- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

Twenty years age, when the Chrysler Corp. introduced the world’s first minivans, they were immediately heralded as the most practical transportation a family could buy and a sure-fire bet for flower shops and other small businesses that require deliveries.

Nothing has changed to alter that assessment. Sure, the sport utility segment has boomed, but there are only a few SUVs that can match the minivan’s usefulness, and almost none that can offer the same combination of comfort, efficiency, versatility and price.

So, despite the SUV, the minivan business has continued to thrive, averaging 1.2 million annual sales over the last decade.

Competition has been keen, too, with models from U.S., Japanese and Korean manufacturers continually challenging Chrysler’s leadership in the marketplace.

Right now, Chrysler and fraternal twin Dodge own 38 percent of the marketplace, with sales in 72 countries. Dodge alone is the best-selling minivan in the world and controls a segment-leading 20 percent market share in the United States.

But, in the past year alone there have been new and improved entries from Ford, Toyota and Nissan, and a renewed Honda Odyssey is due in the fall. This is not a business that rewards manufacturers satisfied with the status quo.

Chrysler has been busy, too, spending more than $400 million and 18 months to upgrade its lineup. Prospective buyers will find that base prices have dropped about $2,000 to $3,000, safety features have been enhanced and sound-damping technology has lowered the noise level inside the cabin by about 16 percent on all models.

But, the biggest innovation is a new platform for extended-wheelbase models that makes them the most versatile minivans on the road.

With Stow ‘n Go (Chrysler’s name, not mine), it is possible to fold the second-row bucket seats and third-row bench into the floor, providing a flat space for 160.7 cubic feet of cargo from the rear of the vehicle to the front buckets. Fold only the third row and there is room for 54.9 cubic feet of stuff. With all seats up, 26.4 cubic feet of space is available.

The 60/40-split rear bench can also be flipped to provide seating for tailgating parties.

Chrysler boasts that the second and third rows can be converted into cargo space in 30 seconds in a virtually effortless, one-hand operation. That might be technically true, but it’s more realistic to say that, after a little practice, a soccer mom (or even I) can complete the operation in a reasonable amount of time .

Side benefits to this new versatility are two storage bins created when the second- and third-row seats are upright. Together, they add an extra 12 cubic feet of space for valuables that will be hidden from view.

The second-row seats also offer four inches of travel and seatbacks that recline up to 40 degrees. And, with the pull of one strap, the seats (headrests down) can be tumbled forward to offer easier access to the rear bench. Finally, the third-row seatbacks can recline up to 39 degrees.

Another convenience in the new extended-wheelbase models is an overhead rail that can accommodate three small storage bins, rear temperature controls and a 7-inch color screen for the optional DVD player.

Mechanically, the front-wheel-drive minivans are unchanged. Depending on the model, powertrains combine a four-speed automatic transmission with either a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine; a 3.3-liter, 180-horsepower V-6; or a 3.8-liter 215-horsepower V-6. Steering is rack-and-pinion and brakes are discs all around. Four-wheel drive has been eliminated because it is not compatible with the new extended-wheelbase platform.

Enhanced safety features for all 2005 models include a standard driver’s-side knee blocker that inflates in conjunction with air bag deployment and advanced multistage air bags that vary deployment forces for a greater range of occupants.

Side-curtain air bags that cover all three rows of seats are available on extended-wheelbase models. A rear obstacle-detection system is optional throughout the model lineup.

The quieter, more refined driving experience has been achieved in a variety of ways. Fluid-filled engine mounts and new suspension bushings reduce vibration, strategically applied polyurethane foam and a special spray reduce noise in the cabin, and triple door seals, molded gaskets, a reconfigured roof rack and spiraled antenna reduce wind noise.

The basic design of the vehicles also remains the same, but Dodges and Chryslers get minor revisions to both the exterior and interior. Chances are, most observers won’t notice the differences unless they are pointed out.

Base prices for 2005 minivans range from $18,995 for the Dodge Caravan SE to $38,350 for the Chrysler Town and Country Limited.

I spent some time in a Town and Country Touring, No. 2 in the Chrysler lineup. Its price grew from the base $27,070 to $31,750 with options that include leather upholstery, heatable power front seats, three-zone climate control, a trip computer, in-dash six-CD/DVD player and rear-seat video system. Power sliding doors and lift gate are standard.

Powered by the 3.8-liter V-6 engine, the Limited van averaged between 15 and 22 miles per gallon of regular fuel, three less than the EPA estimates for city and highway driving.

No minivan will ever rival a competent sedan in the handling department, but this minivan performed all its duties adequately. And, as advertised, the ride was comfortable and the atmosphere reasonably serene, especially on the highway.

With more than 10 million minivans sold so far, Chrysler feels certain the new features will keep its vehicles at the front of the pack for a while. But it’s also acutely aware that the competition will continue to up the ante.

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