Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca peeked at the 1985 Chevrolet Astro and 1986 Ford Aerostar minivans on display at the Chicago Auto Show in the early 1980s and broke into an ear-to-ear grin.
He had unveiled his 1984 people carrier minivan, built on the front-wheel-drive K-car platform that had spawned the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant. Chevy and Ford had built their minivans on rear-wheel-drive truck platforms.
The other two had insisted that truck-based vehicles would be the wiser choice because motorists would haul more cargo than people in a station wagon substitute and needed truck-like toughness.
Iacocca proved to be a seer. A car-based van with car-like ride, handling and fuel economy won out over the rear-drive truck-like rivals. Minivans have enjoyed a 20-year run, with Chrysler out front in sales each year.
Minivans account for 1 million to 1.2 million sales annually. Some argue that growth has reached a plateau, but no one is willing to say the segment is going away.
In the first five months of this year, minivan sales industrywide were up about 7%. At Chrysler, the segment leader, early 2004 sales were even with those of a year ago.
“It wasn’t until May that we brought out the ’05 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan with a new feature called Stow ‘N Go. In May, our sales were up 15% as a result, and that’s how we think the rest of the year will go,” said Ann Fandozzi, director of family vehicle marketing and product planning for Chrysler.
Stow ‘N Go refers to second- and third-row seats that flip, fold and hide in the floor so the cargo hold takes on the storage capability of an enclosed pickup truck.
“We didn’t realize the power of storage. Stow ‘N Go demand is strong,” she said, adding that extended-length vans with Stow ‘N Go will be added in January to Chrysler’s St. Louis plant that now builds short-wheelbase versions, which lack Stow ‘N Go.
Over the years, minivan makers have offered gimmicks to attract buyers. First it was cup-holders. Then it was juice-box and water-bottle holders.
When not looking for places to put cups, boxes and bottles, van makers added power sliding doors, first on the passenger side and then on both. Then came power liftgates.
Finally Honda introduced the flip, fold and hideaway third-row seat and others, including the Toyota Sienna, Nissan Quest, Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey, quickly followed. Now Chrysler one-ups rivals with second- and third-row seats that flip and fold.
We tested a 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT. The third-row seat is very easy to hide. Gently tug a couple straps, and the seat flips and folds into a deep well in the cargo floor. Only waving a wand and hollering “Abracadabra” would be easier.
With the third-row seat up, the well is a convenient storage hold. Nets divide space in the well and come with cinches to convert into laundry bags for the family vacation.
But you need more than a magic wand to get the second-row seats to disappear. They may hide in seconds in the TV commercials, but only because several steps were taken before the cameras rolled.
To hide the second-row buckets, you must lower the headrests into the seat backs, raise the armrests along the sides, remove the carpet mats covering the lid on the wells, move the front seats as far forward as possible to expose the well lids, lift the lids to expose the wells and then and only then pull the straps to flip and fold the seats into the wells. Then you close the lids and replace the carpet mats to complete the chore.
On the positive side, you can hide either or both of the second-row seats. And if a seat is upright, you can store such things as a purse, briefcase or laptop computer in the well -- after moving the front seat forward.
Although it’s long and not exactly aerodynamic, the extended-length Caravan has a pleasant ride and decent handling. You don’t roller-coaster over uneven roads and can take corners with minimal body lean.
The 3.8-liter, 215-horsepower V-6 is energetic, but more important, it’s fuel efficient, with an 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway rating.
Attractions other than the hideaway seats are the power sliding doors on both sides and the power rear liftgate (part of premium package option) with controls in the key fob and overhead console.