One day a couple of years ago, I went to my favorite sandwich shop for lunch. I ended up with a meatloaf sub, an iced tea and a Dodge minivan. I didn't go with the intention of getting the
van, of course, but there it was sitting out front with a "for sale" sign in the window and the two rear seats removed. I looked inside and knew right away it could be a great
vehicle for hauling around my antique bicycles. It had served Ben, the owner of the sandwich shop, well, and he was sorry to see it go. In fact, he still talks lovingly of his trusted Dodge
Caravan. I am a little biased when it comes to minivans from DaimlerChrysler. Because I own one, I know how well they work. I am not married, and I don't have a family, just a
rambunctious brown dachshund. But I like Dodge, Chrysler and Plymouth brand minivans. And I think this week's test vehicle, the base model Plymouth Voyager, is an outstanding van for
a great price. If you place exceptional value at the top of your list of requirements in a new vehicle, take a good look at the Voyager. There is no other family vehicle -- minivans included
-- that I've seen that comes close to the comfort, room, versatility and quality of the Voyager for the same money. Performance, handling The base
Voyager comes with a 2.4-liter, double overhead cam, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine rated at 150 horsepower. Two V-6s are on the options list -- a 150-horsepower 3.0-liter and a
158-horsepower 3.3-liter. Performance from the four-cylinder engine is adequate. The engine runs as smoothly and quietly as a sewing machine and delivers enough thrust so that you can
safely merge into fast-moving traffic. For in-town chores, such as trips to the grocery store or to drop the kids at school, the four-cylinder engine gets the job done economically. Expect
about 22 miles per gallon in city driving with the air conditioner running. The base model Voyager is equipped with a three-speed automatic transmission. The shifts are crisp and
well-timed to take advantage of the engine's power. The drivetrain has a refined, Hondalike feel of quality.
Because of its carlike handling, Voyager has been atop the sales charts since the day the old Chrysler Corp. invented the minivan in 1984. The 1999 model continues that tradition. The
Voyager has a soft and easy ride, but it also handles reasonably well. The body doesn't lean much when you round a corner. The front strut and rear tubular beam axle suspension system smooths
out most bumps. When the Voyager was revamped a few years ago, engineers stiffened the body. Undoubtedly, that helps give the Voyager its refined feel over the road. Power-assisted
rack-and-pinion steering and power front disc/rear drum brakes are standard. The Voyager is an easy van to maneuver in tight places. It can turn a complet e cir
cle in a commendable 37.6 feet. The brakes stop the 3,500-pound vehicle quickly and without fuss. Standard anti-lock brakes would be a nice touch, though.
Fit and finish It's rare, but every now and then I test-drive a car that hits all the right chords and makes me feel good about it right away. The Voyager is one of those
vehicles. There's nothing to dislike about the Voyager. The dimensions are just right. The interior is comfortable, designed with user-friendliness in mind and screwed together tightly.
The buttons, switches and controls for the radio, air conditioner, headlights and rear window wiper are labeled well and within easy reach of the driver's seat; adjustments can be made
without taking your eyes off the road for more than a second or two. For instance, to change the temperature, you just slide a button left or right. The air conditioner was excellent. The fan
blows strongly enough to circulate air all the way to the back of the van. Our test van came without power windows, door locks, power mirrors and cruise control -- and I didn't miss any
of these features. The windows were easy enough to roll down. Once the mirrors were adjusted, I never needed to mess with them again, and I could reach over and lock or unlock any of the
doors. The seats were upholstered with thick silver cloth. They not only looked sharp but were padded well in the lower back area, so I was able to stay comfortable during several long
trips. As part of the $1,295 Family Value package, the Voyager adds a second bench seat that increases capacity to seven passengers. For an extra $595, the Voyager is available
with a sliding door on the driver's side. It's a nice convenience but not essential if you are watching your pennies. With the two rear seats out, the Voyager doubles as a pickup truck. The
floor is totally flat and wide enough so that you can place a sheet of plywood in the back. The rear seats, by the way, are on wheels and extremely easy to remove. You just click a button
and pull up on two levers, and the seats slide on a track right to the edge of the tailgate. T
hey are a bit heavy to lift down from the vehicle, but once on the pavement they can be rolled right into the garage. These days minivans have a sort of frumpy image. That
doesn't fit, in my estimation. As long as there are families in need of a versatile vehicle that offers good value for the dollar, the Plymouth Voyager will never go out of style. 1999 Plymouth Voyager
Base price: $18,805. Safety: Dual air bags and side-impact protection.
Price as tested: $20,005. EPA rating: 20 mpg city/26 mpg hig hway.
Incentives: $1,000 rebate.