Upgraded New Chrysler Minis are Good, but are They Good Enough?
Neil Dunlop, Contributor
In 1983, Chrysler Corporation invented the minivan. Now, 17 years later, it has sold 8 million minivans in 70 countries worldwide. Last year, a banner year for global minivan sales with 1.6 million units sold, DaimlerChrysler accounted for 40 percent of those sales.
Nevertheless, many consumers and critics are quick to denigrate its minivan offerings: the Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan, and the Chrysler Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country. DaimlerChrysler has fallen behind, they say, Honda's Odyssey is a better vehicle and others, such as Toyota's Sienna and Ford's Windstar, are gaining ground. Heck, all three perform better in federal and insurance industry crash testing.
Despite these complaints, Dodge and Chrysler have led the minivan segment in sales since 1983 and in 1999 moved 607,000 units compared to their closest competitor, Ford Windstar, which sold 408,000 minivans.
It's time to admit it: regardless of the knocks against it, in minivans, DaimlerChrysler is the brand to beat. And now, with its 2001 lineup of Dodge and Chrysler minivans, the manufacturer has set new benchmarks in refinement, performance, comfort and convenience.
For 2001, many new features are available, including an industry-first power-up and power-down liftgate. This feature should be a major boon to people too short or lacking arm strength to pull down or open the tall and large back door. By pressing a button on the key fob or inside the vehicle, the rear hatch powers open or closed in about four seconds. An obstacle detector and pinch protector ensure the door will stop before anyone or anything is bonked or tweaked.
Similarly, the twin, power sliding side doors include obstacle detection during opening and closing. In March 2001, a new, high-revving 3.5-liter, 24-valve, single overhead cam V6 engine will be available with an industry-leading 230 horsepower (@ 6400 rpm) and 250 ft-lbs. of torque (@ 4000 rpm). In addition, DaimlerChrysler has boosted the power of its entire minivan engine lineup: the 3.3-liter V6 powerplant (standard on Chrysler's Voyager LX, Town & Country LX and LXi and Dodge Caravan Sport and Grand Caravan Sport and ES) jumps from 158 horsepower to 180 and the 3.8-liter V6 (standard on Town & Country Limited) has been boosted from 180 horses to 215.
Inside, the manufacturer has added other minivan firsts, such as an optional center console, which can be removed or placed between the front or middle seats depending on loads being carried. It docks in a bracket on the floor that includes a 12-volt power port. When removed, a rubber liner turns the bracket into a handy tray. Also new is an optional pop-up cargo organizer designed to hold grocery bags and other loose cargo. It can be fixed on the floor or at mid-level to create storage space underneath.
Buyers will also be able to choose a new three-zone (driver, passenger and rear) automatic temperature control system. And, now, side airbags are standard on the Town & Country Limited and available on other models.
In addition, a lot of (well spent) time and energy went into reducing noise levels inside the minivans, so that they would be less family transport and more "portable living rooms." The addition of thicker sound-absorption materials in the floor, headliner and dash as well as extra gaskets between the door handles and outside mirrors have cut down noise intrusion. Also, the manufacturer says it redesigned the front struts, control arms, engine mounts and roof rack to reduce noise and vibration. It also claims rear suspension attachments on the body structure are eight times stiffer than last year's models, further reducing road noise.
No one, especially a journalist enjoying the five-star hospitality of a manufacturer (the press launch was held in Seattle, during four cloudless days in August), wants to fall for someone's marketing hocus-pocus. In fact, we auto authors may often err on the side of nitpicking to maintain our objectivity. But, there's no denying the quiet and serene ride of the new Dodge and Chrysler minivans. On a test ride over Seattle's varied road surfaces it was never necessary to raise my voice above speaking levels, even when my traveling companion climbed into the third-row seats. By comparison, NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) in the Honda Odyssey, for instance, can make normal conversation difficult.
Further, DaimlerChrysler's minivans have often been attacked for noisy, pushrod powerplants and trannies with a tendency to bail out without undue provocation. However, the extra power boosts in the 3.3-liter and 3.8-liter V6 engines make a world of difference. Acceleration is smooth and sure without the jarring upshifts associated with the previous, weaker powerplants.
