Chrysler's minivans are still tops. by Kevin Ransom
In the auto biz, when you're sitting on top of the world, complacency is a luxury you can't afford--because there's always someone looking to knock you off.
Chrysler Corporation, the inventor of the minivan, knows that. So in 1996, Chrysler redesigned its world-beating minvans--Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country--from the ground up. And this year, true to form, Chrysler has graced its offerings with many refinements and equipment upgrades--just to let the competition know that it's not resting on its considerable minivan laurels.
One of the keys to Chrysler's success is its ability to respond to the dizzying vagaries of the market. By offering three nameplates, and then offering short- and long-wheelbase versions--and two trim levels of each of those--Chrysler serves up a minivan for almost any taste.
The stylish Town & Country offers all the amenities of a luxo-sedan, while the more modestly-priced Plymouth Voyager (and its mechanical twin, the best-selling Dodge Caravan) sets its sights on providing top value. This doesn't mean that the Voyager is a bare-bones econobox. At prices that range from just under $17,000 to just over $24,000, it delivers style, convenience, comfort and good handling.
We tested the dapper Grand Voyager SE. Here's the tale of the tape: at 119.3 inches, the Grand Voyager has a six-inch longer wheelbase than the standard Voyager. From bumper-to bumper, the Grand Voyager is longer as well--199.6 inches, compared to the 186-inch standard model. And with all the seats removed, the Grand Voyager's total cargo space measures 168.5 cubic feet--notably more spacious than the standard Voyager's 142.9 cubic feet.
This additional space comes at a relative bargain. The Grand Voyager's base price of $19,160, including destination, is only $1350 higher than the basic Voyager.
The Voyager and Grand Voyager each come in two trim levels--the base model and the more bountifully-equipped SE.
We road-tested the Grand Voyager SE, which listed a base price of $21,335. It was decked out with the pricey ($2370) SE Rallye option package, which consists of monochromatic body-color grille and door handles, silver accent stripe, luggage rack, dark-tinted suncreen solar glass, 15-inch cast aluminum wheels, air conditioning, rear defogger and windshield wiper de-icer.
Our test model was appointed with other options, like the 3.3 liter V6 engine ($890); the optional fourth door ($595); and power locks ($315). Those add-ons, plus the $580 destination charge, raised the price to $25,505. But Plymouth's $1030 option discount adjusted the final price downward to $24,475.
The dark-tinted windows, in conjunction with the vehicle's dusky, purplish-blue color--which Plymouth has christened Deep Amethyst Pearl--results in a slightly imposing Darth Vader look.
However, even without the brooding hue, the Voyager would still exude a sporty visage, thanks to its rounded corners, slanting windshield, stylishly sculpted body panels and understated side moldings, and cleverly concealed sliding door tracks.
The Inside Story
Once you've driven a minivan with a sliding driver's-side fourth door, you'll never go back. Whether you're a harried soccer mom or an artist packing your paintings for the art-fair circuit, you'll love the convenience of being able to load up from your own side of the vehicle--instead of having to shlep around to the other side. This is an idea whose time is way past due--and well worth the $595 option charge. More than 75% of Voyager buyers agree.
The inner dimensions of our Grand Voyager SE were so commodious that we were tempted to string up a net and work on our backhand. Of course, we'd have to remove the seats first--which, in the past, would have been enough reason to sheath the racket.
But in the Voyager, that task is not nearly so daunting as in bygone days. A manly yank on an under-seat lever pops the second- and third-row bench seats up onto a set of wheels. They can then be rolled backwards and removed via the tailgate--although, alas, not by one person. For smaller loads, the seatbacks can be folded down, affording enough room for the 4x8 sheets of paneling for that rec-room remodeling project.
We found the head- and legroom in both the front seats and second-row bench to be sufficient for full-sized homo sapiens. And we liked the eight inches of clearance between the side of the second-row seat and sliding driver's side door. But when Chrysler states that the rear bench can seat three, we think they mean three of small stature.
New features and changes for 1997 include refinements to the transmission control, upgraded ABS system, quieter operation, a lower-priced quad seating option, and new options such as the eight-way power driver's seat, and overhead console with trip computer, compass and thermometer. Plus, the accident response system has been enhanced so that, after the airbag deploys in a crash, the power locks unlock and the interior lights turn on.
Ride & Drive
When it overhauled its minivans in '96, Chrylser took great care to retune the suspension so that the vans would handle even more like a sedan. Plus, the torsional rigidity of the new four-door model is 50% greater than that of the previous generation's three-door model.
That translates into greater stability--always a plus in a vehicle whose 68.5-inch height tends to make it lean a bit when negotiating freeway exit ramps at brisk speeds. During one such cornering maneuver, we encountered some tippiness--which is part and parcel of driving a minivan--but the vehicle felt firmly planted and in control.
That's partly due to the suspension and partly the rack and pinion power steering, which was equally responsive when darting in and out of freeway traffic and during short-notice lane changes. Clearly, the smaller standard Voyager will be even more nimble than our longer and heavier Grand Voyager.
Chrysler designers also improved the Grand Voyager's ride quietness for 1997, and it shows, although we think the Mercury Villager is as quiet at freeway speeds.
Voyager buyers can choose from three engines--the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine; the optional 3.0-liter V6 or optional 3.3-liter V6. A three-speed automatic is standard on the base Voyager and Grand Voyager, while the SE models come with a four-speed automatic.
The Caravan and Town & Country also offer a 3.8-liter V6, with a little more horsepower and a lot more torque.
Our tester was powered by a 3.3-liter V6 and the four-speed automatic, which we recommend for the Grand version, given its extra weight. With this beefier powertrain at our disposal, we found that the Grand Voyager was able to respond to most of the demands we placed on it--from dead-stop acceleration to freeway passing. However, when we punched the pedal on the freeway at higher speeds, the engine was a little noisier than we would have guessed.
Like a seasoned, battle-tested quarterback in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, Chrysler is not content to just sit back and protect its lead. It wants to score more points in the minivan marketplace.
It's that kind of desire that prompts Chrysler to keep raising the bar with refinements to its Voyager, Caravan and Town & Country lineups. In the process, it keeps elevating the standards by which all other minivans must be judged.
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