1991 Plymouth Grand Voyager

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Asking Price Range
$1,549–$2,545
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chicagotribune.com
It`s called mind over matter or the power of suggestion.

As the country-western song goes: ``The girls all get prettier at closing time,`` a tune written before equal rights that today would refer to the boys,too.

Someone once told us that if you sniff an orange while you`re eating alemon, the lemon tastes like an orange. We never tried that, which probablywas suggested about an hour after closing time.

Yet the mind over matter/power of suggestion phenomenon surfaced lastweek when we test drove the Plymouth Grand Voyager with Chrysler Corp.`s four-speed Ultradrive automatic transmission. That`s the trans referred to asthe A604 after winning notoriety for having a temperamental mind of its own.

Chrysler brought out the four-speed in its 1989 luxury cars and mini-vans and added it in its midsize cars in 1990. We`ve pointed out in previouscolumns (Cartalk, Aug. 5, 1990) that it had problems in the `90 PlymouthAcclaim, Dodge Spirit and Chrysler LeBaron sedans we test drove, such as goingthud in the night-and thud in the morning, thud at midday and thud at dusk.

Now Consumer Reports magazine has caught up with the problems, based oncomplaints readers have sent the hallowed publication. Consumer Reports saysif you buy a Chrysler mini-van with that transmission, you have the brains of a Tyrannosaurus rex-or a rock band, we forget which.

You may recall that, in 1978, Consumer Reports took issue with Chrysler`s new Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon, the automaker`s first subcompact, front- wheel-drive offerings.

Consumer Reports, in effect, said the cars` steering was overlyresponsive, so much so that the vehicle could leap out of control and perhaps run over a child. (We don`t recall whether CR planted test children in theroadway before running its tests to ensure thorough reporting.)

But Consumer Reports failed to note that the relatively new combinationof front-wheel-drive plus power steering and radial tires in a small carallowed the vehicle to respond more quickly to any turn of the wheel, whichjust as easily could have been interpreted to mean the cars had the ability tosteer away from a child in the road.

With CR`s latest transmission indictment fresh in the news and a Voyagerwith a full tank of petrol to test drive, we spent a week trying to determine how bad the situation is.

What we found is that the power of suggestion works in funny ways.Running over loose gravel on the roadway had us pause and think: Was that the transmission making that noise? We spent a week listening for unusual sounds, such as screams, whines or thuds. Was that an empty pop can we just ran overor was it the transmission? We listened for telltale signs of slippage whenshifting, or thuding when braking to a stop and the transmission headed downthrough the gears again.

No slippage was detected, though there was some commotion and busy workwhen braking. But was there mo re commotion than normal? In other words, would we have noticed commotion before the warnings from CR caused owners andpotential buyers to become paranoid?

After a week, we found the driveway had no evidence of reddish pinkpuddles from leaking transmission fluid. The only unusual mark on the concreteeventually was traced to the dog who, in his sixth year, is starting to slipand thud a bit himself, but never has been written up in Consumer Reports.

Still, after a week, we felt uncomfortable with the vehicle, a situationmagnified by the fact calls came in daily from readers who said they owned avan with that transmission or had ordered one and wanted out of the deal. Noone said they had trouble, they were simply scared out of their wits that theywould. If CR says it`s not safe to leave the house, there`s a raft ofconsumers who lock and bolt the doors and then hammer 2-by-4s across theentrance for good measure.

To some consumers, after all, Consumer Reports not only is a respected,knowledgeable and accurate publication, it also exudes sage wisdom and soundadvice.

The Chrysler crew was in town for the Chicago Auto Show, and we corneredSteve Harris, the company spokesman in charge of trying to put thetransmission brouhaha into perspective.

``In early 1989 and parts of `90 and even some early `91 models, we hadsome problems, and after finding them we corrected them,`` Harris said. ``Someof the problems meant some consumers had to go back to the dealer and get anew transmission two and even three times. Just now Consumer Reports iscatching up with the problems from 1989.``

Those problems were a faulty internal seal in 1989 that easily wascontaminated, causing transmission fluid to leak. The fix was replacing itwith a dual-vented seal with a higher tolerance to prevent contamination.

In 1990, Chrysler owners found the transmission fluid thickened like jamin cold weather so it didn`t flow properly to cool the unit. The fix wasadding a bypass valve to let the fluid flow freely.

