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Second-Hand: Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager

One dusty afternoon in the far future, archeologists will unearth a 1984 Dodge Caravan -- complete with polystyrene Big Mac containers under the seats and a Barney tape in the cassette player -- and rejoice.

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One dusty afternoon in the far future, archeologists will unearth a 1984 Dodge Caravan — complete with polystyrene Big Mac containers under the seats and a Barney tape in the cassette player — and rejoice.

For what they will have found is evidence of the first front-drive minivan, the grand-daddy of the species that would go on to sell millions, and many more facsimiles by other makers.

A conveyance so prevalent, anthropologists had dubbed the early 21st century the “homo-minibus” period.

The Chrysler triplets were that influential.

Thanks to the compact packaging of a transverse front-drive powertrain, Chrysler could seat seven people in a box no longer than a K-car, and park it in an ordinary garage.

With its sliding door and large greenhouse, it looked vaguely futuristic — an efficient people mover George Jetson would have grudgingly piloted.

CONFIGURATION Early models of the Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and (later) Chrysler Town & Country were available in two wheelbase lengths, powered by four-cylinder engines exclusively.

As the decade progressed, and GM and Ford introduced their rear-drive Astro and Aerostar competitors, Chrysler raised the horsepower ante by offering the turbocharged version of its venerable 2.2-L four-cylinder, as well as a 3.0-L V6 supplied by Mitsubishi.

Chrysler cobbled its own V6 engine, a 3.3 L making 150 hp, for the 1990 model year.

The following year, the vans received their first makeover.

Subtly revised sheetmetal was draped over the original floorpan, distinguished by an aero-smooth snout that resembled a Mazda MPV — the import van some had crowned the best in class.

Extensive massaging of the aging K-car suspension yielded remarkable ride and control enhancements, while interior designer Trevor Creed worked his magic on the furnishings.

For 1994, the long-wheelbase versions got an optional new engine: a 162-hp 3.8-L V6.

Chrysler was (finally) besieged by some worthy competition, including Ford’s Windstar and the Villager/Quest minivan it had hatched with Nissan.

Not to be outdone, Chrysler launched its all-new minivans for 1996.

Developed at a cost of US$2.6 billion, it was money well spent.

The new models introduced a second sliding door (forget that the Nissan Multi had it years earlier) and a ‘cab-forward’ design that packaged the mechanicals under a short hood with a larger cabin behind.

Buyers could choose from four engines: a DOHC 2.4-L four, the Mitsu SOHC V6, the pushrod 3.3-L V6 and the 3.8-L V6.

ON THE ROAD A 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyager with the largest V6 could accelerate to 96 km/h in 9.7 seconds — a few ticks faster than a 3.8-L Windstar.

The smaller engines, offering similar horsepower but less torque, performed in the 10- to 12-second range.

The 1996 models were no quicker, due to the fact they had gained more than 100 kg after the redesign. Chrysler baked in more horsepower in later years.

Lateral grip was middling at 0.71 g. More appreciated was the direct and tight steering, particularly on the post-’96 models, with a palpable centre detent and no slop in the wheel. The taut suspension was lauded for being smooth, never crunchy.

Where the Chrysler minivans stumbled was in braking — particularly in the earlier generation, which required 62 metres to come to a stop from 112 km/h.

The newer vans performed slightly better (60 m), despite the added mass.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED Given the leading-edge designs, features and reasonable pricing, it’s not surprising DaimlerChrysler dominates the segment it created 18 years ago.

Indeed, its minivans are the best-selling vehicles in Canada (the latest generation was released last fall).

“It’s a good-looking van, it drives very much like a car and it’s easy to park,” starts out an owner of a ’97.

But there’s trouble in paradise: “However, having always owned Japanese cars previously, I’m shocked by the repairs,” he continued.

Some owners have been rattled by frequent mechanical failures.

“Eighteen times in the shop the first year was annoying at best.

Here’s my list: four sets of rotors in 20 months, rattling side door, leaking windows, water leaks under dash, interior trim popping off, transmission shudders,” a late-model owner complained.

Chrysler’s minivans were notorious for their faulty transmissions, particularly in the early 1990s. As the decade progressed, the horror stories subsided, but they didn’t fade away altogether.

“The transmission was rebuilt at 68,000 miles.

“It broke again at 70,000 miles and was rebuilt again. It broke in two days and was replaced,” an American owner of a ’96 Caravan chronicled on the net.

Other mechanical frailties noted by owners included the air conditioning system, power door locks, timing belt pre-tensioner, windshield wipers, relays, starter, fuel system and brakes.

“The car appears to be built to last through a three-year lease — and no longer,” warned an owner of a ’97 Caravan.

The reliability concerns are a shame. In every other respect, Chrysler’s minivans have lived up to Lee Iacocca’s vision two decades ago.

“There is a lot to be said for the social engineering in this car.

It has allowed us to take many family trips together in comfort over long distances at an affordable price,” one Internet user summed up.

It’s an infallible design that has won a huge following.

One reader, whose ’94 Caravan has 198,000 km, was reminded of its popularity.

“Somebody liked it well enough to steal it from my driveway in May. I got it back a week later with minimal damage.” Having looted a cultural icon, the thief might have been overcome with guilt.

Or maybe it ran out of gas.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadlines: Nissan Z-cars, by Aug. 22; Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique, by Sept. 5. Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, 2060 Queen St. East, P.O. Box 51541, Toronto ON, M4E 1C0. E-mail: toljagic @ idirect.com We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadlines: Nissan Z-cars, by Aug. 22; Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique, by Sept. 5. Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, 2060 Queen St. East, P.O. Box 51541, Toronto ON, M4E 1C0. E-mail: toljagic @ idirect.com

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