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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Boldly Going Where No Minivan Has Gone Before

March 17, 1995|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIG SUR — To promote reinvention of its minivan, Chrysler has examined this new and prodigious child from concept to construction and found the perfect metaphor: a frog.

The image jumped from press releases here. It slid as a silhouette on product binders. In slimy serendipity, Kermit's country cousins ribbited the message from ponds around the Post Ranch hideaway where Chrysler Corp. recently revealed the shape, structure and handling habits of its 1996 minivans.

Within this symbolism was the single, signal move Chrysler says has to be made by its redesigned Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country: They must leapfrog the competition if they are to hop successfully into the next century.

On the basis of four days of driving the three minivans, on wriggling roads where redwoods move with more majesty than even the Pacific, Chrysler's new triplets rode like princes, not toads.

* Gone is the squareness of a florist's delivery van. Chrysler's styling department has not been seduced by the lunar-landing, jellybean look that was Toyota Previa's dare. The 1996 minivans are shaped in-between; nicely rounded, pleasantly sloped, handsome without contrived radicalism, and not too beautiful for the carwash.

* Handling is a blast, more like a short-wheelbase sport utility than a 12-foot-long van. And a night run along U.S. 1 and its cliff tops was a definite learning experience for the Taurus driver trying to stay with a 166-horsepower Town & Country.

* Long wheelbase or short, whether a leather- and luxury-stuffed Town & Country for an estimated $30,000 or an off-the-rack Dodge Caravan with four cylinders and fabric seats for about $17,000, these family carriers are optical illusions. They look as large as the opposition, but are generally shorter with more interior room.

* The Town & Country is Fortnum & Mason in terms of elegance, style and status. The vehicle is moving way uptown with puffy-leather seating, mahogany trim, symphony sound system plus a CD, memory seats and mirrors, and lace alloy wheels found on sedans carrying CEOs, not vans hauling sheets of drywall.

* Thanks to a 30% increase in window glass in all vans, dropped sills, lower cowl and taller windshield, driver and passengers have a greater sense of commanding the road and their progress. And this is a genuine walk-through vehicle--even when under way with Mrs. Dean running the aisle to recover a picnic apple rolling to the rear.

* Designing from the inside out and listening to customers before talking to engineers have produced many firsts in class. Such as a driver's side sliding door--yes, it does have a kiddie safety latch--dual zone climate controls and wiper de-icers. Also lighter, aluminum-framed rear seats easily removed by snapping two latches and sliding the bench back on EZ-glide rollers.

Chrysler, of course, could not afford to let its champions bog down.

For these vans are the pioneers of people-hauling, 1983 triplets that expanded the European example of Volkswagen's microbus into the American habit of minivans.

They have evolved into suburban staples more universal than shake-shingle roofs. They have made Little League games two-vehicle operations and sentenced Country Squires, Colony Cruisers and all tin-walled station wagons to death row at weekend car auctions.

Van sales in those young '80s--plus Lee Iacocca and several billions in federal loans--also helped rescue Chrysler from oblivion. And Caravan, Voyager and Town & Country still claim 44% of the domestic minivan market, leaving a dozen other manufacturers scratching for scraps.

*

Still, holding the high ground might not be easy.

The competition--notably Ford's Windstar and Honda's Odyssey--has not been snoozing. Not only have they matched Chrysler in value, quality, roominess, power, safety features and comfort, they recently moved ahead with vans that really do handle more like cars than trucks.

Critics also have dumped on Chrysler for early, frequent recalls because vehicles were rushed to market. Now earlier models of their prized vans are accused of having faulty lift-gate latches, a booby trap that allegedly has spit passengers out the back in severe accidents.

Chrysler officials at the launch--including chairman Bob Eaton and vice president of design Tom Gale--flinched at neither issue.

They claimed nothing was rushed in a redesign where quality engineering was the first priority of a three-year, $2.6-billion program. Said Gale: "The initial quality of the vans just magnifies all the learning we've had. Out of the box they were stellar."

Another spokesman said lift-gate latches have been changed on 1996 models, but only to improve ease of handling and opening, not to enhance safety. There was no need to modify the latches, he added, because statistics show Chrysler vans actually log fewer rear lift-gate openings in accidents than other manufacturers'.

Exactly where does Chrysler feel its new vans will maintain momentum?

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