1998 Chevrolet Venture

By November 10, 1999
1998 Chevrolet Venture

For years General Motors was an also-ran in the minivan category. Then last year GM launched a lineup that kept the best of the old–the sturdy 3.4-liter V6 engine, the modular seats that can be removed individually, and the power sliding door–and changed just about everything else. Sales of the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette quickly soared to record levels.

GM's minivan sales are still far less than category-leader Chrysler's, but the company's hard work has paid off in spades. Dramatically rising sales of these three all-new minivans show that their unique attributes and overall competence have not gone unnoticed by buyers.

For 1998, the fundamentals have gone untouched, but several attractive new features have been added. Front-seat passengers now have the added protection of side airbags. And OnStar, the revolutionary navigation, security and personal service system developed by General Motors, is available on all three minivans.

Walkaround

We drove an extended-length Chevrolet Venture LS. All three Chevy, Oldsmobile and Pontiac models come in a regular length with a 112-inch wheelbase, and an extended length with 120-inch wheelbase. For 1998, you now can order a driver-side sliding door on the regular-length model, as well as a power sliding door on the passenger side. (Power doors were limited to long-wheelbase models last year.)

Overall length is similar to comparable Chrysler minivans. The GM minivans are 5 inches narrower, which makes them easier to maneuver through parking garages and into narrow parking spaces. The sliding door openings are wider than those on the Chryslers, which makes access to the third row easier.

The models are differentiated appropriately for each GM division. Chevrolet offers the least-expensive model (though it can be ordered with enough options to equip it comparably to the other models), the Oldsmobile offers luxury items such as leather seats, and the Pontiac has sporty options such as the Montana package.

The $1200 Montana package, which accounts for 60 percent of Trans Sport sales, is for folks who wish they could buy a sport-utility but need the capacity of a minivan. It has SUV styling cues such as lower body cladding, fog lights and brawny front bumpers. It also has a sports suspension, with stiffer springs and larger self-leveling air shocks. For 1998, an attractive new color combination has been added: a teal body with charcoal cladding.

Our Venture had one of the niftiest options: a $385 power sliding door on the passenger side that kids love and we found quite handy. The door can be activated with the remote key fob or buttons located above the driver's head or behind the front passenger seat; for safety, the rear button locks out when the car is in gear. GM and Toyota offer the only vans with a power door.

Interior Features

The pleasant, open interior of the Venture is relatively unchanged for 1998. A few thoughtful conveniences have been added: a power vent for the rear windows, adjustable lumber support for the front passenger, and an optional driver information center for the overhead console with thermometer, compass and other fun gadgets.

Starting in the middle of the model year, side airbags will be added as a standard feature.

One of the best additions to the option list is the OnStar system. It debuted at Cadillac last year and is now available on other GM models, including the three minivans. It has been particularly popular with women, which is not surprising given its unmatched security and service capabilities.

When you purchase OnStar, the van is fitted with a navigational receiver that can pinpoint your location using satellite signals, plus a cellular phone linked to a 24-hour service center. The phone can also be used as a regular cellular phone.

Push one button on the phone, and you're connected to an adviser at the OnStar Center who can help you in many ways. If you are lost, they can locate you and give directions to your destination. They can tell you the location of the nearest gas station, hotel, ATM or hospital. They can even make reservations at a restaurant or patch you through to the nearest motel when it's late at night and you want to stop. That's true luxury.

If the airbags deploy, a signal is sent to the OnStar Center, which notifies help–even if you are unconscious. If you lock your keys in the car, OnStar can unlock your doors remotely. If a warning light appears on your dash, the OnStar adviser can, in some cases, pull information from your car's diagnostic computer and tell you what to do.

On the down side, OnStar is not as precise as the dedicated navigation systems available in other cars, and it won't work in areas without cellular service.

The OnStar hardware costs $895, plus an installation fee of approximately $150. You pay a monthly service charge of $22.50, plus the cost of your cellular carrier and any calls.

The Venture's interior is designed to meet the needs of busy people who require space and flexibility.

Chief among its advantages are the 38-pound flip-and-fold modular seats. Anyone who has hauled a bench out of a van knows that seats are heavy and moving them normally takes two people. GM's modular seats can be removed single-handedly to make space for a large box. The seatbacks fold forward to make cargo space or to provide a flat surface with cupholders for in-transit games or snacks.

Several features make life in the back comfortable. With the $120 dual-jack rear audio controls, back-seat passengers can listen to a tape or CD ($200) over headphones while front-seat passengers listen to the radio (or vice versa). Rear vents and climate controls allow passengers to fine tune temperatures.

Cargo space is plentiful; maximum capacity is only 13 cubic feet less than Chrysler minivans despite the Venture's narrower width. Behind the third row of seats, the Venture has more space than the Chrysler. A net across the rear opening and two netted compartments at the sides of the rear cargo area keep milk jugs and tool kits from skidding. One annoyance is a ridge across the floor at the rear that forces you to lift heavy objects out rather than slide them.

Although the Venture and its siblings offer an exceptional range of bright ideas, they fall down slightly in execution. The modular seats, for example, don't latch and unlatch as smoothly as we would like, and the clever folding cupholders are balky to operate.

Driving Impressions

Overall, the Venture provides a relaxing driving environment, thanks to its quiet interior, car-like ride and handling, and robust engine.

All Ventures are powered by a 180-horsepower 3.4-liter V6. One of the most powerful engines in its class, it provides plenty of start-up oomph and passing power at cruising speed. It is paired with a smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmission. The firm, accurate steering saves the driver from constant wheel corrections.

The model we tested was equipped with the optional $210 touring suspension with automatic load leveling in the rear, a good idea on minivans and other vehicles that are called upon to haul heavy loads or tow trailers. In general, the handling was responsive and controlled. The ride tended to the firm side, but with little body roll.

Summary

The 1998 Venture and its siblings offer a competitive van, with unique features that set them apart. If you need absolute maximum capacity, the Chrysler vans offer more space, but that space comes with increased bulk. If fit and finish are the top priority, then the Ford Windstar is probably the best in that area.

Many minivan owners, however, are looking for ways to make a busy life easier. No other minivan offers the combination of conveniences available from the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette. Features such as the power sliding door, flip-and-fold seats, rear-seat audio jacks and OnStar are welcome additions to the arsenal of tricks to tame a hectic life. And most of us can use all the help we can get in that area.

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