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Chrysler minivans continue to evolve

September 03, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

Chrysler took a gamble 20 years ago when it unveiled its unorthodox, but revolutionary, front-drive people machine called the "minivan". Of course, it worked out . . . or we wouldn't be showing you the 2005 version today.

Two decades of evolution have molded and shaped the minivan into a sleeker machine with more power, better ride and improved safety. But where do we go from here?

Chrysler is now betting on new features that are hidden just below the surface . . . literally. In fact, there's little outward difference between the 2004 and '05 models as you pace around each in the parking lot. Only the front and rear fascias have received slight revision.

That's probably just fine with the millions of current owners who continue to lap up Chrysler's offerings like ice cream on a hot day. Providing many flavors of minivan for nearly every budget has a lot to do with the fact that the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country have a combined market share of a whopping 38 percent. Talk about brand loyalty.

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So, instead of creating new bodies for 2005, DaimlerChrysler spent more than $400 million on a new platform for its regular-and extended-length minivans while completely revising their interiors.

The company's latest convenience feature, and the one you'll be hearing plenty about in its advertising, is the Stow 'n Go seating system that's available on all extended-length Grand Caravan and Town & Country models.

In about 30 seconds, both second- and third-row seats can be manually folded below deck, providing a completely flat floor. And what's left is an empty space so immense that your neighbors will think you've opted for a two-seat cargo van.

But here's the really neat trick. With the second-row bucket seats in their normal upright and locked position, the resulting empty spot in the floor yields two large covered storage bins, perfect for keeping cameras, purses, laptop computers and other valuables away from prying eyes. Cargo netting is used to keep items from bashing each other to pieces.

The second-row buckets recline and slide fore and aft, while the third-row bench reclines - another new trick - up to 39 degrees. It also splits, 60/40, with each part individually able to fold into the floor. If you would rather, they can be flipped over to provide a rear-facing seat. With the third row up and running, the resulting well in the floor can be used for cargo and then covered with an available package tray. Finally, the groceries will stay put.

To make Stow 'n Go seating a reality, DaimlerChrysler had to redesign and/or relocate the rear suspension, fuel tank, parking-brake cables, exhaust system and rear climate-control lines. All-wheel drive, an option on previous extended-length minivans, was sacrificed for the extra room needed under the floor.

Carried over for '05 are the existing engines: base Caravan 150-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder; base Town & Country 180-horsepower 3.3-liter V-6; and 215-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6, standard on the top-line extended-length Grand Caravan SXT and Town & Country Touring and Limited models. All are connected to four-speed automatic transmissions.

Other innovative features include: an alert that automatically flashes the signal lights to let others know when the side doors are opening; a driver's side knee-blocker air bag; and available overhead storage bins that can be slid around on rails or completely removed.

That kind of innovation has been the theme since the minivan's introduction in 1984. That's what brought it to market in the first place. A lot has changed since then and Chrysler is a much different company. Magically, however, the Caravan and Town & Country remain on top. Innovation is one thing, but perhaps buyers are still loyal to the company that broke all the rules to give them a vehicle they had never seen and, obviously, still covet.

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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