Pricing won't be released until later this summer, and the first vehicles won't reach dealerships until later this fall. But the Silhouette -- the classiest of GM's new front-drive vans -- will likely set its sights on Chrysler's lavish Town & Country luxury van.

On the outside, the Silhouette looks awfully mainstream -- it could be a Mercury Villager or a Nissan Quest except that Oldsmobile expects 70% of Silhouette production to be of the extended, 120-in. (305-cm), wheelbase variety.

The enhanced 3.4L V-6 tends to labor slightly at lower rpms but its 180 hp -- the highest standard-engine output in the minivan class -- is more than adequate once it reaches cruising speeds.

GM midsize/luxury car division engineers have created a very car-like ride with taut steering and an extremely firm suspension.

But the most noticeable strengths are inside, where a vehicle that is nearly 10.1 cm (4-ins.) narrower than Chrysler's benchmark minivan maximizes its space through innovative "shrink-wrap" packaging.

For example, there is no armrest on the driver's side sliding door (available for now only on the long-wheelbase models), which is as thin as possible while still meeting side-impact standards and offering a molded-in storage pocket that Chrysler does not. The driver's side sliding door is optional, but Michael McEnaney, Silhouette brand manager, expects about 75% of customers to select it.

Ford Side-mounted mirrors are one-third bigger than those found on competing vans, a feature dictated by European regulations and the need to commonize the exported-to-Europe Opel Sintra's design with the Silhouette, Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac TransSport.

To assure a stiffer body, which improves handling and minimizes squeaks and rattles, all the new GM minivans feature a "continuous structure" that integrates the A-, B- and C -pillars with outriggers and crossmembers that tie into the chassis frame rails.

Seats come in either a 7-passenger bench configuration with the middle row in a 60/40 split, or a 6-passenger leather captain's chair arrangement.

To ease access to and from the third seat, the passenger-side middle seat belt can be lifted out of the way and attached to a velcro patch on the headliner.

Compared with what preceded it, GM's new family hauler is a quantum leap forward.