Boldly Going Where No Minivan Has Gone Before

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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?

"Features," Eaton said. "The breadth of the van, the length of it. The panoramic view you get when driving it. From cup holders to engines, everything is dramatically different."

*

There's certainly dramatic variety.

When the vans go on sale in May, they will be offered in short- and long-wheelbase versions, with two-wheel and, later, all-wheel drive. Transmissions are three- and four-speed automatics. Four engine packages range from a 2.4-liter, 150-horsepower four, to a 3.8-liter, 166-horsepower V-6.

Dual air bags and anti-lock brakes are standard on Voyager, Caravan and Town & Country. Doors slide silkily on ball rollers, with tracks neatly camouflaged as the bottom edge of rear side windows.

And that driver's side sliding door--a $500 option but an industry first--adds boxcar accessibility to the waist of the vehicle. It will also end those groin pains caused when Rover on the inside claws across three laps to exit the moment the passenger-side door cracks open.

Although the slick, chromium-grilled, smoked-glass Town & Country will be the dream purchase, the plainer Caravan and Voyager are no slow, ugly ducklings.

They accelerate well and maneuver as easily as a mid-size car thanks to a 3.5-foot reduction in the turning circle. Triple rubber door seals muffle external din. The aforementioned tailgate has been returned to the convenience of an outside handle and requires one hand to open, one finger to lift.

Short-wheelbase versions are four inches shorter than a Mercury Villager--but offer 16% more cargo space; the long-wheelbase model is two inches shorter than Ford's Windstar--but with 20% more cargo space.

And the most thoughtful touch in years: a power outlet near the lift-gate for rear passengers' cellular phones, bottle warmers and Game Boys.

All in all, three vans that live up to huge expectations.

But certainly not their froggy images. No warts.

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1996 Chrysler Town & Country

Cost

* As tested, estimated $33,000. (Includes dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, leather upholstery, wood trim, dual zone air conditioning, concert sound system with CD, tinted glass, reading lamps, luggage rack, power seats and mirrors with dual memories, personalized remote entry, eight cup holders with ratchets grabbing all sizes between espresso and Big Gulp.)

Engine

* 3.8-liter V-6 producing 166 horsepower.

Type

* Front-engine, front-wheel drive, seven-passenger luxury van.

Performance

* 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 10.1 seconds.

* Top speed, estimated, 110 m.p.h.

* Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 17 and 22 m.p.g.

Curb Weight

* 4,154 pounds.

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1996 CHRYSLER TOWN & COUNTRY LXi

PRICE: $30,000 (estimated).

THE GOOD: Park Avenue elegance in Ventura Boulevard van. Soft-touch sliding doors, vista windows, EZ-glide seat removal and roominess raise bar on user friendship. Reduced turning circle for gymnastic handling, larger V-6 for athletic power.

THE BAD: Gas consumption no bargain.

THE UGLY: All other vans.

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