1996 Dodge Caravan

So, you would never own a minivan. The little boxes are just, well, too suburban for a vital, rakish type like yourself. And, they're boring to drive, right? inoffensive, but dull as dishwater.

No more excuses!

Chrysler has just released the Standard Wheelbase (SWB) version of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.

News enough for families that have been clamoring for the shorter wheelbase model: 2.88 metres, compared with the long wheelbase edition's 3.03 metres — that's 6 inches difference, Imperially speaking. The longer version has been available for a couple of months.

But, the short wheelbase edition is the dawning of a new age for you minivan phobics.

This minivan is a ball to drive! Plus, it can be ordered with a "Sport" decor drop dead gorgeous monochromatic paint and blacked-out glass that screams vital and rakish.

White-on-black has been done before, but never with such inspired singlemindedness. The white on Wheels' test Caravan was unrelenting, even to the snowy roof racks, relieved only by blue plastic cake decorator-style Sport logos and a tiny blue Dodge Ram badge on the hood.

Chrysler has given us more style and impact than a dozen pumped-up sport-utes or effete sports cars. We drove our startling white Caravan Sport through Yorkville, where blase is a lifestyle mission statement. As we cruised by, folks that wouldn't cock an eye if you growled past in a Ferrari F40 were spilling their soup in the Movenpick's outdoor cafe.

Yes, it actually does handle. I'd never been partial to the shorter Magic Wagon, as it's known generically, in its first two incarnations, preferring the directional stability inherent in the longer chassis.

But, I took note of the talented new suspension in my test of the '96 LWB (Chrysler Casts New Minivan Standard, Wheels, June 24, 1995) and surmised that when the third generation SWB showed up it might be fun to drive. Yesss!

Most of the agility comes as standard equipment on SE and LE trim levels. Grippy Michelin MXV all-seasons and a taut "Firm Ride" spring, shock and urethane jounce bumper combination. (A "Comfort Ride" package is standard on the base model, and optional on the others for any moss-backed old fogeys foolish enough to order it.)

However, the Magic Wagon really dials in with the addition of the "Touring" kit, which includes P215/65R16 tires and a rear anti-roll bar. The bar does not alter the ride, but resists body lean in a turn, forcing the rear tires to work harder and reducing understeer or front end push. Voila, flatter, more aggressive turns.

Thus equipped, the short Caravan turns in, carves a line, and hangs on with precision and enthusiasm unmatched by any other mini. The tallish centre of gravity is still felt in right-left-right transients, and the otherwise excellent steering retains a bit of bungee when asked for sports-car responsiveness. But, not enough to disrupt the fun.

Any minivan would benefit from a rear anti-roll bar except for one major drawback — they tend to transmit noise. I've tested vehicles with aftermarket bars and the amount of increased road racket was unacceptable. Our Caravan was actually quieter than the barless LWB models we tested previously.

Moreover, firm and agile does not mean twitchy, harsh or choppy. The Touring-style Magic Wagon's ride is controlled, but still very comfortable, smooth and serene. The handling capabilities don't place any demands, but they are there for pleasure, or for emergency avoidance.

I really liked the driving position. Chryco has maintained the minivan's characteristically comfortable kitchen chair seat stance while lowering the steering column angle by 6.5 degrees to a more car-like setting.

The Caravan's cloth buckets are good enough, but could use a bit more lumbar cushion. And, perhaps some upper body lateral support to match the little van's cornering forces. Vinyl covered armrests got sticky on a long run.

Four power sources are available on the '96. All feature sophisticated sequential multi-point electronic fuel injection. Base engine is a new 150 h.p., 167 poundfeet, 2.4 L dual-overhead cam four-cylinder replacing the old 100 h.p. 2.5 L. A notch up is a Mitsubishi-built 3.0 L V6 with 150 h.p. and 176 poundfeet.

These two engines, backed by a three-speed or optional four-speed automatic, will motivate the bulk of the minis.

Power freak that I am, I've always enjoyed the impressive 166 h.p., 227 poundfeet 3.8 L V6, choosing to ignore the seemingly redundant 3.3 L V6. That was a mistake.

The 3.3 in our Caravan turned out to be a responsive, free revving, let's-have-fun match for the Touring suspenders, a result of a 203 poundfeet torque peak at 3200 r.p.m. (same as the 3.8) and a horsepower curve that didn't quit until 158 was reached at 4400 (400 r.p.m. higher than the 3.8).

Chrysler has finessed the fourthe gearbox knows what you're thinking. Ask, and you shall receive a gear, the right gear, instantly, as required. The gear changes are subtle, Lexus-like: "Shhh, don't disturb the driver."

Family folk are beginning to expect all of this from their minivans, and they are lining up to buy. The manufacturer predicts a 50/50 split in sales between the two wheelbase models, and both are pouring out of the plants in St. Louis and Windsor.

Not to be outdone by Yorkville's uptown denizens, Chrysler's regular customers got a chance to gawk and talk when we drove the Caravan Sport down to the Virginia seacoast. Each time we were accosted, the interaction went about the same. "This the new short wheelbase?" "How long have you had it?" "Like it so far?" "Good on the highway?" "What kind of mileage are you getting?" (About 11.9 litres per 100 km on our trip.)

When pressed, however, it became apparent that these people already knew a lot about the '96. Those that were interested in the SWB wanted it for its compact ease of handling, primarily for parking and the like.

Encompassing the cab-forward aero shape, the new SWB is longer than the previous model by 20.8 cm (8.2 inches). It is also 9 cm (3.6 inches) wider and stands 6.4 cm (2.5 inches) taller.

These increases gain only 10 per cent in passenger volume, appearing as a 12.5 cm (5inch) improvement in front shoulder room and 10 cm (4 inches) in hip room. The big numbers are in cargo space: 25 per cent over all, a whopping 40 per cent behind the rear-most seat.

When I spun these stats past my fellow vacationers, they nodded sagely. They knew all about it. And, in each and every case they went on to remark that they'd just ordered a Magic Wagon. Or, that they were seriously thinking about it. Or, that one of their relatives was getting one.

With a base price of $18,840, the SWB Caravan was a winner before it left the gate. The 3.3 L Sport starts at just $25,715. If you snobby mini-phobes aren't ready to buy a van yet, buy Chrysler stock!

Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on week-long driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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