Chrysler vans take back seat to no others

Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca peeked at the 1985 Chevrolet Astro and 1986 Ford Aerostar minivans on display at his only visit to the Chicago Auto Show in the early 1980s.

Iacocca quickly broke into an ear-to-ear grin. He had unveiled his 1984 people carrier minivan, built off the front-wheel-drive K-car platform that had spawned the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant.

Chevy and Ford built their minivans off rear-wheel-drive truck platforms. Both insisted truck-based vehicles would be the wiser choice because motorists would haul more cargo than people in a station wagon substitute and needed truck-like toughness.

Iacocca proved a seer. A car-based van with car-like ride, handling and fuel economy won out over the rear-drive truck-like rivals. Minivans have enjoyed a 20-year run with Chrysler out front in sales each year.

Minivans account for 1 million-1.2 million sales annually. Some argue growth has plateaued, but no one is willing to say the segment is going away.

In the first five months of this year, minivan sales industry wide were up about 7 percent. But at Chrysler, the segment leader, sales were even with a year ago.

“It wasn’t until May that we brought out the ’05 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan with a new feature called Stow ‘N Go. In May, our sales were up 15 percent as a result and that’s how we think the rest of the year will go,” said Ann Fandozzi, director of family vehicle marketing and product planning for Chrysler.

Stow ‘N Go refers to second- and third-row seats that flip, fold and hide in the floor so the cargo hold takes on the storage capability of an enclosed pickup truck.

“We didn’t realize the power of storage. Stow ‘N Go demand is strong,” she said, adding that extended-length vans with Stow ‘N Go will be added in January to Chrysler’s St. Louis plant that now builds short-wheelbase versions, which lack Stow ‘N Go.

Over the years minivan makers have offered gimmicks to attract buyers. First it was cupholders and who could offer the most. Then it was juice-box and water-bottle holders.

When not looking for places to put cups, boxes and bottles, van makers added power sliding doors, first on the passenger side and then on both. Then came power liftgates.

Finally Honda introduced the flip, fold and hideaway third-row seat and others such as the Toyota Sienna, Nissan Quest, Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey quickly followed. Now Chrysler one-upped the rivals with second- and third-row seats that flip and fold.

What’s next?

“It’s our job to find the things that consumers don’t know they’re missing,” Fandozzi said.

And what might that be?

Fandozzi said if she answered, the questioner would have to be whacked, so the subject was dropped.

The gripe since Day 1 with vans was that to increase cargo capacity, you had to remove heavy seats that seemed welded to the floor. Honda’s hideaway seat solved that problem. Now Chrysler has raised the bar with two rows of hideaways.

We tested an ’05 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT. The third-row seat is very easy to hide. Gently tug a couple straps, and the seat flips and folds into a deep well in the cargo floor. Only waving a wand and hollering “Abracadabra” would be easier.

With the third-row seat up, the well is a convenient storage hold. Nets divide space in the well and come with cinches to convert into laundry bags for the family vacation.

But you need more than a magic wand to get the second-row seats to disappear. They may hide in seconds in the TV commercials, but only because several steps were taken before the cameras rolled.

To hide the second-row buckets, you must lower the headrests into the seat backs, raise the armrests along the sides, remove the carpet mats covering the lid on the wells, m ve the front seats as far forward as possible to expose the well lids, lift the lids to expose the wells, and then and only then pull the straps to flip and fold the seats into the wells. Then you close the lids and replace the carpet mats to complete the chore.

On the positive side, you can hide either or both the second-row seats. And with either or both seats upright, you can store such things as purse, briefcase or laptop computer in those wells–after moving the front seats forward.

The third-row seat back has a pronounced rearward lean that forces the adult body and legs back to ensure ample wiggle space behind the second-row seats. For kids, who’ll ride their the most, the design means better back support for long distance travel comfort, Chrysler said.

While long and not exactly aerodynamic, the extended-length Caravan has pleasant ride and decent handling. You don’t roller-coaster over uneven roads and can take corners with minimal body lean. Very much car-like ride and handling and easy maneuvering into and out of tight parking spots.

The 3.8-liter, 215-horsepower V-6 is energetic, but more important, fuel efficient with an 18 m.p.g. city/25 m.p.g. highway rating.

Attractions other than the hideaway seats are the power sliding doors on both sides and the power rear liftgate (part of premium package option) with controls in the key fob and overhead console.

The power doors and liftgate have what we call the bop-and-stop feature that prevents them from closing when an object, such as a child or an adult leg or arm, is in the way.

Another nice touch is power adjustable gas/brake pedals (part of premium package or $195 stand-alone option) that motor up or down to fit different size drivers. And it seems you are never more than a short reach away from a power plug or one of 14 cupholders.

Also, front-, second- and third-row seat backs come with built-in plastic clips to hold plastic grocery bags.

Fandozzi said minivans remain popular because the two largest group of buyers never go away–“young marrieds starting a family and empty-nesters hauling the grandkids.”

“It’s not so much soccer moms as it is a return to families. The ’80s and ’90s were all about `me,’ and now people are getting real again. A large group of youth is just now turning 21, and we see another baby boom from them in ’08 through ’10,” Fandozzi said.

Base price of the top-of-the-line Caravan SXT tested is $26,315 and includes four-wheel anti-lock brakes, traction control, air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors/driver’s seat, fog lamps, sunscreen window glass and AM/FM stereo with cassette and CD changer.

A must option for families is the DVD entertainment system ($990). Flip down the 7-inch-wide screen from the roof, slip a movie into the DVD player in the dash, stick the headsets on the kids and the folks can travel in peace while the kids watch th eir favorite flicks.

Some adults complain entertainment systems rob them of time to bond with the kids.

If bonding means answering “Are we there yet?” every five minutes, then, yes, you do give up bonding.

But you keep your sanity.


2005 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

Wheelbase: 119.3 inches

Length: 200.5 inches

Engine: 3.8-liter, 215-h.p. V-6

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 18 m.p.g. city/25 m.p.g. highway

Base price: $26,315

Price as tested: $30,175. Includes $1,760 for Premium Group with power liftgate, multizone air conditioning, cabin air filter, power adjustable pedals, rear park assist and overhead storage bins; $195 for removable front center console; $990 for DVD entertainment system; $555 for in-dash CD/DVD changer; and $360 for hands-free phone system. Add $680 for freight.

Pluses: Stow ‘N Go seats. Abundant storage as well as hi ing places. Power sliding doors and liftgate. Mileage.

Minuses: All the steps needed to hide second-row seats.