For the 1994 model year, Chrysler has made subtle but significant changes to its mini-van lineup.After creating and dominating the segment since 1984, Chrysler isn't worried that the mini-van will go to pot. Rather, it's concerned that the mini-van customer might go to General Motors, Ford or Toyota. But Chrysler accounts for 50 percent of industry mini-van sales, you say. So why worry? Because GM once accounted for 50 percent of industry car sales and now its share is closer to 30 percent. Good reason to worry. We test-drove a 1994 Dodge Grand Caravan LE with all-wheel-drive here at the media preview of Chrysler's 1994 mini-van lineup. There seems to be little reason for Chrysler to worry about losing its loyalists. Changes for 1994 were based on interviews of current customers as well as complaints from those who familiarized themselves enough with the vans to determine they would take a pass until a few fixes were made, Chrysler officials said. So, the new model year brings: - Dual (driver- and passenger-side) air bags as standard. - Anti-lock brakes as standard on the Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan and Plymouth Grand Voyager, optional on all other vans. - Optional child safety seats with a rear tilt feature to keep the child comfortable when he or she dozes off. - A lever to move the front passenger seat forward or backward to gain leg room. That seat had been stationary. - A smoother and quieter 4-speed automatic transmission. There's very little commotion when taking off from the light or shifting between gears. - The 3.8-liter, V-6 engine offered in the Chrysler Imperial and Fifth Avenue to the Chrysler Town & Country as standard, and the Dodge Grand Caravan and Plymouth Grand Voyager as an option. And with that addition, Chrysler boosted the van line's performance by 12 horsepower, to 162 h.p. - A 12-h.p. boost-also to 162 h.p.-tothe 3.3-liter, V-6 offered in the vans. But the power kicks in at a lower r.p.m. with the 3.8 for improved off-the-line scootability. - Guard beams to protect against side impact in the front side doors as well as the side sliding door. - Redesigned interiors. These include a trio of air ducts in the center of the instrument panel to provide improved cooling/heating; placement of the radio higher in the dash for easier use; placement of light/wiper control buttons farther from the steering wheel for easier access; "paddle-like" window controls that you can reach and use without taking your eyes off the road; and placement of a small tray in the center dash top to hold such items as keys or change. - Exterior treatments featuring revised front and rear bumper fascia, new body-side moldings and rocker panel coverings. - Keyless entry so you need only press a symbol on the key fob to lock/unlock the doors. - Programmable power door l ocks that will lock once you've reached 8 miles per hour and unlock when you brake and put the gearshift in "park" or automatically lock after reaching 8 m.p.h. but stay locked even after parking until you manually press the release button when you decide to leave the vehicle. - A left wiper that is one inch longer than the right one to keep the driver's side window clearer. That will keep water spray/run from the passenger's side out of the driver's vision. Mother Nature cooperated with a brief drizzle so we could check the system out. Worked as designed and was especially appreciated in a San Francisco rush hour when both eyes need be fixed on traffic and not water running down the glass. - Enlarged cupholders to hold wider-bottom containers. Rear seat holders have cutouts for coffee cup handles. The traditional industry standard for the size of cupholders has been the McDonald's paper cup. Now consumers want more. "They told us they wantcu holders that will hold Snapple bottles," said Dave Bost wick, director of mini-van marketing for Chrysler, referring to the drink that comes in a wide-mouth and wide-bottom glass bottle. "Some have started asking that we next make the cupholders big enough to hold those plastic sports water bottles joggers carry. Don't know." There are a lot of little changes for 1994, each appreciated because it makes life easier and more pleasant. Our test vehicle came with the 3.8-liter, V-6. Quiet yet powerful. No trouble managing the hills of this bay city or the expressway merger ramps surrounding it. Why a 3.8 when the 3.3 has the same horsepower? One reason is that the power kicks in at lower r.p.m.'s with the 3.8 to get you moving quickly from the light. A more important reason, though, is that "people identify a 3.8 with more power than a 3.3 because they count liters more than horsepower," said Chris Theodore, general manager of mini-van engineering for Chrysler. In other words, the perception is that bigger is better. The ABS has been redesigned so it works as well as before, but with less pedal feedback, or chatter, that causes some motorists to think the system isn't working rather than serve as a signal that it is. We tried one panic stop and noticed no chatter while coming to a halt in a straight line with nose pointed forward. Probably what impressed us the most about the van was the quiet that came from added insulation in the floor pan, pillars, cavities, door panels, carpeting and exhaust, items and areas that create or magnifying noise. Even fuel pump speed has been reduced to reduce noise. Lots of goodies, but there are some areas Chrysler can work on for 1996, when its next-generation mini-van appears. One of the big selling points of the rival Mercury Villager/Nissan Quest vans is that the third rear seat moves forward on a track to provide more room without having to remove the seat. Not at Chrysler. The GM plastic-body Chevrolet Lumina, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette will offer a power sliding side door and traction control for 1994. Chrysler won't. Also, those child safety seats that hide in the second seat backs until you pull them out and down for use are very clever. But we found that when they are folded out of sight they are very stiff and uncomfortable to sit against. Also, the small black plastic rings that stick from the seat backs to pull the child seats down are hard and irritate arms and shoulder blades for those who sit against them. A softer seat and softer cloth rings would help. And there is a new exterior color for 1994-emerald green-and a new option-spiral wheel covers-offered on the Chrysler LHS sedan. The wheel covers look nice, the green . . . The only other complaint is that prices have risen an average of about $1,200 for 1994. Chrysler built 575,000 mini-vans in 1993, and is aiming at 600,000 in 1994 to keep its lock on 50 percent of the market. Models you won't see among those 600,000 are the all-wheel-drive versions of the regular wheelbase Caravan and Voyager, which have been discontinued for '94 as sales slipped to less than 1 percent of the total. Strange as it may seem, while the mini-van is considered a family vehicle and a logical alternative to the station wagon, more than 100,000 of those who purchase Chrysler mini-vans each year don't have kids, according to Bostwick.
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