A Bright Reminiscence for a Rainy Day: The Chrysler Minivan

November 3, 2008
Some decades ago, things were just as bleak for Chrysler as they are now. It had an obsolete, aging lineup that Americans weren't buying (basically a host of full-frame, old-tech thirsty vehicles that were stuck in the past). Along came Ford's Lee Iacocca, and the Federal Government's $1.25 billion bailout, and under extreme duress Chrysler managed to turn out a platform that saved it from obscurity. The K-Car platform was the basis for both the revolutionary Chrysler minivans and a host of compact Chrysler sedans, coupes, convertibles, and other vehicles that kept Chrysler alive and well into the 1990s.

What made the Chrysler minivan so revolutionary? It offered exactly what buyers needed and wanted, precisely at the right time. It was thoughtfully designed and well-executed. Chrysler was no stranger to vans, with three decades of Dodge Sportsmans, Tradesmans, and Rams that sold like crazy when the weight of a truck frame and its negative impact on fuel economy didn't matter so much. Those were respectable, reliable workhorses but became too big and thirsty as the '70s slid into the '80s.

Along came the K-car vans in 1984, which were truly the first car-based vans to hit the market. Toyota had its awkward ToyoVan (a Japanese market narrow, cab-forward utility van), and Nissan had something similar, and while these sold decently well, Americans wanted a vehicle that felt more substantial and safer, while also offering an easy driving feel and engines that were responsive but didn't consume fuel like the full-size Dodge vans. Enter a stretched Chrysler K-Car sedan platform (called the S Platform), which proved the perfect basis for a newer, smaller van that was roomy, easy to drive, and easy at the pump. Thus, the Dodge Caravan/Grand Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were launched to rave reviews.

The K-Car's front-wheel-drive platform offered small fours and a Mitsubishi-designed V-6 that ranged from adequate to peppy for the light, car-based van. Front-wheel drive was a first for the van segment and enabled very efficient packaging and a flat load floor. Unlike the compromises that hampered full-size vans for daily duty, even moms and grandmothers found the new Chrysler minivans easy to drive, park, load, and deal with as their everyday vehicle. Understandably, these vehicles sold like crazy and had other automakers scrambling to follow suit.

Today, Chrysler celebrates the 25th anniversary of this important vehicle. Since the vehicle's inception, more than 12 million units have been sold, and Chrysler minivans still command more than 40 percent of the minivan market. The company claims it's brought more than 65 minivan innovations to the class, and indeed their vans continue to offer remarkably flexible interiors and ultra-convenient seating arrangements.

A quick look at Wikipedia's history on the Chrysler vans, however, would seem to indicate that the minivan market is a shrinking one. They claim that 11 million Chrysler minivans had been sold as of 2005, meaning only an additional 1 million have been sold in the last three years. And just repeating the same theme with mild updates over the years has resulted, sadly, in a vehicle that is bettered by its competitors nowadays in refinement, finesse, and quality. Notably, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna offer more compelling packages overall, beating the Chrysler minivans in some ways at the very game they invented.

We've driven the newest Chrysler vans, and their powertrain homework really shines in the uplevel 4.0-liter V-6 and industry-first six-speed auto. In concert with a well-damped and comfortable suspension (especially in the Volkswagen Routan), these vans are fleet and even moderately fun to hustle. But old tech shows its face in the form of a live rear axle beam (the Honda Odyssey has an independent rear), as well as a base pushrod V-6 that is rough and thirstier than the more powerful optional V-6 (both Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna have modern DOHC V-6s as standard equipment). And as the uplevel powertrain is standard only in the expensive models, it makes the argument to buy this minivan a hard one if you're talking pure value.

If you're a die-hard Chrysler minivan fan and would like to purchase one on this, its silver anniversary, Chrysler wants you to know that it has special 25th-anniversary editions of both the 2009 Dodge Grand Caravan and 2009 Chrysler Town & Country. But the 30GB hard drive storage, USB ports, satellite radio, front-row movie playback, iPod connnectivity, uconnect GPS, and voice controls standard on these 25th-anniversary specials can't completely compensate for chintzy interior plastics and a shaky center console that make these vehicles feel a little ragged next to their competition.--Colin Mathews

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