2006 Chevrolet Uplander Expert Reviews

Expert Reviews

2006 Chevrolet Uplander

J.P. Vettraino
© 2006 NewCarTestDrive.com

The Chevrolet Uplander is hands-down the best minivan GM has ever offered. With its counterparts from Buick, Pontiac and Saturn, the Chevy Uplander puts GM on much better footing in one of the auto industry's most competitive segments.

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. Uplander also offers the unique PhatNoize removable hard drive, which allows its onboard entertainment system to play or display everything from MP3 music files to family photos to video games to the latest movie releases.

For 2006, Chevy will address one of this minivan's most glaring shortcomings as it introduces a new 3.9-liter V6. This optional engine is the world's first cam-in-block V6 with variable valve timing, and delivers 22 percent more horsepower (240) than the Uplander's standard 3.5-liter V6. That quickly, the Uplander will change from one of the least powerful minivans on the market into one of the most powerful. The 2006 Uplander also offers the availability of side-impact airbags for second-row passengers for the first time.

Uplander's real strength lies in its value. Comparably equipped, it sells for thousands less than class standards such as the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna.

Chevrolet says Uplander's long-nose, truck-type styling conjures up images of an SUV more than a minivan. We say no one will mistake the Uplander for anything but what it is: a minivan with the flexibility features and family friendly conveniences buyers expect. Our test vehicle's finish and build quality matched the best in the class.

Uplander offers all-wheel drive, a great feature in the snow country. GM's VersaTrak system adds relatively little weight to the vehicle, and it can do things some similar systems can't. In short, if you need all-wheel drive, you've come to the right place. With the optional towing package, the Uplander is rated to pull up to 3,500 pounds.

Model Lineup

Chevrolet Uplander LS ($26, 995); Uplander LT ($29,385); Uplander LT AWD ($31,385)

Walk Around

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, 17-inch wheels and tires wider than the typical minivan's are supposed to reinforce the SUV look. Gray molding covers the rocker panels and connects the lower bumper plastic front and rear, designed to look like a skid-plate.

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.

The Uplander is one of four minivans offered by GM's various brands. It shares its engine, transmission, chassis and general dimensions with the Buick Terraza, Pontiac Montana 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 between the four are negligible when comparably equipped. At the bottom is the Uplander, with suggested retail prices $135 lower than those for the Saturn Relay, which sits next up the pecking order in GM's minivan hierarchy. Above them are the Montana with the Terraza at the top of the line. The choice between brands could come down to satisfaction with a particular dealership, lot location, which dealer is willing to cut the best deal, or, most likely, which styling you like the best.

Interior

The 2006 Uplander's strengths are most obvious inside. Its interior is a major improvement over Chevrolet's old Venture model, or any of GM's previous minivans. It also stacks up well against its current 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 cupholders 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 Uplander's cabin is good, it's hardly perfect. The glovebox 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 PhatNoize hard drive, which is one of the coolest things going in minivans.

PhatNoize 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. PhatNoize 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 PhatNoize hard drive is easily removed and attached to a PC, to be loaded with whatever an Uplander owner chooses. The system is improved for 2006 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 in 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 Cargo Convenience center has its advantages. It can keep certain items out of site,

Driving Impressions

The big news for the 2006 Uplander comes in the driving category. Sometime in calendar 2006, Chevy will begin offering Uplander with a new, 3.9-liter V6 with variable valve timing. We expect this more powerful engine to be a significant improvement, but we'll have to wait and see.

On paper, this optional engine should be a significant improvement. It will generate 240 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque, compared with 201 horsepower and 216 pound-feet of torque for the standard 3.5-liter V6. (All-wheel-drive versions generate slightly less power.) The upgrade will transform Uplander from one of the least powerful minivans available to one of the most powerful.

Moreover, GM continues to take conventional overhead-valve engine technology to new heights. The 3.9-liter V6 will be the first cam-in-block engine with fully variable valve timing. This technology should deliver a nice, broad power curve, with lots of acceleration-producing torque at all engine speeds. It should also help optimize fuel mileage. We expect the bigger engine will deliver real-world mileage comparable to the standard V6.

The Uplander LT we tested was equipped with full-time all-wheel drive. In climates where snow, slush or icy roads are a fact of life, we highly recommend it. GM's VersaTrak system adds relatively little weight to the vehicle, and it can do things some similar systems can't. When the Uplander's front wheels lose traction, VersaTrak automatically shifts engine power to the rear wheels, increasing the odds of continued forward mobility. Yet it can also shift power from side to side between the rear wheels. If the inside wheel encounters slush build-up near the edge of the road, for example, VersaTrak sends power to the outside wheel with grip.

StabiliTrak, GM's electronic stability control, is also available, but buyers must choose between the stability system and all-wheel drive. StabiliTrak is only offered on front-drive Uplanders. In the northeast or mountain states, we'd choose the all-wheel drive. It brings a slight penalty in fuel mileage (about 1 mpg), but in the right climate it's well worth it. StabiliTrak helps prevent skidding in corners on wet or slippery conditions or on dry pavement.

The standard 3.5-liter V6 is the Uplander's most obvious weakness when compared with the best minivans. Its old-fashioned cast-iron engine block dates back decades. That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad, but it doesn't offer the power of the competition's engines.

At interstate speeds the 3.5-liter V6 is smooth and quiet, and there's enough quick-burst acceleration for safe merging onto busy freeways. 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.

That said, the Uplander's 3.5-liter V6 isn't likely to stir much emotion, and we wouldn't relish the thought of towing something at the rated capacity of 3500 pounds. In short, Uplander's engine delivers less horsepower and torque than any in the class, and it's noticeable on the road. It simply can't match the power, smoothness or fuel economy of the overhead cam engines in some competitors, nor the torque of cam-in-block engines in others. The engine more or less sets the tone for Uplander's driving dynamics in general.

Handling 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 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 v

The Chevrolet Uplander holds its own amongst stiff competition in passenger comfort and flexibility, not to mention the gizmos buyers increasingly expect in their minivans. Its styling doesn't do much for us, but it might for some buyers and it's innocuous at worst. Fit, finish and build quality rank with the best in the class. Uplander is easily Chevrolet's best minivan yet. It falls short when it comes to power, ride and handling, although a new, larger V6 option should improve things considerably when it's available later in the model year. However, few minivans deliver as much room or equipment for the money.

J.P. Vettraino filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Detroit.

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