Unlike that on the Caravan, the Venture's optional left sliding door (available on only long-wheelbase models) is as large as its right, and the 32.0-inch openings are wider than the opposition's 29.8-inch right and 27.2-inch left. Also unlike the Caravan, the Venture offers access to the third-row seats through the left-side sliding door, thanks to its folding modular seats. Its driver's seat, which folds forward like that of a two-door coupe-a minivan first, according to Chevy-eliminates some of the need for the second sliding-door option. The Chevy's optional power-operated right-side sliding door (the left door is manual only) is a welcome electronic doorman.

Parents and children alike will enjoy the dual-mode audio system, which, unlike similar systems, allows the rear passengers to listen (on headphones) to a different audio source than the front riders. While the adults seek child-management tips from Dr. Laura on AM, the kids can listen to "Barney Unplugged."

The Venture is loaded with more cargo nets than a Japanese fishing trawler and is crammed with more storage pockets than an L.L. Bean warehouse. The Dodge's optional power-operated rear vent windows (the Chevy's are manual only) are an advantage challenged by the vents on the Chevy's sliding doors. (The Dodge's sliding door windows are fixed.)

For cross-country drives, the extended Venture's 25-gallon fuel tank-five gallons bigger than the Grand Caravan's-is a notable advantage, especially considering the Dodge's notoriously pessimistic fuel gauge.

According to Chrysler, the '96 Caravan was a clean-sheet redesign, but the new version also retained many of the previous model's features-leaf-spring rear suspension, for example-that worked well and were cost efficient. Changes to the Caravan line for '97 are minimal. Leading the list is optional all-wheel drive, a feature not offered on the Venture. New standard features include liftgate flood lamps, front reading lamps, and a cargo-area power point. Also, the Sport package, which features stiffer springs and shocks and a rear anti-roll bar, is now available in the longer Grand Caravan, in addition to the short-wheelbase Caravan.

Our tester was the midlevel Grand Caravan SE, the line's most popular package, which slots between the just-plain Grand Caravan and the uplevel LE. To keep the price competitive with the Venture's, we ordered the Caravan with the 3.3-liter/158-horse OHV V-6 rather than the 3.8-liter/166-horse engine that has seen duty in most of our previous test vehicles. The 3.3 is down eight horsepower and 24 pound-feet of torque from the 3.8, and its 11.3-second 0-60-mph time was 0.4 second slower than what we recorded with a similar 3.8-equipped Grand Caravan SE. Its performance was also a notable 0.6 second slower than the long-wheelbase Venture's 10.7-second dash. (We recorded an impressive 9.2-second 0-60-mph run with a short Venture.)

The Dodge's dash and instrument panel seem like a calm, gray river meandering through a black landscape. This organic mixture is more calming than the Venture's busy, angular dash, but we found the Grand Caravan's front-seat padding more disagreeable because it pushed our shoulders forward and left our lower back unsupported; its rear benches also left something to be desired on long trips. Some staff members, however, found the Venture's seats to be no better.

While the Dodge's ride was generally composed and its chassis stiffer-feeling and more vibration-free than the Chevy's, its Michelin XW4s produced small but sharp jolts and a metallic ringing over small irregularities such as Botts dots. The steering effort of both vehicles is appropriately firm-feeling-the Dodge's being slightly lighter-but neither offered useful feedback from the tires. The Grand Caravan's brake pedal effort was more reassuring than that of the Venture.