Road TestParity. It's the Holy Grail sought by the National Football League, NASCAR, and the socialist Peace and Freedom Party. But parity is rarely in the minds of auto executives (or their engineers, dealers, or stockholders). Their goal is to win by the largest margin possible.
Certainly the folks at Chrysler weren't thinking parity when they produced their latest-generation minivans. During our first drive of the '96 Dodge Caravan, it soon became obvious that Chrysler had sought-and achieved-a lopsided victory. The Grand Caravan raised class standards to lofty heights with fresh ideas such as a left-side sliding door, swiftly removable wheeled seats, Big Gulp-to-coffee-cup-size ratcheting cupholders, and the first use of 16-inch wheels on a minivan. But more significantly, Chrysler sought to extend a broad advantage over its competition in every area; the result was a pampering ride, peppy performance, thoughtful ergonomics, and confidence-inspiring handling, all of which challenged-and sometimes surpassed-family sedans. The combination made the Caravan a resounding choice for the 1996 Motor Trend Car of the Year award.
With such a lofty target, achieving parity was a tall goal for General Motors. The company's previous avant-garde-styled minivans, led by the Chevrolet Lumina Minivan, could be described as being in a different time zone than the new Grand Caravan's ballpark. Nonetheless, parity now is clearly Chevrolet's aim. So, think of its new Venture as a GM-ized Caravan clone.
Save for a handful of categories, the dimensions of the extended Venture-from length and wheelbase to front head- and legroom-are a virtual match to those of the Grand Caravan. Both employ the same architecture: MacPherson-strut front, beam-axle rear suspensions; transversely mounted V-6s powering front wheels through four-speed automatics; 60-degree OHV powerplants with two-valve aluminum cylinder heads on iron blocks and nearly identical displacement; as well as ABS-assisted disc brakes up front, drums in back. The dead heat was unresolved after performance testing, from similar slalom and skidpad runs to turning circle and EPA mileage measurements.
The Chevrolet is about as close to a clean-sheet, out-with-the-plastic-bodywork-in-with-fresh-sheetmetal, truly all-new vehicle as you'll find. While the Venture (and its Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette fraternal triplets) borrows its front subframe and front suspension configuration from GM's new W-body line (Pontiac Grand Prix, et al.), this new Chevy people-hauler has its own dedicated unibody and rear suspension. It shares little with its Lumina Minivan predecessor beyond a few GM parts-bin pieces and its 3.4-liter/180-horsepower V-6. This potent, willing powerplant-an evolution of the previous 3.1-liter-was among the Lumina Minivan's leading attributes.
The Venture, available in regular- and extended-length versions and regular and uplevel LS trim levels (our tester was an extended-length LS), is GM's first global minivan. In addition to Opel and Vauxhall versions, Europeans can choose an edition that employs Pontiac sheetmetal but is badged a "Chevrolet Trans Sport."
To fit narrower European roads, the svelte new Chevy van is an impressive 4.4 inches slimmer than the Caravan. In the U.S., this makes the Venture easier to stuff into narrow garages and over-flowing parking lots. To compensate for the van's slimmer stance, GM engineers "shrink-wrapped" the interior so aggressively that the Venture boasts 3.9 more cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the third-row seat than that provided by the Grand Caravan. Also, the Chevy's people-space dimensions closely challenge-or surpass-the Dodge's in half of the measurements, though the Grand Caravan has a edge in a few dimensions, most notably front- and third-row legroom.