The strength of the Chevy Uplander lies in its value. Comparably equipped, the Uplander sells for thousands less than class standards such as the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna.
Uplander comfortably seats seven, with a choice of individual captain's chairs or a two-place bench seat in the second row. And it takes care of its passengers in a well-designed, nicely finished interior. The base LS model offers a high level of standard equipment, including a subscription to GM's OnStar tele-aid service. StabiliTrak electronic stability control is now standard on all extended-length passenger models. A removable hard drive called Phatnoise is available that allows the onboard entertainment system to play or display everything from MP3 music files to family photos to video games to the latest movie releases.
Uplander's main shortcoming has been a lack of performance, but Chevrolet addressed this last year by offering a new, 3.9-liter V6 with 240 horsepower. For 2007, the weak 3.5-liter V6 has been dropped from the model line and the more potent 3.9-liter is standard. With the optional towing package, Uplander is rated to pull up to 3,500 pounds.
Chevrolet would be happy if you thought of Uplander less as a minivan and more as a blunt-nosed SUV crossover. Uplander's pouty snout was calculated to suggest this. Regardless, the Uplander is the best minivan Chevrolet has ever offered.
Chevrolet Uplander LS ($20,205); Uplander LS LWB ($23,208); Uplander LT LWB ($27,405)
Chevrolet claims the Uplander's innovative styling combines the best attributes of vans with the bold look of a sport-utility vehicle. This is accomplished, according to Chevrolet, with a long hood and a large, chromed-ringed grille sporting a big Chevy bow tie. In profile, wide roof pillars and bold, flat-spoked 17-inch wheels are supposed to reinforce the SUV look. Gray molding covers the rocker panels and connects the lower bumper plastic front and rear, which are designed to look like skid plates.
We're not sure about any of this SUV stuff, because to us the Uplander looks like a minivan with a prominent, slightly awkward snout. It won't fool many people. In virtually every respect the Uplander is a minivan, with the many advantages minivans offer, including a low step-in and load lift heights compared to the typical SUV.
One thing that impresses during an Uplander walkaround is the overall quality of its assembly and finish. The seams on our test vehicle matched precisely and consistently, and the paint had a thick, deep luster with very little orange-peel effect. It was among the best we've seen from Chevrolet and as good as any other minivan currently offered, including those known for their build quality.
Few absolutely must have power sliding side doors, but they're something we like and are handy in a number of situations. GM actually invented power doors years ago, so it's a bit perplexing that those on the Uplander seem a little slow to open, close and lock (as are Nissan's). Perhaps GM's engineers designed the operating mechanism with safety foremost in their thinking. More likely, they were responding to cautionary intervention from corporate liability attorneys. We were also struck by the lack of any power liftgate assist, despite Uplander's overall high level of standard equipment.
With the recent demise of the Pontiac Montana, Uplander is one of three minivans offered by GM's various brands. It shares its engine, transmission, chassis and general dimensions with the Buick Terraza and Saturn Relay. There are slight styling differences, to be sure, and each division has its own rational as to why its minivan looks like it does and why it will appeal to a certain type of buyer. Whatever the thinking behind each might be, price differences among the four are negligible when comparably equipped. (The base Relay, a long-wheelbase model, is priced between the short and long versions of the Uplander LS; the Terraza is the top of the line.) The choice among brands could come down to satisfaction with a particular dealership or lot location, which dealer is willing to cut the best deal, or, most likely, which styling you like the best.
Inside, the Chevy Uplander stacks up well against its competition. Interior finish and materials are surprisingly good, considering some of GM's efforts just a few years ago. Plastics are generally rich in touch and appearance, and while other media have bashed the fake wood trim, we find it as good as that in cars that cost considerably more. Uplander's instrument panel doesn't try to get cute. It's clean, straightforward design is efficient and easy to get comfortable with.
The instrument binnacle prominently features a large tach and speedometer. The dials are sharp and legible, and trimmed with a thin chrome ring that adds a classy touch. Window, mirror and lock switches are located in the driver's armrest, right where we like them. Lights are on the dash, next to the steering column; wipers on a stalk to the right. There are redundant audio controls on the steering wheel hub.
The center stack is particularly well done. Audio controls sit above the climate controls, also as we like them, and the knobs are not only big, but pleasant to touch. There's a pair of pull-out cup holders and a swing-out storage bin at the bottom. There's also a folding utility table between the front seats with more cupholders and indents to keep phones or glasses handy without allowing them to slide off.
