AWD powertrain gets sort of lost in the blur. Forester is less than a minivan, more than a subcompact, not quite an Outback. It may be the best attempt at a mini-SUV for a company with no trucks, but in the SUV jungle that the U.S. market has become, Forester risks getting swamped.
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