Big Sur, CA - Look out suburbia, there's a new guy in town. Just park that old Chrysler minivan next to the 96 Caravan and Voyager, and if you're style- and comfort-conscious, there'll be a new vehicle in the driveway come next model year.
With total sales of around 4 million over 12 years, Chrysler Corp. has owned the minivan market since the first one came down the line in late 1983; that makes improving on a good thing a real challenge. But, after 32 months of work, the automaker has made few mistakes in developing the new minivan, with high hopes of keeping its near-65% market share.
New Caravan and Voyager have all the extras minivan owners demand, and then some. Ride and handling are still very much car-like. Snaking around Route 1 in California's Big Sur country, the van holds the road well and feels stable. Since it'll also be sold in Europe, that should impress European drivers scooting through the Alps or the Black Forest.
Although the minivan was Chrysler's first cab-forward offering, the new vehicles take the concept another step beyond. From the driver's seat the sloping view out the front makes you swear you're driving an LH - until you look in the rear-view mirror and see those ice-cream covered kids' faces two rows back. And the optional sliding rear passenger door on the driver's side enhances the car-like feeling, as does the expanded visibility. The windshield header sight line is 4.9 degrees higher than previous offerings.
Exterior design stylists have given the new van a sleek, modern look. The doors have tuck-in lips that eliminate any bulge. There's little trim on the side, adding to the slick contemporary European-like look. Parked next to the new Chrysler offerings, a '95 Ford Windstar shows its age.
Powertrains offered in the U.S. include an all-new 2.4L 16-valve DOHC 1-4, a 3L SOHC V-6, a 3.3L OHV V-6 and a 3.8L OHV V-6. Transaxle choices include a 3-speed automatic or fully adaptive 4-speed electronic automatic, which if run too hard in low gear will automatically upshift to second before it redlines.
Safety features include 4-wheel ABS, windshield wiper de-icer, a seamless passenger air-bag door, multi-position built-in reclining back child safety seats with a one-latch, five-point seat belt back and cushion pads.
The Infinity Acoustic 10 audio system is enhanced for rear-seat passengers because the speaker is now in the pillar, not the liftgate. Outside mirrors are attached to the body, not the door, for a more solid mounting. Exterior door handles pull out rather than lift up, and designers even made sure a gloved hand fits in the opening.
These are all wonderful improvements, but it may well be that the cup holders, storage space and ease of entry will separate the winners from the losers in the great minivan race.
The van is easy to get into - kids won't have to fall over one another to get to the back seats. And total storage bin capacity jumps from 470 cu. ins. (7.7L) to 1,300 cu. ins. (21.3L).
As for the cup holders: Chrysler has coined a new term -- cupology -- when researching this necessity. Hidden in a drawer that pulls out of the instrument panel, the dual cup holders are within easy reach, and each has an arm that ratchets to fit a wide variety of cup sizes (in quad command seats they pull out of the left seat riser). Sounds good so far, but wait, that wonderful r-r-r-r-r-atchet sound may not sound as sweet when those kids spend two hours r-r-r-r-ratcheting their way to grandma's.
Another minor annoyance: exposed screw heads in the door pulls. It's not much, but in today's market little things make a difference.
Dodge and Plymouth minivans come in short- or long-wheelbase. Then there are the upscale Chrysler Town and Country models (both short and long). The company pegs sales at about 620,000 annually in the U.S. and expects 25% to be shortwheelbase, 60% long-wheelbase and 15% Town and Country. Sticker prices will be about the same as current models, which range from $16,160 to $29,775.