Like many Americans my age (mid-30s), my family's Chrysler minivan was a household fixture while growing up. For years, the company that invented and popularized the modern minivan (hold your comments about VWs, Corvair Corvan/Greenbriers, and Stout Scarabs, please) also ruled that market with the best product. My parents owned three: a 1988 Dodge Caravan LE, a 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyager, and a 1999 Chrysler Town & Country Limited that they still own. Excluding several transmission problems with the '94, the vans have served them well. And now as empty nesters, they still enjoy sitting up high in the comfy T&C.
But when I bought a minivan to support my weekend whitewater kayaking exploits, a Chrysler didn't make my list. Why not? After years of smaller minivans, Honda and Toyota finally figured out full-sized models with their Odyssey and Sienna, respectively. These vans offered modern, powerful, more-fuel-efficient drivetrains, well-finished interiors, modern safety equipment, and better reliability.
Meanwhile, Chrysler's minivans fell behind the curve: the last Grand Caravan we tested in 2005 lacked a smooth, modern multi-valve V6 and retained an antiquated four-speed automatic transmission. Interior fit and finish and seat comfort were so-so. Stability control was obvious by its absence, and reliability waxed and waned. Sure, the Stow 'n Go seats are slick (I'm stuck with the Odyssey's second-row seat permanently parked in my basement) and there were usually big incentives on all domestic models, but that wasn't quite enough.
Chrysler is trying to retain its sales lead and be more competitive to ensure it stays on top with their 2008 versions. Minivans are a big deal to Chrysler. Despite the overt shortcomings of the old vans, the company still sells around 400,000 a year. (Toyota sells about 160,000 Siennas.) But at the same time, the minivan market is contracting. Unlike my parents, many minivan owners moved onto SUVs (which look more rugged and less suburban even though the streets of suburbia are full of them) or back to sedans.
Look inside the sliding doors
With the 2008 redesign, all Caravans are now "Grand." The short-wheelbase model is gone, leaving Kia/Hyundai alone in that segment. The AWD option disappeared in 2005 due to floor pan modifications to accommodate Stow 'n Go and low take rates; only the Sienna currently offers AWD.
Beyond these fringe omissions, the new Chrysler vans cover the mechanical basics needed to play next to the Sienna and Odyssey:
- An available modern, overhead-cam 4.0-liter V6 (which considerably improved the freshened Pacifica we tested) along with the carryover 3.3-liter and 3.8-liter V6s.
- The segment's first six-speed automatic (with both the 4.0-liter and the 3.8-liter engines).
- A full slate of air bags and standard stability control. (Among competitors, only the Nissan Quest lacks standard ESC.)
But to further lure buyers back, the Chrysler products offer lots and lots of interior features, many of which are unique in the minivan segment:
- "Swivel 'n Go" second-row seats that rotate around to face the back row in a club seating arrangement, complete with a removable table in between
- A hard drive in the sound system that can store music or pictures. (You load it through a USB port, so you don't need to play a CD to record music.)
- A backup camera that doesn't require purchasing a navigation system.
- Nifty interior lighting that, among other things, surrounds the overhead console in a soft glow.
- Lots and lots of storage, including a clever multi-level center console that slides back to the second-row seats, under-floor storage compartments, and a molded door-side bin for an umbrella.
We bought two 2008 Chrysler vans to test: a Dodge Grand Caravan SXT with the 3.8-liter V6 and a Chrysler Town & Country Limited with the 4.0-liter. While they compete strongly on the specification sheet, we'll see how they stack up against the quietness, power, and ride of the Sienna, the spry handling of the Odyssey, and the value of the Kia Sedona/Hyundai Entourage.
A First Look is scheduled for October, offering our initial impressions as these minivans undergo testing for a future report.