The best thing about hitting yourself over the head with a hammer, Dad used to say, is that it feels so good when you stop.

Pop was right, as we found when experimenting with the new power rear liftgate on the 2001 DaimlerChrysler mini-vans that arrive in showrooms this fall.

The power liftgate is to the new millennium as cupholders were to the last. It's an industry first, though probably not for long.

Press the key fob and, after a quick buzz alert, the liftgate slowly motors open so you don't have to lift it by hand. To close, press the fob, listen for the warning buzzer and watch the liftgate slowly shut.

As a bonus, if the tailgate makes contact with a person or object, it stops and goes back up or down.

To prove it works, we stretched an arm over the gate as it began to open. The door struck the arm, stopped and retracted back to the closed position.

Next, we stood under the wide open gate, struck the fob and watched it close. Sure enough, plunk, it hit the noggin, stopped and reopened fully.

Next we bent over as if loading cargo as the liftgate was closing. It struck the back, stopped and retracted. No harm done.

The liftgate gives a gentle tap before stopping. However, to ensure our findings weren't a fluke, we replayed the head obstruction test a dozen times and found the gate striking arm or back is less an irritant than when contacting your melon.

About the ninth time gate struck head, we would have traded in the DaimlerChrysler baseball cap given media guests in favor of a Bears helmet.

While DaimlerChrysler boasts it alone will offer a power retractable liftgate for 2001, officials admit that Ford is testing a similar system that soon could be added to Windstar. General Motors also is testing a power liftgate that might arrive in 2002.

For the first time, DaimlerChrysler vans will offer one or two power side-sliding doors, which GM has had for a few years.

DaimlerChrysler said it waited for a more user-friendly power retractable feature that doesn't strike people or objects as hard before motoring away from the impact as the GM doors do.

To test the boast, we put a leg in the door and pressed the fob. When the door struck the limb, it stoppe d and retracted.

We've done the same with GM power sliders and found the Chrysler doors strike like a featherweight, the GM doors like a heavyweight.

But if you leave fingers in the opening, they'll be pinched before the door stops and releases, whether a Chrysler or GM door.

The Chrysler mini-vans give you the choice of opening or closing the side sliders or the liftgate manually. Bu then, the obstacle detection doesn't employ.

The power liftgate and side sliders will be standard in the 2001 Town & Country, optional in all others except the base short wheelbase Chrysler Voyager, in which it won't be offered.

The 2001 lineup includes the Chrysler (formerly Plymouth) Voyager, Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, a trio that has given DaimlerChrysler mini-van dominance with sales of 600,000 plus, or about 40 percent of the 1.5 million market annually.

As market leader, we expected that the promised 2001 redesign would be a benchm ark. It isn't. Styling changes are so subtle you'd have to park a 2000 alongside a 2001 to notice the differences, which is what DaimlerChrysler did for the media here.

Though boasting its vans are "new from the lug nuts up" for 2001, exterior changes are limited to larger head and taillamps, larger bodyside ribbing, more chrome accents and logos moved from grille to hood.

A more precedent-setting design was considered but taking that risk was considered less necessary for the No. 1 mini-van than the No. 15.

Chrysler officials remembered the Ford Taurus experience, the top-selling car in the industry until Ford made a dramatic redesign in '96 that consumers found too surreal. The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord sped past Taurus in the sales race.

For 2001, the 3-liter Mitsubishi V-6 engine is dropped, first time since the vans arrived in 1983 that a Mitsubishi engine is no longer offered. Officials cited an ample supply of Chrysler engines, though one engineer noted not too kindly that the Mitsubishi V-6 was considered a "throwaway."

The 3.3- and 3.8-liter V-6s offered are new versions of older engines. The 3.3 develops 180 horsepower, up from 153; the 3.8 215 h.p., up from 180. And there's more noticeable torque. Despite the added power, fuel economy should be up 1 m.p.g. city and highway when final figures are in, officials said.

New is a 230-h.p. version of the 255-h.p., 3.5-liter V-6 offered in the Chrysler 300M sedan. Supplies will be limited until 2002, so it will be offered only in the Town & Country Limited.

We tested the Dodge Caravan ES with the 3.3, the Chrysler Town & Country LXi with the 3.8 and the Limited with the 3.5 over a desert course filled with hills and twisty pavement.

In addition to more power, each V-6 has been tuned to be more quiet. Mini-vans tend to be noisy because they are basically enclosed metal drums. Not these.

On steep inclines only the 3.3 searched for the right gear. The 3.8 was far smoother, the 3.5 like silk. On flat ground, all performed well, but the 3.5 stands out for quick, alert response.

Upgraded and retuned suspensions reduce the bouncy ride and cumbersome handling typical of mini-vans. Ride and handling were more like that in smaller, more aerodynamic, low-slung sedans than bulky vans.

And steering response was very precise for pleasant handling through the twisting trails. It helped, too, that 15-inch radial tires have replaced 14-inchers.

Other noteworthy features include a popup rear cargo organizer and removable center console. The organizer lays flat on the cargo floor. Press a button and plastic walls pop up to form three containers. Or, press the handle and the organizer rises on a metal bar so you can hold items in the three compartments and groceries or golf clubs on the floor below. Or pull a lever and the portable organizer pops out to go with you.

The movable center cons ole is also an industry first. Press a release lever and the console lifts so you can remove it from between the two front seats and reposition it between the two second-row seats. Or, you can buy a second console so you have one for both front and second-row seats. The large plastic console contains map and cellphone holders along with a power outlet.

One drawback, however. If the console had a handle, you could remove it and use it as a portable pop/baby-bottle cooler, overnight case or diaper bag.

One official, however, said there's no handle out of concern it would imply the automaker encourages using it as a cooler to haul beer. There is a difference between being politically correct and being dumb. A portable console with a handle would make an ideal cooler--period.

Standard front air bags have sensors to regulate deployment speed based on severity of impact and whether occupants are belted. No sensor to prevent passenger-bag deployment if the seat is empty until 2002, sources said. Side bags are optional.

The vans also offer power adjustable brake/gas pedals that motor up to four inches closer to the driver so short folks don't have to move the seat closer to the wheel and risk being too close to the air bag.

Also, the vans come with an optional split third seat, so you can fold the seat back flat to let you carry long 2x4s or skis without removing a heavy seat.

The Honda Odyssey mini-van third seat folds flat into a hidden compartment in the rear floor so you never have to remove it. DaimlerChrysler officials vetoed that idea because it would reduce the size of the gas tank below, rule out room for a drive shaft for all-wheel-drive and allow unwanted road noise to filter into the cabin through the empty compartment in the floor.

As evidence that little changes bring big benefits, all van seat backs have been recontoured from flat to curved, which allows you to sit deeper into the cushion for about a fivefold increase in short- or long-distance comfort. Also, slots to hold plastic grocery bags are on just about every seat back.

A couple of gripes: Anti-lock brakes are optional; outside mirrors are small; and there's no factory power sunroof until 2002.

>> 2001 Chrysler Town & Country Limited Wheelbase: 119.3 inches Length: 200.5 inches Fuel economy: Not available Price as tested: Not available. Power liftgate and dual power side sliding doors standard on Limited, but most of the other surprise-and-delight features listed below are extra-cost options. Pluses:Lots of surprise-and-delight features, such as power rear liftgate and power sliding side doors with obstacle detection, movable center console, movable popup cargo organizer, adjustable brake/gas pedals and more powerful yet more fuel efficient engines. Minuses: Small outside mirrors. Center console doesn't have handle to make it a portable a cooler. ABS optional.

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