Chrysler Corp. had a lot to worry about before it unveiled its totally redesigned 1996 minivans. How to compete with all those other companies flooding the minivan market? And what to do about pesky problems among women buyers like minivan backlash? The solution: A driver's side sliding door, a sleeker look and the best cupholders in the business. We tested a 1996 Dodge Caravan Sport. She: I gave a lot of thought this week to what kind of woman would be interested in the new Chrysler vans. Seems to me, younger, less affluent women will be smart to buy used. So what I want to know is will women with money you know the kind who smoke a $30 cigar over a $95 meal and get their name on a waiting list for Chanel's Vamp nail polish embrace a prettied-up minivan for $23,000? He: Is that the ugly black nail polish? Oh, I'm sure that'll go great with the bizarre white wheel covers on the Caravan Sport. She: It's supposed to go with everything. He: Actually, I think the Caravan's cabin is much too tastefully designed for the woman you just described. In fact, I didn't mind driving the Caravan at all or being seen in it. It's far and away the hippest design in the minivan market. And when you're sitting behind the wheel, you don't have much of a clue that you're in a family vehicle. She: Speaking of clueless, I was surprised when two different people asked me if that's the new Windstar.' That's got to be scary for Chrysler if minivans are all starting to look the same to people. But remember, the Windstar doesn't get a left-side door option until 1999. He: The Caravan Sport we drove had the optional 152-horsepower, V-6 engine and the sport suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars. It's available only in a short-wheelbase version, which is surprisingly nimble. And, I might add, it has some very slick upholstery and a great gauge package. No, you wouldn't mistake this for a Stratus or an Intrepid, but the '96 Caravan sure has stretched the boundaries of what we tend to think of as the typical minivan. She: What he's trying to say is that it rides and handles like a sport sedan, but you don't give up that commanding view of the road. And the whole package is so nice that you won't be ashamed that you're part of the milk wagon brigade. I was really worried when we took our minivan-hating friend to dinner last week and she got in and really liked it, especially the chunky door handles, the pinstriped upholstery, the optional sliding driver's side door and the quad seating arrangements. The version we had came with two bucket seats in the middle, so you get a real 'adult' feeling when you're riding in the back, instead of just feeling like somebody forgot to drop you off in the afternoon car pool. He: I wish you'd quit talking about milk wagons and car pools. When our boys have gone off to college, I could still see us driving the Caravan Sport. It's so practical especially for doing gu y stuff like hunting and fishing. I mean, who says you have to drive one of those macho trucks like a Suburban? She: I really like the fact that Chrysler made the fourth door optional (for $450) because people tend to either love it or hate it. Chrysler can build it both ways and that's great for buyers. It also has nice touches like a hill-holding latch and child-safety lock. And the liftgate sills are nice and low about even with my knees when you're loading groceries or gear. My only complaint is that despite all the advances, I still can't get the rear seat out by myself. But what a great comfort it is to have antilock brakes and a remote keyless entry system. He: The attention to detail blows me away. You mentioned the door handles they're incredible, the best in the business. And notice how Chrysler hid the rails for the sliding doors under the side windows. I didn't think it was possible to make a minivan sexy but they sure have come close. She: It may d like an afterthought here, but the front cupholders in the Caravan Sport are phenomenal. They spring out with a solid snap and ratchet into a number of different positions. Too bad there aren't Nobel Prizes for cupholder design because Chrysler would be sure to win one. He: The whole design team gets an A. I say this after having seen spy photos of GM's new minivans for 1997. They look positively boxy and conservative next to the '96 Chryslers. If anybody should be worried about a backlash, it should be GM. She: Definitely not for the Vamp nail polish crowd. Anita's rating: (world class) Paul's rating: (world class) What we liked: Cutting edge styling; cutting edge cupholders; you get a choice on fourth door; super details from door handles to upholstery. What we didn't like: Still can't lift rear seat out alone (Anita); may be out of price range of young families; lose the white wheel covers. 1996 Dodge Caravan Sport Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, seven-passenger minivan. Price: Base, $18,855; as tested, $23,645 (inc. $560 destination charge). What's new for '96: All-new for '96. Standard equipment: Power steering, all-season steel-belted radial tires, cruise control, AM-FM stereo with cassette, center console with adjustable cupholders, intermittent wipers, rear washer/wiper, tilt steering column, locking storage drawer, tachometer, tinted glass, dual power mirrors, wheel covers. Safety features: Dual air bags, front and rear side-door impact beams, antilock brakes, child-proof sliding door locks, 5 mph bumpers. Options on test vehicle: SE sport package, inc. air conditioning, light group, rear defroster, windshield wiper de-icer, deluxe seven-passenger seating, sport decor group, power door locks, floor mats, illuminated vanity mirrors, power windows, deluxe sound insulation ($3,735); quad command seating group ($695); 3.3-liter V-6 engine ($815); driver-side sliding door ($450); less $1,480 package discount. EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway. Engine: 3.3-liter V-6; 158-hp at 4850 rpm; 203 lb-ft torque at 3250 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Competitors: Plymouth Voyager, Chrysler Town & Country, Mercury Villager, Ford Windstar, Ford Aerostar, Chevrolet Lumina Van, Pontiac Trans Sport, Oldsmobile Silhouette, Chevrolet Astro, GMC Safari, Nissan Quest, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Previa, Mazda MPV. Specifications: Wheelbase, 113.3 inches; overall length, 186.3 inches; curb weight, 3696 pounds; legroom, 41.2 inches front/36.6 inches middle/35.8 inches rear; headroom, 39.8 inches front/40.1 inches middle/38.1 inches rear; shoulder room, 62.5 inches front/63.8 inches middle/62.1 inches rear. 12-month insurance cost: $872* Where built: St. Louis, Mo. * AAA Michigan rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who dri ves 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.
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