Finally. General Motors Corp. is squeezing into the minivan mainstream. But what a long, strange seven-year trip it has been.

How badly does GM need a new front-wheel-drive minivan? Consider this: The U.S. industry sells about 1.2 million minivans a year, but the APVs -- Chevrolet Lumina, Pontiac Transsport and Oldsmobile Silhouette -- only once, in 1990, topped the 100,000 sales mark.

Chrysler's still on top of the minivan heap. Ford is figuring out how to put a fourth door on its Windstar. And Toyota is coming next year with a U..S.-built Camry-based front-drive van. Honda follows Toyota's suit in 1998.

From a styling standpoint, GM's first foray into front-drive vans was about as far ahead of its time as democracy in China. And their marketing fate was only slightly less tragic than the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The radically sloping windshield has prompted many jokes. Tom and Ray Magliozzi, National Public Radio's zany "Tappet Brothers" car repair comedians, once cracked that if you tossed a pair of sunglasses on top of the dash they would slide into a different zip code.

Unfortunately, those cosmetic blemishes obscure a more-than-adequate powertrain that holds its own against the first two generations of Chrysler'skid-haulers.

"People come in and say, `Frankly, you just don't have what we need,'or they say, 'It drives fine, but how am I going to clean the windshield ?"' says Lou Lariche, a Chevrolet-Geo dealer in Plymouth, MI. "I' m just sick and tired of seeing all these Chrysler vans going around when we're missing one of the fastest-growing segments of the market."

Strategically, the U-van, which debuted in Geneva in March and in New York this month, is a linchpin in Chairman John R Smith Jr.'s plan to leverage GM's global engineering and supply base. Think of it as a hedge on Cadillac's Catera bet. If high German labor rates make it risky to build a limited-volume luxury car in Europe, then a leaner U.S. work force and lower-cost suppliers from all over the world make a global minivan almost a sure thing.

So bury the jokes about Dustbusters and anteaters.

At first glance the all-new 1997 Chevrolet Venture, Oldsmobile Silhouette, Pontiac Trans Sport an Opel Sintra look much like every other minivan on the road.

"We made our styling statement the firs time out and we saw what that accomplished," says Fred J. Schaafsma, GM' vehicle line executive for minivans. " learned a lot from Chrysler customers They are very loyal. We talked to 4,00 people here and in Europe."

Take a closer look.

* This vehicle is 3 in. (7.62 cm.) narrower than Chrysler's vans so they can negotiate those narrow European streets.

* Oh, yes, and they will have sliding doors on both sides, a feature Ford Motor Co. won't add to the Windstar until the 1999 model year. The feature is standard on the Opel Sintra, and an option on the North American models. The convenient automatic sliding door option introduced on the old APVs will carry over.

* Like Chrysler Corp., GM will offer short- and long- wheelbase versions.

The big challenge will be the launch. GM must avoid another Lordstown (OH) debacle where in 1994 it took more than six months to produce the Cavalier/ Sunfire to adequately stock showrooms.

UAW Local 10 at Doraville, GA, whose members will build the new minivan, has seen its ranks dwindle for more than five years while building the Cutlass Supreme. The new minivan means a second shift begins work later this year and the plant will go from 900 workers to as many as 3,300 by early 1998 when a new stamping plant opens next to the assembly plant.

Donald E. Hackworth, head of GM's Midsize and Luxury Car Group, estimates that by 1998 and beyond some 40% of the vans, or as many as 100,000 a year, will be exported to markets outside the U.S., including Canada, South America and the Middle East, as well as Europe.

The crucial questions are: Has GM taken too long to get. its minivan act together? And how much growth is still left in the segment? The short answers are "no" and "probably not that much."

For the '97 model year they won't be a threat to anyone because the ramp-up will be very slow," says AutoPacific Group Inc. analyst Christopher Cedergren. "Eventually Chrysler will feel the pressure, but Ford really needs to be concerned because of the fourth door. We think they're going to price the Chevrolet Venture very aggressively perhaps even with or below Plymouth Voyager. They won't be left out of the fight this time "