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By Jim Mateja
December 7, 1992
Chrysler mini-vans have been so much better than the competition that the annual industry sales contest typically focuses on which rival finishes adistant second. Chrysler is the mini-van champ, with roughly 50 percent of that marketsegment, but
the crown is starting to tilt a bit. Further attention to detail had better be paid to ensure the crown doesn`t fall off. When it comes to mini-van innovation, Chrysler is the company to whichpeople have turned. After all, Chrysler popularized the
concept we know as themini-van-thanks in large part to the fact that Volkswagen called its odd-looking machine a bus or camper, not a van. Chrysler pioneered front-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, air bags,extended lengths, hidden child-restraint
seats and cup/juice-box holders inmini-vans. When you`re the market leader, innovation is expected. But in acouple of areas Chrysler has fallen noticeably short. We test-drove the extended-length 1993 Dodge Grand Caravan ES. Havingrecently tested
the Mercury Villager (Cartalk, June 7) and Nissan Quest(Business, Nov. 30) mini-vans, and having experienced firsthand(Transportation, Oct. 4) the features coming after Jan. 1 in the GeneralMotors plastic-bodied mini-vans, Chrysler`s shortcomings were
apparent. The Grand Caravan rides and handles more like a truck than Villager orQuest do. The Grand Caravan`s suspension is stiffer and its bounciness morepronounced, and it feels heavier in the steering wheel in everyday maneuveringsuch as moving
into the passing lane or making that left turn at theintersection. Villager, Quest and GM`s Chevy Lumina, Pontiac Trans Sport andOldsmobile Silhouette are more nimble and less cumbersome in the wheel. Then there are the seats. Mini-vans tend to
carry lots of people, whichis the reason you buy one. Chrysler has the best seating and aisle arrangementfor entering, exiting or moving around the van. But Villager and Quest outdo Chrysler by putting the third seat in backon a long track so it
can be pushed forward for more stowage room. The GrandCaravan`s third seat slides forward a little, but the track is raised off the floor and creates an obstruction. The track on Villager and Quest is flat, so items will slide over it. Chrysler has
toyed with seats that fold and hide away in a rear floorcompartment for a totally flat floor without hardware obstructions. But thatinnovation is in the concept stage. It`s obvious Ford and Nissan lookedclosely at Chrysler`s vans, determined the problem
areas and made changes for their vehicles. Also, Villager and Quest seats fold and flip forward so you don`t have to remove them to get added room. In Chrysler vans you typically have to unlatch the seats and remove them, a chore that demands you
have someplace to storethe seats until they are returned to the vehicle. As for GM, it soon will come out with a power sliding side door for itsmini-vans. If you have eve
r watched as an 8-year-old tries to open or close a van`s side door-especially on a hill-you`ll realize the benefit of the powerdoor. Like school-bus drivers who have swing-handle-activated door openersthey can use from the driver`s seat, mom or dad will
be able to activate thepower system from the front seat by pushing a button to let the brood in orout of the van. Chrysler had looked into a similar door but passed. Our hope would be that Chrysler concentrates on improving the GrandCaravan`s ride
with a suspension more like the LH sedan`s and its handlingwith more nimble and limber power steering. We hope that Chrysler also willfocus on the size and weight of the seats and make them easier to move or hideto increase stowage capability, and that it
will add a power sliding door. The Grand Caravan ES is built on a 119.3-inch wheelbase and is 192.8inches long. That compares with a 112.3-inch wheelbase and 178.1-inch lengthon the regular Caravan. The ES has
a base price of $22,245. Standard equipment includes a 3.3-liter, 150-horsepower V-6 engine teamed with a four-speed automatictransmission (18 m.p.g. city/23 highway); power brakes and steering; all-season 15-inch radial tires; stainless-steel exhaust;
galvanized bodypanels for all but the roof; power, heated outside mirrors; rear-windowwasher, wiper and defroster; air conditioning; tinted glass; AM/FM stereo withcassette and clock; cruise control; tilt steering wheel; front cupholders and passenger`s
underseat stowage drawer; overhead console with trip computer,compass and temperature display; power door locks; rear vent windows; andinside gate release. A driver-side air bag is standard, but anti-lock brakes are a $599option. Our test vehicle
came with rear-seat air conditioning and heating at$466, a luggage rack at $143 and heavy-duty suspension at $69. There also was a $1,601 package that included a power driver`s seat,power windows, an upgraded Infinity sound system, sunscreen glass
and sports- handling suspension, which didn`t come across as all that sporty. With a$540 freight charge and after a $1,000 factory discount, the sticker came to$24,663.