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Nashville Scene Us Versus Them

Entertaining competition between new Ford and Olds minivans

By Marc Stengel

APRIL 5, 1999:  For exactly one week, it was bliss. Instead of the verbal fist fight that chimes every weekday at 7 a.m. to signal our rowdy stampede for school, my three girls were waiting for me at the front door while I finished grumbling at the editorial page over breakfast. Sara, the youngest, was beaming, despite the outsized burden of a book bag that folded her into a preternatural stoop. Once nestled in the rear of the minivan, Sara released the drawstring of her knapsack and out tumbled a cache of videocassettes.

Before we had even left the driveway, a lush blanket of cozy silence enveloped the Oldsmobile Silhouette "Premiere Edition" minivan. Craning back, I saw three smiling faces spellbound by the video monitor that had descended, like some LCD-equipped deus ex machina, from the ceiling. Each child's head was privately, perfectly wired via headphone into a flickering virtual-realm of video that I neither knew nor cared anything about. I just drove on, in blessed, bicker-free silence.

So we've come to this, have we? It's no longer enough that the minivan has earned a widespread popularity for the last 15 years as a kiddie-bus extraordinaire. The moms who typically drive them, in fact, have started to chafe at the minivan's domestic reputation. "Voila!" says Oldsmobile. "If the homely distresses, perhaps the homey impresses." Behold, then, the suburban rec room on wheels, whose bald intention is to pit them kids against us adults in defense of the minivan's soul--er, sales.

Granted, the Silhouette "Premiere" may wear the most spangles of any factory-equipped minivan for the current model year, but it is certainly not the only one to reinvent itself in time for the millennium. Ford's venerable Windstar boasts a complete makeover for '99, with results that coincide and contrast with the Silhouette in important ways. Time was when the "car-like ride" of a minivan was its most enviable touchstone. Today, as both of these models indicate, manufacturers are using "house-like" features to pursue not just adults who drive, but also their kids--who are definitely driven.

Oldsmobile Silhouette Premiere Edition

At risk of obscuring much else that comprises Silhouette's estimable package, the Premiere's "home entertainment system" truly merits its marquee status. By dividing the cabin into two distinct zones, Olds accommodates us adults with a triplet of enticing audio options radio, CD, or audiocassette. It's a whole different world in the second- and third-row seats. Passengers in back can, according to individual preference, watch a movie; listen to the radio, CD, or audiocassette; play a video game; or monitor a video camcorder. An Audio Control Module (ACM) adjoins each rear seating position to allow personal control of headphone volume and to switch between video or sound system audio sources. The video monitor is a brilliant liquid crystal display that folds down from the ceiling between and behind the driver and front passenger, and it is clearly visible from any seat in back.

You can just forget about counting brown cows along the side of the highway. With so many entertainment options available for up to eight possible occupants, it takes a computer-generated standard deviation chart to estimate what any given person is doing at any given time.

As for the Silhouette's other task--that of ferrying people and cargo to and fro--it does a pleasant if unexceptional job. When General Motors redesigned its slovenly trio of minivans in '97, the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Montana, and Olds Silhouette each emerged miraculously reborn and ready to compete, finally, on an equal footing with then-Chrysler and Ford. The '99 Premiere version of the Olds is essentially a gussied-up version of the extended-length Silhouette GLS, with a nicely tuned touring suspension and air-inflated auto-leveling system.

Base price for the Premiere is $30,605; my tester wore an optional "Gold" package of gaudy trim, which along with the destination charge and an emissions package for the Northeast states, brought the as-tested total to $31,445. These figures come excruciatingly close to the Ford Windstar ($30,415 base/$32,495 as tested)--but they're not the only ones. Whereas the Silhouette seats a possible eight and rates a total 156 cu. ft. of gross cargo space, the Windstar SEL maxes out at seven passengers and 149 cu. ft. of space. Windstar makes 200 horsepower to Silhouette's 185, however; and it handles 1,831 lbs. payload, and it tows 3,500 lbs., vs. 1,409 lbs. payload and 2,000 lbs towing for the Olds.

Ford Windstar SEL

Where the Windstar and the Silhouette part company most dramatically is at the level of function--meaning transportation, mind you, not entertainment. Yes, both have by now evolved four doors--with Ford's two rear sliders arriving very late to the minivan party. The Windstar's doors are both operable by electronic remote key fob; only the right-side door opens by remote on the Olds. The Windstar's middle bench seat employs a unique "indexing" feature that shifts the entire seat either to the right or left of the cabin to provide easy access to the third-row bench. As with the Silhouette, second-row buckets are an available option on Windstar. But only the Ford allows interchangeability between second- and third-row seats.

"Personal audio" headphone controls in the Windstar give rear passengers a modicum of control over their entertainment options, albeit without video. For the driver, however, a space-age sonar system embedded in the rear bumper warns of impending bumps and grinds when parking or reversing.

For all the features and frills in both vehicles, on two issues--one objective, one subjective--the Silhouette and Windstar differ most of all. In federal and private agency crash testing, the Windstar line has consistently earned the highest safety ratings for front and side impacts over the years. The trio of GM minivans have fared more poorly and erratically in the same tests. As for subjective impressions, the Ford drives with more authority, better road feel, and a greater sense of solidity than the Silhouette. The Silhouette may feel more car-like; but in this instance the term characterizes the Olds as somewhat insubstantial, as if slightly unequal to the task of toting kids, adults, pets, and cargo to all kinds of destinations in all kinds of conditions.

No doubt about it, my kids loved the Silhouette Premiere and very much mourned its departure. I preferred the Windstar strictly on the basis of an obvious work ethic, which after all is generally what separates us adults from them youngsters in the first place.

Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com or by fax at (615) 385-2930.

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