In early 1991 models, those typically built last August, rough metaledges on the transmission shaft wore out a bushing, resulting in thetransmission slipping into the ``failure mode,`` meaning you were stuck insecond gear and had to limp to the service shop. The fix was to polish theshaft to remove the roughness.

``From Day 1, we stepped up to care for the problems, in most casesproviding loaners while the vehicle was fixed and even waiving the $100deductible on the 7-year/70,000-mile warranty coverage,`` Harris said.

Based on the calls and letters we`ve received from readers, not allowners were blessed with loaners while their vehicle was laid up and not allhad the $100 deductible waived. And we don`t recall anyone calling to say thatthe minute the transmission started acting up, someone from Chrysler contactedthem to say, ``Oops, please come in and we`ll make nice, nice.``

If memory serves us, after the review of the Dodge Spirit and PlymouthAcclaim in which we noted the transmission woes, those weren`t love letters inthe mail or coos over the phone from some irked Chrysler folks.

But Chrysler is stepping up to the problem now. If you own a Chryslervehicle with the A604 and are having trouble or had trouble and depleted your bank account to fix it, you can call 1-800-992-1997 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.Monday through Friday. The automaker has set up the hot line to give owners a venue to complain-and to get the transmission fixed.

If you don`t call Chrysler, it will call you. In the next several months, the company said it will phone each of the 1.1 million people who bought avehicle with the A604 for an account of whether they`ve experienced problemsand whether the problem was fixed.

``The transmission in most cases is still under the 7/70 warranty, and in most cases we`ll waive the $100 deductible,`` Harris said. ``If people p aid tohave the transmission fixed, we want them to look up their records and contactus. They may be eligible for a refund of money spent. If any of the ownerssimply wonder if their transmission might develop some of the problems thatsurfaced, they can give the 1-800 number a call and we`ll line up a diagnosis. ``We feel we got a bad rap, and our goal is that no one be dissatisfiedwith us,`` he said. ``Our concern is that Consumer Reports data is dated. Theywrote about something based on experiences in 1989. By the time they getconsumer feedback on the 1991s, when the problems were solved, it will beperhaps two years from now.``

Mini-van sales are down and one of two production plants reportedly willexperience a week`s shutdown starting Monday to help balance inventories with sales. To say that Consumer Reports` ``don`t-buy`` advice was the reasonwouldn`t be totally accurate, because the Persian Gulf war, the recession and competition from General Motors mini-vans have contributed greatly.

Our conclusion with the van: Lots of room, lots of comfort and a goodmeasure of safety from anti-lock brakes ($799) and, starting this month, theavailability of driver-side air bag.

But is the trans going to fail? If fear of failure is going to preventyou from enjoying the vehicle, you`d be better off taking a pass and investingyour money in earthquake insurance in case there`s another quake along the NewMadrid fault. There was a quake, wasn`t there?

Two words of caution: Despite Chrysler`s 7/70 warranty and the toll-freehot line set up to solve any problems, be ready for a hard sell for anextended warranty from a salesman. You`ll probably be warned that you`d befoolhardy not to spend $700 or $800 more for peace of mind. That`s scaretactics. Take a pass.

Some sellers` attempts to boost commissions don`t get any prettier atclosing time.

And the final warning: If you`re about to buy a used 1989 Chrysler mini-van with the four-speed Ultradrive, ask to see service records to learnwhat, if any, repairs were made.

First review: 10/8/90
When you`re No. 1, you don`t have to make a lot of changes.

You can`t risk complacency, but you don`t tear apart your most successful product and start again from scratch.

Avoid fancy and stay with function is a good rule of thumb, and that`sthe approach Chrysler took for 1991 with its mini-vans.

Keep it simple. Keep it subtle. Give consumers what they have been asking for rather than stuff a variety of doodads down their throats. It`s theprinciple that helped Chrysler introduce the mini-van in 1984 and hold on to50 percent of the market despite new competition almost every year.

For 1991 the mini-vans have been restyled but you won`t notice anyradical difference. You`d be hard pressed to spot a `91 as the new kid unless it`s parked alongside a `90. That`s when the differences show.

Consumers wanted a fresh exterior look so sheet metal edges were rounded, the hood lowered, the rear hatch made a touch larger. Headlamps and grille aremore car-like, smaller and less overbearing. Taillights are smaller, too.

