Versus the competiton:
The minivan market is maturing, which means sales have leveled off after a decade of growth, which means that everyone who needs a minivan has either bought one or is in no rush to buy a new one.
Something of an exaggeration, perhaps, but 15 years after they were created by Chrysler, minivans and their sales fit neatly into a pattern. People marry, have kids, buy one or two minivans and then move onto something else, like a sport-utility. Sure, empty-nesters and a few singles or childless couples own minivans, as do some businesses, but their primary owners are families with kids.
While sales have slowed — at around 1 million minivans a year — the marketplace hasn’t been stagnant. Within the past year, General Motors has redone its vans and they’re much improved. Sales of Pontiac’s TransSport Montana have been particularly strong. And this fall, Toyota replaces its too-expensive Previa with a Camry-based van called the Sienna.
But Chrysler continues to dominate the market.
The Caravan and Grand Caravan models were the best-selling vans in 1996, outselling Ford’s Windstar by 100,000. Through June, Chrysler had sold 273,430 of its three vans (Caravan, Voyager, Town & Country) vs. 64,581 for GM’s three vans (Trans Sport, Oldsmobile Silhouette, Chevrolet Venture.).
Despite stronger competition, Chrysler still makes the best van: best in terms of variety, consistency and heritage.
Just last week, we took our first long road trip with our new baby in a 1997 Dodge Caravan SE Sport minivan. Unlike other recent tests of Chrysler minivans, where we were exposed to all manner of fanciness like four captain’s chairs or rear air conditioning or leather seats, this model was more mainstream.
To its base price of just under $20,000 about $7,000 worth of options were added, a $1,400 Chrysler discount was taken away, and a final sticker of $25,560 was reached.
This was the regular-wheelbase Caravan, which was fine when it came to room for two adults, a toddler and a baby but woefully short when it came to cargo room. Well, short might be too strong of a condemnation. We traveled heavy and got everything in. But it was diapers under the seats and bags and boxes piled high on the seats and on the floor. A long-wheelbase model would have better met the needs of me and my family.
The optional driver’s side sliding door is a must, at least to us, and an obvious place where Chrysler and GM top Ford’s otherwise excellent Windstar. A $595 option, this fourth door makes loading and unloading much easier. Getting to the third seat remains a difficult task.
As usual, the Caravan proved an excellent on-road choice. The drivetrain combination of the 3.3-liter V-6 engine and the four-speed automatic transmission performed smoothly and flawlessly. Caravan buyers face four engine choices (one four-cylinder and three sixes). The 3.3-liter is nice middle-ground choice, adding $970 to the total cost.
The biggest expense was the $3,78 0 SE Sport option package that included some necessities (air conditioning, power locks and windows, tinted glass) and some things I could have lived without (fog lights, power rear vent windows, a leather-wrapped steering wheel).
I also wouldn’t have paid $720 for a CD player — not when Disney tapes are always on the playlist.
We spent four nights in Pismo Beach, getting the van unbelievably sandy, not surprising since we drove on the beach almost every day.
But the Caravan cleans really easily with plenty of room underneath and around the seats for a vacuum to do its work. Cleaning the exterior is more of a challenge since the vehicle is so tall.
While other van makers have done well in duplicating Chrysler’s successful formula, it still leads the segment with innovation and useful touches. I do wish its seats were a bit lighter so they could be removed more easily and that second and third row seats had full forward and backward movement.
1997 Dodge Caravan Sport, a four-door minivan with a 3.3-liter V-6 engine and a four-speed automatic transmission.
Base price: $19,925
Price as tested (includes options, California emissions and delivery charge): $25,560
Curb weight: 3,689 pounds
Length: 186.3 inches
Turning circle (curb to curb): 37.6 feet
Standard features: Dual front air bags; anti-lock brakes; cruise control; AM/FM stereo with cassette; rear wiper/washers; tilt steering.
Options on test vehicle: Metallic clearcoat paint; SE Sport package with sport decals, body-color door handles, moldings and fascias, fog lights, luggage rack, solar glass, touring handling, 16-inch cast aluminum wheels and touring tires; air conditioning; rear-window defroster; power locks and windows; floor mats; V-6 engine; driver side sliding door; California emissions; upgraded stereo with CD player and 10 Infinity speakers.
EPA figures: 18 mpg (city); 24 mpg (highway)
Test mileage: 23.2 mpg