Still number one as a new model looms.
Even with other manufacturers attacking on all flanks, it's easy to see why Chrysler has maintained its king-of-the-hill status in minivans. The blend of performance, styling, comfort, durability and sheer vehicular moxie has sustained the appeal of the Chrysler lines as competitors have tried to improve on the original theme.
Some of these competitors are undeniably successful -- the Ford Windstar, for example.
Still, Chrysler owns this category. Since inventing the minivan in 1984, Chrysler has sold four million of them. Chrysler minivans still account for half of the market, which continues to expand, and the Dodge Caravan remains number one in the segment.
Loyalty is so strong that many customers are driving their second or third one.
True, the current Dodge Caravan appears dated next to some of the newer entries. The same can be said for its all-but-identical siblings, the Plymouth Voyager and the Chrysler Town & Country. But that won't last for long, with a completely redesigned Chrysler minivan lineup due for release in early '95.
Meanwhile, Chrysler has continued its refinement of the current line, which rolls into its final months with quieter operation and better ride quality.
The Dodge Caravan looks fine standing by itself. Park it next to a Windstar or Mercury Villager, however, and it shows its age. Its angular edges have been gradually rounded off over the years, but it still appears boxy by comparison.
However, no minivan manufacturer offers the array of choices that Chrysler does: short- and long-wheelbase versions with four different engines plus a compressed natural gas option. There are also two different automatics and the traction-enhancing option of all-wheel drive on certain models.
The Caravan is available in a variety of trim levels: base, SE, LE and top-of-the-line ES. Our test Caravan was an LE model with Chrysler's 3.3-liter V-6.
Pending arrival of the redesigned models, Chrysler plans to keep its minivan momentum rolling in 1995 with more standard equipment and affordable option packages. Some packages include exterior trim items designed to dress up the minivans and update their appearance.
An example: the Caravan SE is available with a Sport group that includes white 5-spoke cast aluminum wheels, a luggage rack, sunscreen glass and black accent trim around the windows.
All '95 Chrysler minivans offer a Family Value package that allows buyers to add air conditioning, power locks, and map and cargo lamps at a special discount price.
The Inside Story
With lots of owners providing insight on what works for them -- and what doesn't -- Chrysler has been able to keep the interior functionality of its minivans on the leading edge, and functionality is key for most minivan buyers.
The base Caravan seats five, with front bucket seats and a three-passenger rear fixed bench seat. The more upscale models feature seating for seven, with front bucket seats, a middle bench for two and a rear bench for three. Our test van had the Quad Command seating option, which substitutes bucket seats in the center row and comes with a higher grade of cloth upholstery.
The rear seat in our test vehicle folded forward to slide against the middle seat to increase cargo capacity. All the rear seats were removable, though not as easily as some other minivans, for even more cargo room.
Leg and head room are adequate throughout the Caravan. We found the front seats reasonably comfortable, though they're close to the front doors, creating a closed-in feeling and not offering much elbow room. The clearances also required Chrysler to place the power-seat adjustment switches on the inboard edge of the lower seat cushion, making them a little awkward to get to. Ford's wider Windstar allows a few extra inches between the seats and the doors for a more spacious feel.
We found the rear seatbacks to be too upright for comfort on long trips, at least for adults. But their elevated position does give rear-seat passengers a good view, enhanced by big windows.
Built-in child safety seats are available, though they're useful only for short rides -- from home to day care, for example. If the trip is much longer, toddlers are likely to be uncomfortable. Our two-year-old assistant tester squirmed and complained of the tight-fitting straps and rigid, upright position until we removed him and placed him in his Fisher-Price car seat.
The Caravan's controls are straightforward and well-located, and the instrument panel is adequately detailed. The dashboard is high, yet the forward view is clear.
Top-of-the-line models are equipped with standard power door locks, with controls set into the upward slant of the door panel armrest. With the door so close to the driver's elbow, they're easy to reach and operate.
For '95, Chrysler has modified the automatic door locks so that they don't lock at 15 mph unless you want them to.
Audio controls are placed high in the center of the dashboard, and there's a recessed area on top that provides a convenient place to store toll-booth change.
Dual cupholders pull out from the center console, as do an ashtray and auxiliary power plug-in. There's also a storage drawer under the front passenger's seat.
Storage is abundant in the Caravan, and the cupholders are designed to fit anything from coffee cups to juice boxes. Map pockets are located in the door panels, and there's a large lockable glove box.
Passive safety features include dual airbags, side-impact door beams on all doors, adjustable upper seat-belt anchors and a child-protection lock on the sliding door. All Chrysler minivans meet 1998 U.S. passenger-car safety standards.
Ride & Drive
Chrysler offers a choice of four engines in its minivans: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, a 3.0-liter V-6, a 3.3-liter V-6 and a 3.8-liter V-6. Automatic transmission choices include a three-speed or four-speed. The four-speed automatic features a dash-mounted button to lock it out of overdrive when you want a little extra acceleration.
Our test Caravan's optional 3.3-liter V-6 was equipped with the four-speed automatic, a smooth performer that we think is a better choice than the three-speed.
The word smooth also applies to the engine's performance, as does the word quiet. Its power is adequate in most driving situations, although two-lane passing requires a good open stretch of road to accomplish comfortably. We think the 3.8-liter V-6 does a better job in this regard, without much penalty in fuel economy.
The key to Chrysler's success with its original minivan concept was carlike driveability, and that was a strong trait in our Caravan. It maneuvered like a tall station wagon, not particularly agile, but thoroughly competent. And thanks to ongoing refinements, its ride was still as smooth as any minivan going. The same goes for interior noise.
Our Caravan was equipped with anti-lock brakes, which are optional on some models, standard on others. We'd prefer to see this important safety feature provided as standard equipment, as it is on the Windstar.
For most American families, the Caravan does exactly what it was designed to do, and it does it quite admirably -- lugging kids, pets, groceries and, occasionally, bigger chunks of cargo.
It doesn't do it with quite as much style as a couple of the newer minivans, and if style is important, you should wait for the new Chrysler minivans.
But if style isn't a major priority, bargain hunters should find some exceptionally good deals on the current models.
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