While the cabin is good, it's hardly perfect. The glove box door feels a bit flimsy; the same applies, more so, to the bins behind the front seats. These are well designed, with secure storage for headsets and discs, but they feel cheap. The front fan moves a ton of air, but it's quite loud at full bore. Perhaps most annoying is the view through the rear-view mirror. It's noticeably restricted by the rear-seat headrests, with a relatively narrow scope.
Our Uplander LT had second-row captain's chairs, which are amply spacious and comfortable for good-sized adults. The third-row bench will be no problem for kids through age 15 or 16, even on long drives, but access to the third row is not the best. The pathway between the individual second-row seats is narrow, hampered further by the folding utility table. For access from the outboard side, a one-button mechanism folds the seatbacks forward and slides the entire seat toward the front. That said, it doesn't make climbing in back much easier than walking between the second-row seats.
The interior roof rail system mounts storage bins, DVD screens and lighting under the headliner in modular fashion. It also holds the optional, removable PhatNoise hard drive, which is one of the coolest things going in minivans.
PhatNoise adds a second video screen to the single-DVD entertainment system and a wallet-sized 40-gig hard drive that slips into the overhead rail system. That's enough storage space for 10,000 audio files in virtually any format, or 40 feature films in the MPEG format. PhatNoise has a voice-browsing feature that allows the driver to cycle through menu offerings with buttons on the steering wheel hub. A USB port allows photographs to be loaded directly from a digital camera. Moreover, the PhatNoise hard drive is easily removed and attached to a PC, to be loaded with whatever an Uplander owner chooses. The system was improved last year with pre-loaded promotional content, including TV shows from Nickelodeon, music from eMusic, audio books from Audible and video games from Capcom.
The available onboard inflator generates enough pressure to inflate just about anything. It's integrated into the left-side trim behind the third seat. On the right, there's a standard 110-volt plug that allows Uplander to operate small appliances without a separate power inverter.
The optional Cargo Convenience center has its advantages. It can keep certain items out of site, and holds plenty of groceries without allowing them to slide. Yet it's not very deep, and it raises the load height for larger items a good eight inches.
Chevy Uplander comes standard with a big 3.9-liter V6 with variable valve timing that delivers 240 horsepower. That's strong power, placing it between the 244-hp Honda Odyssey and the class-leading 266-hp Toyota Sienna. In torque, the three are closer, however, and torque is what you feel when you accelerate from an intersection. In short, the Uplander should keep up with the quickest in the class.
GM continues to take pushrod-overhead-valve engine technology to new heights. Uplander's 3.9-liter V6 is the first cam-in-block engine with fully variable valve timing. This technology delivers a nice, broad power curve, with lots of acceleration-producing torque at all engine speeds.
The 3.9-liter engine gets an EPA-estimated City/Highway 17/25 mpg rating, comparable to the Honda and Toyota, which both rate 19/26 mpg. Uplander's 25-gallon fuel tank translates to an impressive 625 miles between fill-ups, while the other two have smaller 20-gallon tanks.
The engine is aided by first-rate performance from the automatic transmission. GM makes some of the best automatics anywhere, and while the Uplander's has four speeds (compared to five in some competitors), it responds quickly and appropriately to the driver's commands via the gas pedal. Shift quality (smoothness) is as good as it gets.
Uplander's handling, however, is reminiscent of old-school GM. This is no doubt by design, because GM is perfectly capable of building vehicles with a more contemporary ride-handling balance. In other words, Chevy thinks Uplander buyers want a soft ride, and to get it they'll tolerate side-to-side sway in any corner taken faster than parking-lot speed. We prefer more responsive handling and don't mind putting up with a little road vibration as the price of it. Uplander's steering has too much power assist for our taste, and it feels numb. While the ride is soft, the suspension can also be loud and clunky on rough surfaces. Uplander simply does not respond as crisply as some other minivans, though some drivers may prefer the softer ride.
StabiliTrak, GM's electronic stability control, helps prevent skidding in corners in wet or slippery conditions. Uplander's anti-lock braking system works great. The computer keeps the brakes precisely at the point of lockup without any shuddering through the pedal, and stops the vehicle as quickly as possible while leaving the driver control of the steering.
The Chevrolet Uplander is sold on the basis of its value. Fit, finish and build quality rank with the best in the class. Uplander is easily Chevrolet's best minivan yet. Its styling doesn't do much for us, and it falls short when it comes to ride and handling. However, the big 3.9-liter V6 delivers strong acceleration performance.
J.P. Vettraino filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Detroit.