- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

This time, Chrysler was late in raising the bar. But it was not too late, and its newest minivans should lure customers back into the fold. Ever since the company developed the first minivans back in the mid-1980s, it has managed to stay ahead of the competition in upgrades and new features such as sliding side doors on both sides.

That changed with the introduction of the second-generation Honda Odyssey, which came with a third-row seat that could be folded into the floor, eliminating the need to wrestle the seat out of the vehicle to carry extra cargo.

At first, Chrysler scoffed, saying it did not intend to follow Honda’s innovation because the design would allow too much road noise into the interior. But then Toyota redesigned its Sienna minivan, which not only had the foldaway feature, but split the seat as well for even more flexibility. Still Chrysler resisted, and lost sales to customers who wanted the convenience.

That has changed with the debut of Chrysler’s new generation of minivans. Both the 2005 Chrysler Town and Country and the Dodge Caravan now feature seats that fold into the floor in both the second and third rows. That sets the seating bar about as high as it goes, unless somebody comes up with foldaway seats for the driver and front passenger.

Forgotten are the negative statements about road noise. In its place are claims of convenience and ease, and they are not exaggerated. By itself, this one new feature could restore the Chrysler and Dodge minivans to their previous primacy in the market. It’s not that they’ve been doing badly. The Dodge Caravan models still lead in annual sales. But at one time, Chrysler and Dodge minivans accounted for more than half of the total minivan sales. In 2003, with others chipping away, that had dropped to 38 percent.

The test vehicle was a 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT. With a base price of $27,185 and an as-tested sticker of $34,105, it was about as well-equipped as any potential customer could wish. The options included a DVD-based entertainment system for rear-seat passengers, a navigation system, leather upholstery, motorized side doors and a powered rear hatch.

But the big news is the disappearing seats, and they work as advertised. In a matter of half a minute or so, the second- and third-row seats can be flipped and folded into the floor, leaving a gigantic cargo cavern for hauling sofas, stacks of plywood, refrigerators and such.

There’s only one minor drawback. In order to fold the seats in the second row, the driver and front passenger seats must be moved forward.

On the tested Dodge, which had power seats up front, that was easily accomplished. But then they had to be readjusted to the previous settings. A memory setting would have helped.

With all the seats up, there’s an extra 12 cubic feet of extra space under the floor to stash stuff. That’s the equivalent of a trunk on a compact sedan.

Surprisingly, despite their foldaway design, the seats are quite comfortable. In the second row especially, the seats are nicely shaped, with good support for long trips. Passengers in the third row do not fare as well, but still have reasonably comfortable perches. There’s plenty of head and leg room in both rows, though the third row should be reserved for two ordinary humans or three very skinny ones.

Entry and exit is about as easy as it gets in any minivan, and the power side doors and rear hatch are a convenience. There’s only one drawback, and that is that the side doors operate automatically only with the remote control or buttons inside. On the Honda Odyssey, grabbing the door handle also activates the sliding side door. But on the Dodge, the handle only operates the door manually.

As with most other modern minivans, the 2005 Grand Caravan has a V-6 engine driving the front wheels through an automatic transmission. But it falls behind its two major competitors in two respects. The transmission is a four-speed, where the Odyssey and Sienna have five-speed automatics. And the V-6 engine delivers 215 horsepower, compared to the Odyssey’s 240 and the Sienna’s 230.

However, the Grand Caravan shifts smoothly and has adequate power in most circumstances, so those differences would not be apparent except in a closely monitored comparison.

Overall, it has a quality look and feel, with all of the virtues — such as a profusion of cup holders and small storage spaces — that minivan buyers have come to cherish.

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