Inside, the instrument panel was redone, putting the most-used controls,switches, dials or buttons within easy sight and reach. Subtlety reigned. Inpast models, air ducts flanked the steering wheel, and buttons and switcheswere buried at the bottom of the instrument panel. For 1991 the ducts aremoved so light and wiper controls flank the wheel, handy for quick usage.

A rear hatch lid push-button opener and rear-window defroster switch arein the center of the dash for easy access.

Other nice touches are the stacked ashtray and dual, slide-outcupholders. Either can be pulled out individually or both at once.

As for cupholders, there`s two up front, two more for second-seatoccupants and two more for the third seat. Extended-length vans take theholde r into a new realm by offering rectangular openings along the walls ofthe third seat to hold those straw-attached juice boxes kids fancy.

And to answer consumer requests for more stowage capacity, Chrysler cameup with a bin in the wall panel to serve the second seat, two bins for thethird seat, map holders molded into front doors, map pockets sewn onto seatbacks and stowage bins in the lower dash and under the front passenger`s seat. In keeping with consumer requests, seat release levers were moved to theback from the front. And rear seat backs fold flat to increase storagecapacity.

Consumers also have been asking for four-wheel drive, antilock brakes,air bags and a slightly larger, more powerful engine.

Chrysler added four-wheel drive as an option. Antilock brakes arestandard on the Town & Country mini-van, optional on the Voyager and Caravan. As for the bigger engine, be patient. The 3.8-liter, 150-horsepower V-6 thatwill be added to the Imperial in 1991 eventually will be offered in the mini- vans. A driver-side air bag is coming in the spring.

We test-drove the Plymouth Voyager LX with all-wheel drive, which comesonly with 3.3-liter V-6, 4-speed automatic transmission and 15-inch wheels.

In most driving situations 90 percent of the torque is directed to thefront wheels, 10 percent to the rear. When sensors detect front-wheelslippage, the computer directs more torque to the rear wheels, up to a 60/40split from the usual 90/10. The system engages automatically.

All-wheel drive provides an added insurance for the Snow Belt family.

Antilock brakes provide even greater driving security and are an $800option in the Voyager. Our test vehicle came without them.

We didn`t have any snow to plow through to check out the four-wheeldrive, but we did hit the pavement on some windy days and felt as if therounded, aero body lines did a better job keeping the vehicle under controland preventing wind gusts from buffeting the body. It also seemed as if theaero sheet metal noticeably reduced the decibels of noise coming back into thepassenger compartment on the open road.

The 3.3 V-6 teamed with 4-speed automatic offers more than adequateperformance. We never felt as if the combo was sluggish or underpowered. The3.8 V-6 reportedly in the works would boost off the line quickness, but unlessit does so without a dramatic loss in mileage, the van would be better offwithout it.

The Voyager with the 3.3-liter V-6 and automatic is rated at 17 miles per gallon city/21 m.p.g. highway. Based on frequent refueling stops, that seemed generous.

Though the `91 refines the original concept, we had a few gripes.

Our test model had power windows. The control buttons are too far back on the driver`s armrest. You have to reach and bend your arm back to use thebutton, an awkward move that would be eliminated by moving the controlsforward.

Another annoyance is the shallow shelf impression on the dash in front of the passenger. Anything laid in this space will slide off in a turn over therounded lip.

Finally, the parking brake must be pushed to the floor to engage and then given a hard tap to disengage. A release lever would be more civilized and wason the prototype but was scrapped. Bring it back.

Standard equipment in the Voyager LX includes power brakes and steering,air conditioning, rear-window defroster, floor mats, remote fuel fillerrelease, power liftgate release, power mirrors, AM/FM stereo with digitalclock, cruise control, tilt steering column and rear window wiper/washer.

The Voyager LX with all-wheel drive starts at $21,049, or nearly $2,000more than without it, which takes into account the addition of the 3.3 V-6,automatic transmission and the 15-inch tires.

>> 1991 Plymouth Grand VoyagerWheelbase : 119.3 inchesLength: 190.5 inchesEngine: 3.3 liter, 150 h.p. V-6Transmission: 4-speed Ultradrive automaticFuel economy: 18 m.p.g. city/23 m.p.g. highwayBase price: $19,255Strong point: Room, comfort, safety of ABS and air bag.Weak point: Having to justify in your own mind that thetransmission is sound and won`t fail.>>

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