Marc Stengel, Thu, 11 Aug 2005 08:00:00 PDT
Once upon a time, a car was a car, and a truck was a truck. No longer. In the utilitarian quest to consolidate people and things atop a wheelbase, cars first morphed into station wagons, then into minivans; trucks evolved into sport/utes, then into crossovers. Whereas, formerly, vehicle comparisons were category-driven, so that a Chevy sedan was evaluated alongside a Ford sedan, today's shoppers have to be more cross-disciplinary.
At first sight, Volvo's V50 station wagon and Buick's Terraza minivan wouldn't necessarily compete for the same customers. The Volvo seats five; the Terraza seats seven. The Terraza swallows twice the maximum cargo. But look a little closer: power and torque are very similar; and prices, including both base and as-tested prices are only about $500 apart. In the ever more complicated quest to support and even to express one's lifestyle via vehicle, it now pays to survey the changing automotive landscape with a nuanced eye.
The arrival of a minivan from Buick is confirmatory evidence of General Motor's endemic institutional schizophrenia. No fewer than four GM divisions hear different voices as they attempt to define the minivan in proprietary terms using the same platform. Whereas the Chevy Uplander, Pontiac Montana and Saturn Relay aim for the entry-level market, Buick's Terraza is intended for the pricier, "near-luxury" segment.
It is, therefore, a crossover vehicle not only in the sense that it's part minivan, part sport/utility vehicle. The Terraza also hopes to lift minivan functionality out of the domain of mere plebes and into the gated communities of the posh.
Although exterior styling is uninspiring, the vehicle cockpit is a rich setting of leather and faux-grain wood accents. Two pairs of captain's chairs provide comfortable seating for four, and a third-row bench seats three more in somewhat more cramped conditions. But when seven seatbelts are what an occasion calls for, a little extra intimacy with a fellow passenger certainly beats thumbing for a ride.
One important way Buick distinguishes the Terraza from its stable mates is with a suspension design dubbed "QuietTune." A combination of tighter handling characteristics and sound-deadening materials give the Terraza a more sophisticated, even posh, ride. Four wheel anti-lock disc brakes, as well, come standard on Terraza, as does the StabiliTrak traction and stability control system.
What Terraza does best is to provide a wide variety of ways to accommodate people and things. Second- and third-row seats fold flat in 50/50 sections so that, for example, a long item might be stowed behind the driver while three passengers ride in comfort on the right side of the vehicle. Even with all seats in use, Terraza provides 27 cubic feet of cargo space-roughly two sedan trunks' worth. With the rear bench flattened, 74 cubic feet of clear space appear; with middle and rear rows flattened, capacity is almost 137 cubic feet.
That's a lot of versatility for $30,474, as-tested. Alas, one of the hidden costs is in powertrain performance. GM's venerable pushrod, 3.5-liter V6 mates up to an almost old-fashioned four-speed automatic transmission. Output is 200 horsepower for this 4,500-pound vehicle. Spry acceleration, in other words, is not one of Terraza's standard features.
Front airbags are standard, of course, but side airbags are optional and available for front occupants only. Head curtains from front-to-rear are not even offered.
For its upscale but competitive price, Terraza offers convenience, capacity and comfort at the expense of updated powertrain and safety technology. It's an interesting strategy for Buick in its quest to maintain an identity as a near-luxury brand.
4-door, 7-pass.; 3.5-liter OHV V6; FWD, 4-sp. auto; 200 hp/220 ft.-lbs.; 18 mpg/city, 24 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo, 26.9/74.1/136.5 cu. ft.; tow: 3,500 lbs.; std. equipment: four-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, dual-zone HVAC, AM/FM/CD audio, 17-in. wheels, OnStar; base price: $28,110; as-tested: $30,474