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1996 Dodge Grand Caravan

TROIS-RIVIERES, Que. — "Does it have the door?"

That quickly became the big question whenever we spotted another 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan on the road.

"The door", of course, is the second slider available on Chrysler's hot new third generation of minivans.

Based on a one week, 1700 km jaunt to Trois-Rivieres and back with a Grand Caravan in upscale LE trim, I predict this ultra-convenient feature will soon become a must for serious van fans.

If it does turn into one of those "gotta have it" items, the door will be quite the money maker for Chrysler.

It's a $615 option, but generally is grouped with other gear that you may not want as bad, but end up taking anyway. On the tester, for instance, the door was part of a $1,695 package that included headlamp delay and equalizer equipped stereo.

To give you the rest of the bad news up front, the van, as equipped, carried a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $30,625. It had a 3.3 litre, pushrod V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission, both standard in LE dress.

The Grand Caravan trim levels are base (starting price: $20,320), SE ($23,235), LE ($27,865) and ES ($30,750).

My curvaceous hauler looked terrific. Subtle bulges over the wheel wells are a masterly touch, adding excitement to the long flanks.

Paint was what Chrysler accurately and with admirable restraint labels Bright White, set off with gray body cladding and lots of tinted glass.

The call of the highway came through loud and clear with this continental cruiser at curbside, so the nuclear family and I decided to heed Joe Clark's referendum year counsel.

As you may remember, in a speech in Toronto in June, the former Tory prime minister exhorted Canadians to "find reasons over the next few months to go into Quebec, listen to what people are saying and talk about the country you know."

We packed up the Dodge and headed down Highway 401, pampered by the calm, absorbent ride and comfortable seats done up in elegant gray pinstripe cloth.

Arriving in Montreal at rush hour, we rolled across the city via rue Sherbrooke, never a dull drive.

The van's extra seat height and tall side glass make it a great sightseeing bus. (Chrysler says its '96 minivan has 30 per cent more window glass than the old model.)

Nimble steering makes the Caravan a breeze to handle, even in heavy traffic, where this front-wheel driver comes across as big but not bulky.

Then it was over pont Le Gardeur at the eastern tip of Montreal Island and along le chemin du Roy, which hugs the north shore of the St. Lawrence. Dating from 1737, this winding, picturesque route is said to be the oldest highway in Canada.

We followed it to Berthierville, home town of Indy car star Jacques Villeneuve, and on into the region known as le Coeur du Quebec.

Trois-Rivieres, the region's capital, is a pleasant, Guelph, Ont. like community half way to Quebec city. It was the second oldest settlement in New France after la Vieille Capitale itself.

It's also the home of the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres, held every August and a favorite of motorsport fans.

Incidentally, don't waste gas looking for three rivers here; there are only two – the Saint Maurice and the St. Lawrence. A cluster of islands at the mouth of the Saint Maurice suggests three rivers from the vantage point of a canoe, hence the name.

I was expecting the Grand Caravan to offer a surplus of cargo space this being the long wheelbase model and something of a deficit in performance, since the available 3.8 L pushrod V6 (add another $345) wasn't under the hood. But the reverse proved the case.

The flexible, 158-horsepower 3.3 L six had lots of snap and stayed poised in passing situations. This, admittedly, was with two adults and two slim teens, plus luggage, on board; a maximum load of seven adults would take its toll.

The Grand Caravan's cargo bay was less cavernous than anticipated, requiring the usual tricky vertical stacking of gear. Every bit of usable space got used.

Netting across the opening would be a cheap but handy accessory; Chrysler should add it fast. It would have stopped our cooler from tumbling on to the nose of a Taurus station wagon when we raised the hatch at a service area near Kingston. (Note to wagon owner: not a scratch, honest, and it's a lousy idea to park so close to a lift gate.)

True, we could have gained a bunch more baggage room by taking out the middle two person bench (captain's chairs are available) or rear three-body perch.

But let's face it, a real world attraction of van travel is being able to stretch out all by yourself on one of those benches feet up, pillow at your back and drink in the passing scene.

The Dodge's second side door, nice as it is, causes a shortfall on this pleasure point. The middle bench is mounted too far from the slider to let you lean against the door (first making sure it's fully closed and locked, of course).

Yet the gap is too narrow to let you through to the rear bench; you have to take the traditional route via the passenger side slider. Who said life is fair?

The dashboard is well arranged and has eye appeal, although it's not the bi-level showstopper that Ford came up with for the Windstar. And the interior is awash with those ever-useful cup holders.

A few disappointments:

The middle windows are sealed shut, even though they could be cracked ajar on previous generation Chryco minivans. (The rear windows, of course, can be popped open a bit from the driver's seat.) There are no bins on the front doors for maps and the like.

And the fan speed control for climate vents over the rear seat are on the dash. Putting it by the two vents the arrangement for the middle bench so passengers could dial their own settings would spare the driver a lot of flack from the back.

The "Easy Out” middle and rear seats use a clever roller and track system that works well, although the lifting is a two person job.

Grand Caravan rivals in the tough minivan segment include the Oakville built, front drive Windstar (list starting prices range from $20,495 to $27,495, depending on trim level) and the rear drive/all-wheel drive Chev Astro/GMC Safari ($25,285 to $32,990). Only stretched Astro/Safaris are now offered, by the way; '93 was the last model year for the shorter model.

The Grand Caravan is four centimetres (1.6 inches) shorter than the Windstar, but Chrysler claims an 18 per cent advantage in maximum cargo space.

Political aside on the horizon expanding benefits of taking Joe Clark's advice: I'm sitting on the Dodge's middle bench in the parking lot of a Tim Hortons on boulevard des Forges, Trois-Rivieres' main drag.

Both sliders are open, allowing a refreshing breeze to waft through. Glancing out one of the doors, I spot a bumper sticker. It says: "Un Quebec souverain dans un Canada uni" (A sovereign Quebec in a united Canada).

Paradoxical it may be, but that bottom line often expressed dans ces parages (in these parts) seems possible when you're down here. Monday, jour du jugement, will decide.

Chrysler didn't invent the minivan remember Volkswagen's classic Bus? Nor dual-sliding doors; alas, they weren't enough to save Nissan's late, under appreciated Axxess.

But, with its masterful 1996 interpretation, the comeback champ among automakers truly has elevated the "blessed box" into a "magic wagon".

Brian Moore, a reporter and copy editor for Wheels, is a longtime student of Quebec culture.

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