Comparison drives in Honda, Mazda, Toyota and Ford minivans revealed the lack of engine power in those brands and their subsequently rougher rides. The Dodge and Chrysler products, especially the extended wheelbase versions (Grand Caravan, Town & Country), are much more heavy and substantial feeling than their Asian counterparts. Although the competition is good, it doesn't possess the same American luxury car feel. The Town & Country Limited, in particular, is really a limousine disguised as a minivan with enough luxury accoutrements to appease even the most stringent tastes, including: three-zone climate control; heated, eight-way power leather seats with memory; 10-speaker Infinity stereo with CD; and black on white "designer watch" instruments similar to those found on the Chrysler LHS and 300M sedans.
Still, none of this makes it a cool ride. DaimlerChrysler recognizes the stigma attached to minivan ownership as boring, prosaic transport for bland suburbanites. In response, it has imbued its new minivan lineup with numerous sporty styling cues, many borrowed from its own sport utility and sedan models. The roof and beltline rise from nose to rear to create a wedge-like shape and give the impression of speed even while standing still. The rear corners have been raised so that the minivans resemble the Dodge Durango SUV. This suggestion of raw, sexy power is reinforced by the use of the Durango's taillights. Lower body ribbing on the Town & Country LXi and Limited brings to mind Jeep's Grand Cherokee Limited.
It might not be enough to make you trade in your sport-ute or sedan, but if you're in the market for a minivan the Dodge and Chrysler products may make you feel less nerdy.
One of the biggest knocks against DaimlerChrysler's minivan products has been their less-than-stellar ratings in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests. While Ford and Honda minivan products boast about their five-star NTHSA safety ratings, Dodge and Chrysler have never managed to achieve five-star ratings across the board. In response, the manufacturer says expressing those results with one number can be misleading because the tests involve four impact areas: front driver and passenger impact and side impact on the front and rear seats.
In 2000, Dodge Caravan scored four stars in both frontal tests and five stars in both side tests. Grand Caravan and Town & Country LX received ratings of four in both frontal tests and five and three on the side tests. It is important to note that Ford Windstar achieved complete five-star results only in a model equipped with side airbags. The Windstar without side airbags scored five in both frontal tests but four in the two side-impact tests. Among minivans, only the Honda Odyssey rated five stars across the board without side airbags.
While DaimlerChrysler plays down the importance of the ratings, it has added some safety refinements for the 2001 model year. The brake rotors have been beefed up and the calipers are 20 percent larger. Electronic Variable Brake Proportioning has also been added to ensure better brake distribution between the front and rear stoppers. The headlamps have been enlarged 50 percent, increasing brightness by 80 percent. Forty pounds of metal has been added to the underbody, center pillar and sliding doors to strengthen the body structure. And softer, energy-absorbing material has been added to the interior trim surfaces to lessen the impact of a crash on cabin occupants.
Although U.S. crash tests have yet to be conducted, DaimlerChrysler expects the new design to rate higher than previous models.
Finally, one of the most prevalent criticisms of the new DaimlerChrysler minivans is the absence of a third-row seat that folds into a recess in the floor making a flat cargo area without having to remove and store a heavy seat. Much is made of this feature on the Honda Odyssey. DaimlerChrysler responds by saying the storage bin for the seat creates a resonance chamber that increases cabin noise and also necessitates placing the spare tire in an inconvenient location. Also, say the Dodge and Chrysler minivan designers, a stow-and-go third-row seat means you can't offer a recline feature on those seats and it would negate the ability to offer AWD in their products because the recessed seat storage bin would intrude on the undercarriage area where the all-wheel-drive mechanism is housed.
Interestingly, Chevrolet and Pontiac will offer a fold-flat rear seat AND the Versa-Trak all-wheel-drive system in their 2001 Venture and Montana models.
To offset arguments that the third-row bench seat is awkward and heavy to move, Dodge and Chrysler split it 50/50 and placed rollers on the bottom of each seat to make them lighter and easier to shuttle around. Does all this make a difference? That probably depends on how often you plan to reconfigure your minivan's passenger and cargo area.
Regardless, the new Dodge and Chrysler minivans are impressive vehicles. Are the changes enough to make them segment leaders in sales AND quality? Maybe not, it depends on whether the competition matches them in refinement, performance, comfort and convenience.
No matter what happens, the consumer wins in the end because forcing other manufacturers to match the quality of these new DaimlerChrysler minivans will serve only to make everyone better.
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