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.

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.

Like most other battles in this comparison, our seat-removal test was a near-draw. The Dodge's rearmost seat went from fully installed to on the ground in an amazing 7.7 seconds; however, lifting the 75-pound bench was a spine-endangering strain even for our fit, 150-pound male tester. It's likely a two-person job for most owners. The Chevy's two modular rear seats-each of which weighs a manageable 38 pounds-took a total of 27.2 seconds to extract, but could be removed by a preteen.

Both of these minivans were production vehicles that came to us factory fresh with only a few dozen miles showing on either odometer; however, each suffered small but notable problems. The Dodge evidenced slow cold starting and some sporadic rattles-surprising since we're used to unfailing solidity from the Caravan. Prior to this test, MT editors sampled several preproduction versions of GM's new minivan triplets and came away impressed with the vehicles' solidity and quiet. This production Venture, however, failed to live up to our expectations. It was plagued by a series of rattles and chassis vibrations, many of which seemed to emanate from the left-side sliding door. (A preproduction three-door, regular-length Venture was much more solid-feeling.) Also typical of other Ventures, another production example suffered from a vibrating roof rack at 75-plus mph.

When the contest is as close as the battle between the Grand Caravan and Venture, price is often a tie-breaker. Our Grand Caravan carried a base price of $20,755, considerably less than the $22,669 starting point of the extended-wheelbase Venture. But the Chevrolet comes standard with many features-a strong V-6 engine, air conditioning, and power door locks and windows-that are extra-cost options on the Dodge. Many other Chevy features on our tester-remote keyless entry, a pollen filter, an electric right-side sliding door, rear sound system controls, an integral child seat, load-leveling suspension, an auxiliary air pump, and automatic-on headlights-either aren't available or weren't included on the Dodge at this price. Subtract just a few of the Chevy's options not found on the Dodge-such as the $185 traction control (which we'd just as soon do without in L.A.), the $125 child seat, $185 load-leveling suspension-and the difference drops to $189, meaning the Chevy offers many more features at essentially the same price.

To help determine the winner of this comparison, please play along with the exciting home version of the Motor Trend Road Test Game:

1. Select the response that best fits your reaction to the following list of features: 28 more horsepower, 0.6-second-better 0-60-mph acceleration, a power right-side sliding door, a pollen filter, separate audio controls with selectable source for rear passengers, daytime running lights, a remote keyless entry system, second-row windows that open, a lightweight modular seating system, load-leveling suspension, auxiliary air pump, and automatic headlights.

a) Cool! Love them allb) Some sound good but others I couldn't care less about.c) Yuk! I would pay extra not to have some of these features.

2. Would you accept increased body vibration and some ride penalties for these features?

a) Gladly!b) Not without some serious whining.c) Not a chance!

If you answered (a) to both questions, the Venture is your choice. The Grand Caravan wins for those who answered (c) to either question or (b)both times. Determining a winner is far more difficult if you chose (a) for the first and (b) for the second, as we did. We love the features the Chevrolet offers at essentially no extra cost, but our enthusiasm is severely dimmed by this minivan's less pleasant driving experience. Based on overall driveability, our testers unanimously voted for the Grand Caravan SE. It's significant to note, however, that a couple of these staffers defected to the Chevy when the list of extras offered on the Venture LS for essentially the same price was factored in.

So, call this one a split decision: The Dodge Caravan retains its title as America's best minivan, but Chevy's Venture has considerably closed the gap. Parity has nearly been achieved.

REPORT CARD
Chevrolet Venture LS
Powertrain/performance: A-
Interior comfort: A-
Ergonomics: A
Highway ride/steering: B
Safety features: A
Utility/ease of access: B+
Styling: B
Noise and vibration: C-
Handling: B
Braking: B
Value: A+
WHAT'S ?
THE DIFFERENCE
Chevrolet Dodge Grand
Venture LS Caravan SE
Width, in. 72.0 76.8
Cargo capacity, cu. ft.
Aft of 3rd-row seats 24.2 20.3
2nd and 3rd removed 155.9 168.5
Front shoulder room, in. 59.8 62.5
Front hiproom, in. 55.5 57.7
2nd row shoulder
room, in. 61.9 63.7
2nd row hiproom, in. 64.3 61.3
3rd row legroom, in. 36.7 39.8
REPORT CARD
Dodge Grand Caravan SE
Powertrain/performance: B
Interior comfort: B+
Ergonomics: A
Highway ride/steering: A
Safety features: A
Utility/ease of access: A
Styling: A
Noise and vibration: B+
Handling: B
Braking: A-
Value: B+
TECH DATA
GENERAL
Chevrolet Venture LS Dodge Grand Caravan SE
Manufacturer Chevrolet Division, Dodge Division,
General Motors Corp., Chrysler Corp.,
Warren, Mich. Auburn Hills, Mich.
Location of final assembly Doraville, Ga. Fenton, Mo.
Body style 4-door, 7-passenger 4-door, 7-passenger
EPA size class Special purpose Special purpose
Drivetrain layout Front engine, front drive Front engine, front drive
Airbag Dual Dual
Engine configuration 60 V-6, OHV, 60 V-6, OHV,
2 valves/cylinder 2 valves/cylinder
Engine displacement, ci/cc 204.4/3350 201.4/3301
Horsepower, hp @ rpm, SAE net 180 @ 5200 158 @ 4850
Torque, lb-ft @ rpm, SAE net 205 @ 4000 203 @ 3250
Transmission 4-speed automatic 4-speed automatic
Base price $22,669 $20,755
Price as tested $25,479 $24,980
DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase, in./mm 120.0/3048 119.3/3030
Track, f/r, in./mm 61.5/63.3/1562/1608 63.0/64.0/1600/1626
Length, in./mm 200.9/5103 199.6/5070
Width, in./mm 72.0/1829 76.8/1950
Height, in./mm 68.1/1730 68.5/1740
Ground clearance, in./mm 6.3/160 5.4/138
Mfr's base curb weight, lb 3792 3791
Weight distribution, f/r, % 59/41 57/43
Cargo capacity, cu ft
aft of 3rd-row seats 24.2 20.3
2nd and 3rd rows removed 155.9 168.5
Fuel capacity, gal. 25.0 20.0
Weight/power ratio, lb/hp 21.0 24.0
CHASSIS
Suspension, f/r MacPherson struts, MacPherson struts,
lower control arms, coil lower control arms, coil
springs, anti-roll bar/ springs, anti-roll bar/
beam axle, beam axle, Panhard rod,
coil springs leaf springs
Steering Rack and pinion, Rack and pinion,
power assist power assist
Turning circle, ft 39.7 39.5
Brakes, f/r Vented discs/drums, ABS Vented discs/drums, ABS
Wheel size, in. 15 x 6.0 15 x 6.5
Material Cast aluminum Cast aluminum
Tire size 215/70SR15 215/65SR15
Mfr. and model General XP2000 GT Michelin XW4
PERFORMANCE
Acceleration, 0-60 mph, sec 10.7 11.3
Standing quarter mile, sec/mph 17.8/79.1 18.2/75.8
Braking, 60-0, ft 151 144
Handling, lateral acceleration, g 0.71 0.72
Speed through 600-ft slalom, mph 61.0 62.0
EPA fuel economy, mpg, city/hwy. 18/25 18/24
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