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Chrysler (Plymouth) Voyager
This is the final year of the current Voyager minivan, and it is still generally rated as being the best of the minivans. Quality has improved to Japanese levels, while comfort and convenience options are about as good as they get. Starting in June 2000, though, the next generation is being produced, with about 30 horsepower more for each of the V6 engines and a wide range of improvements. The reliability-conscious buyer will see this as a chance to get substantial discounts on the time-tested outgoing model.
Chrysler is still the minivan leader, despite challenges from nearly every other automaker. The basic Voyager and Caravan are relatively inexpensive, but still come with the high-class feel of the Chrysler Town & Country. Indeed, the main difference is the wheelbase: the Grand Caravan and nearly-identical Town & Country are a bit longer than the Caravan. That unfortunately also means they are more expensive and harder to park, and also suffer a little in the handling department.
The ride is certainly suitable for a product with the Chrysler name. Handling was surprisingly good, and the van felt much more nimble than, say, the Chevrolet Venture or Toyota Sienna. It also felt easier to drive than the longer wheelbase Grand Voyager. Braking was also good. Overall, we felt confident around the curves, and never came close to feeling any loss of control.
The optional 3.3 liter engine was very peppy, thanks partly to the ready-to-downshift transmission computer. With the cruise control on, the transmission quietly downshifted going up hills, so that the engine was not strained and no speed was lost, and going down hills, to avoid the need for braking. The quiet engine, smooth ride, and gentle, intelligent transmission all helped to hide the very capable acceleration of the long-lasting, well-tested 3.3.
Those who want nearly as much power at a lower price can opt for the Mitsubishi 3.0 liter V6, whose oil-belching habits were fixed long ago. There is also a 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine, which puts out nearly as much power, at least on paper, as the Mitsubishi V6. Try it out and see if it meets your needs, unless you have a psychological need for more cylinders.
The interior was very sensible; controls are clearly marked and in sensible places. A column shifter and foot-operated emergency brake were convenient, given that all American minivans are automatics. Window demisters prevent fogging effectively. The optional integrated child seat is easy to use; the cup holders are superlative, as one would expect. In terms of interior conveniences, there is no comparison between the Chrysler product and its competitors.
There are separate heat controls and optional rear air conditioning for the rear passengers. Back seats fold down, which is helpful for loading large objects without removing the seats completely. This is handy, though taking out the seats is easy; the seats have wheels, and a red indicator shows when they are correctly installed. Rear power outlets and excellent interior lighting round out the package.
The windshield wipers and sun visors are effective, helping to keep the visibility excellent.
The doors are well designed, with sliding doors on both sides that open and close easily and conveniently latch open, so there's no danger of being whacked by a closing door. We appreciated the markings which told us where the door closed, so we could load the vehicle "just right."
There was very little road noise, but the wind noise became excessive over standard highway speeds.
The current generation of Chrysler minivans, first introduced in 1996, have held up very well against their competitors. Continuous improvement has kept them fresh and competitive, with minor changes to the interior and drivetrain, and new options such as onboard television.
The Voyager and its siblings remain the best designed minivan, overall. It is no surprise they still hold more than a third of the market, on their own, despite tough competition from nearly every other automaker.
The 2001 models will present evolutionary changes, but if you're in the market now, the current models are quite nice. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a bargain, wait for the new ones to come out - and then take your pick. Just remember, Chrysler has had time to find and fix any bugs on the current series.
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