Chrysler Corp.'s 1997 Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan are Chrysler's grand examples of a grand minivan.

The Caravan, which debuted in 1984, gave impetus to what has become one of the most important segments of the automotive market. Dodge keeps the momentum going by offering a long wheelbase Sport version and new features such as all-wheel drive and front- wheel disc brakes.

The 1997 Sport package includes monochromatic paint, 16-inch cast aluminum wheels and tires, a 3.3-liter (201.5-cubic-inch) V-6, four-speed automatic transmission, touring/handling package, body-color luggage rack, sunscreen and solar glass, and fog lamps.

Dodge has a little of everything for everybody with its '97 Caravan. The most popular version is the front-wheel drive that is available in standard, SE or LE form. For those who have a desire to drive all four wheels, there is the Grand Caravan in SE, LE and ES trim.

AWD is a new feature for Dodge this year and includes four-wheel disc brakes. However, there is a bit of a premium associated with this system, with the manufacturer's retail suggested price just under $2,300, depending upon the equipment level.

Chrysler says its AWD system is the only one of its kind available on a front-wheel- drive-based minivan.

The heart of the system is based on an inter-axle viscous coupling that splits the engine's driving torque between the front and rear wheels, depending on where traction is needed most. During normal driving, up to 90 percent of the engine's torque is directed to the front wheels. When the front wheels begin to slip, the coupling automatically transfers the needed amount of torque to the rear wheels.

Additionally, an overrunning clutch allows the braking system to control the vehicle as a front-wheel drive. This prevents front-wheel brake torque to affect the rear wheels.

I've long been of the opinion that Mother Nature designed the horse so that it pulled the wagon with all four feet and that man in all his wisdom should drive the vehicle with all four wheels. It offers superior road stability and safety under all conditions.

The '97 Caravans offer a plethora of engine choices, including a new 3.0-liter (181.4-cubic-inch) 12- valve single overhead cam V-6. By virtue of its overhead cam valve train, this motor produces almost as much power as the larger 3.3-liter V-6.

The 3.0-liter is rated at 150-horsepower versus 158 for the 3.3. There is a considerable differential in torque, however: 176 foot-pounds for the 3.0 compared to 203 foot-pounds for the 3.3.

If you're going to a four-wheel drive Grand Caravan, the bigger still 3.8-liter (230.5 cubic-inch) V-6 is the package that gets the job done. The 3.8 has a 12-valve rocker arm/push rod valve train that has been around forever, and it puts out 166-horsepower and 227 foot-pounds of torque.

It takes a little more power to drive those back wheels, hence the 3.8 offers a broader range of pulling power.

It is rather obvious that you have more r oom and cargo carrying capacity with 119.3 inches of wheelbase and 199.6 inches of overall length than you do with 113.3 inches of wheelbase and 186.3 inches of overall length.

For one, you can carry seven people in the long wheelbase Grand Caravan versus five in the standard model. The seating arrangement is 2/2/3 as against just 2/3 for the short wheelbase mini.

That 13.3-inch differential also accounts for a maximum 168.5 cubic feet of cargo volume compared with 142.9 cubic feet.

The van market today is tailored to have the vehicle drive and ride like a car, and the Caravan's styling and appointments are reminiscent of a fine sedan.

There is a larger glass-to-body ratio, with 32 percent more glass than the previous generation minivans. Hidden sliding-door tracks enhance ease of operation, entrance and exit. Seats are properly positioned to ensure that passengers are located a comfortable distance from the floor. Chrysler claims the Caravans provide best-in-class head, should er and leg room.

Buyers have a broad range of price options that run from $17,315 to $25,805 for a Caravan to $18,580 to $29,600 for a Grand Caravan. The line is the broadest minivan product offering ever presented by Dodge.