Chrysler literally invented the front-wheel-drive minivan 16 years ago. Since then, a hungry market devoured 8 million of this maker's transport gadgets. Today, with no fewer than 15 competitors fighting for a chunk of that segment, DaimlerChrysler chefs have cooked up an even more delicious van. We recently sampled some early examples of this new-for-2001 recipe in a preview drive near Phoenix, Arizona.
Some of the basic ingredients of this eminently successful offering have not been changed, things like its size, seat-height, and front-drive configuration. But the upcoming Dodge Caravan, Chrysler Town & Country, and Chrysler (nZ'e Plymouth) Voyager, and models do benefit from quieter-ride suspension pieces, bigger brakes, a trio of more potent V-6 engines, a powered rear liftgate, dual powered sliding doors, improved front airbags and new side-impact bags, power-adjustable pedals, fresh exterior sheetmetal, and an even more clever interior design.
More power always tastes good. And so, though a 150-horse/2.4-liter SOHC four will still be offered, the spicy news concerns the three V-6s. The 3.3- and 3.8-liter OHV engines have been redesigned for greater smoothness and more power. In fact, engineers claim the only things saved from last year were their displacements and connecting rods. The 3.3 goes from 140 to 180 ponies, while output of the 3.8 jumps from 180 to 215. But top underhood muscle comes from the new 3.5-liter SOHC V-6. Borrowed from Chrysler's 300M sedan, it produces 230 horsepower. Driving through winding desert roads with steep grades, the vans effortlessly delivered the extra power like solid, premium sedans with virtually imperceptible shifts.
The exterior mods are visually subtle, but remarkably substantial. Front and rear fascias, grilles, and the lighting systems are all new and so is the edgier body-side sheetmetal. Even the floorpan and suspension mounts have been extensively beefed up to minimize shake, quiet the ride, and protect more effectively in a crash. Several competitive vans piloted on the same drive shuddered noisily over the identical road surfaces.
The only doors you'll have to open by hand on the 2001 vans are the fronts. Chrysler now offers power-sliding side doors and a powered rear gate commanded by a key fob button that opens all for easier cargo and passenger loading.
Is there anything missing from Chrysler's new minivan cake? Only one item: A convenient, space-saving third-row seat that folds away into a floorwell, like the ones found on the Honda and Mazda minivans to provide flat-floor, cargo-hauling capacity. Chrysler says it couldn't fit one in its short-wheelbase van due to the location of the fuel tank and spare. Engineering also cited all-wheel-drive packaging problems and noise. The rear bench is still removable, but it remains an awkward and inconvenient process. That relatively small gripe notwithstanding, this latest iteration of a proven market leader should take up right where its predecessors left off.