(The pictures used in this post are taken from Google images)
We had moved to a new home in the New Jersey countryside. My wife was good enough to sacrifice her career to stay home with our son and the family which we were planning to grow. The area we moved to is ideal for raising a family, and many others in the community had the same idea. As a result, playgrounds, libraries, and parks and such are full of stay-at-home parents during the week. In the meantime, our son Samuel was growing quickly, and so was our need for a vehicle to haul things around with us as he learned to walk and get around. This led me to begin to think about my wife’s daily driver and its continued suitability for this task. You will recall that at this time, she was using my 91 Caprice sedan for transporting Sam around, a task for which it had been more than adequate up to this point. However, it was beginning to feel tired and its trunk, huge as it is, could barely hold Sam’s Cozy Coupe ride on car. At the park, all the other parents had minivans, CUVs, SUVs etc., while my wife pulled in with a sedan that looked like a police cruiser! While the car was pretty cool, it was becoming obvious that Sam and his parents were beginning to outgrow it.
I had recently acquired my dream car (last week’s COAL), and I wanted her to have something nice as well. Accordingly, I found a very clean, very nice looking 1994 Dodge Grand Caravan at a small used car lot. I drove there with my wife, and it looked just as nice as it did in the pictures online. I had my wife drive it and she really liked how it drove. The only problem was that the A/C was inoperative. They were selling the van for $2,500. I counter-offered $1,800. They said $2,300. I told them $2,000 but they had to fix the A/C. They said fine, but the $2,000 would not include a warranty.
A week later they called and said that the A/C was repaired. We went over there and sure enough, ice cold A/C. We took it for one more spin, imagining the many road trips we would take it on. Everything seemed copacetic, so we gave them the money and drove off with our first minivan.
The distance from the used car lot to our home was about 30 miles. I drove the Caprice wagon and my wife followed in the minivan. Three quarters of the way home, I stopped for gas. When I got out of the car, I heard it: a tapping sound in the distance. I looked up and saw that the tapping sound was coming from our new minivan. I immediately realized I had turned down the warranty in exchange for a drop in the price…in essence, I had agreed to purchase the vehicle as-is! We immediately took it to my mechanic to face the music. After changing the plugs, as well as several bottles of Lucas Oil Treatment, the tapping was silenced and the van ran smoothly. This began our very short honeymoon period with our minivan.
After owning this thing for a few weeks, I began to understand why they were so popular. It was very easy to strap our toddler into his car seat with minimal bending and back strain. We also found that we could easily get to him if we needed to without exiting the vehicle. The one thing that really impressed me was its ability to hold eight passengers, and still have plenty of room for cargo. My wagon had room for six passengers and cargo, or eight passengers and almost no cargo. This feature really impressed me, which is what led me to purchase my next vehicle.
One thing I found very interesting is that the controls and driver ergonomics were very similar to my Plymouth Acclaim and Chrysler New Yorker. I found out that besides being based on the venerable K car, the van also shared its powertrain with the New Yorker.
Its first long trip was to a wedding in Maryland. My wife volunteered to do the driving. I enjoyed having the third row to myself–lots of room to spread out plus the ability to get to the front seat if I had to. The van had dual A/C so I had my own personal vent blowing cold air in my face on a summer afternoon….I was sold. I was even considering buying a minivan for myself.
Unfortunately, the trip home from Maryland was not so pleasant. Everything was fine until the Check Gauges light came on. This alerted us to an overheating situation. We pulled over, I checked under the hood, there was coolant loss, but it was not obvious where it was coming from. All the hoses I could see looked intact. The radiator seemed fine, and it did not look like it was a water pump issue. So, I bought two gallons of coolant, and we limped home…having to fill the recovery tank once. Apparently there was a tiny hose underneath that I missed that was responsible for the problem.
Shortly after that incident, we were driving home from somewhere and we heard a ringing noise that sounded like a cross between an old telephone and an old fashioned cash register. It was a peculiar sound; not an electronic chime, but a mechanical metallic ringing. This was followed by loud revving noises from the engine. We realized that the van was not shifting out of low gear. The infamous ultradrive transmission had gone into limp mode. Shutting down and restarting the vehicle solved the problem. After that, the problem would reappear at random. The only warning we would get would be the ringing sound that always preceded the vehicle going into limp mode. Taking it to the mechanic was futile. There were no trouble codes stored in the computer, and of course, the problem could not be replicated. Again, restarting the van fixed it for a while, but this was not always practical or safe to do, especially if it happened on a crowded highway. It was really disappointing, because the van was on the cusp of being perfect for us in terms of its usefulness and practicality, and it was pretty fun to drive when it worked. In addition, we really liked the elevated driving position.
My wife used it as a daily driver for about four months. We began to avoid using it on long trips because we were afraid that it would go into limp mode at an inopportune moment. One day, my wife and son got into the car and it made a horrible grinding sound from the front end. The sound was not coming from the brakes or the engine, but it sounded like something was horribly broken. The sound was deafening once the car got to around 10 mph. In addition, the steering was sluggish and there seemed to be what felt like interference when I tried to steer. A trip to the mechanic confirmed that the front suspension and steering were facing imminent failure and as usual, the repair would cost more than what the vehicle was worth. All this a week after I had already sold the previous vehicle,the reliable Caprice sedan. A few weeks ago, Brendan Saur did a write up on a 94 Caravan that was nearly identical to ours. I was very happy (and a little jealous) when I skimmed through the comments to see that our experience was not typical and for the most part, folks found them practical and reliable.
Because I had gotten her into this and she needed a reliable car, I reluctantly gave my wife my treasured Caprice wagon and looked for something else for myself.
My experience with the van added two more requirements to my car search:
1) The ability to carry a third row of passengers and cargo
2) Elevated seating position/high ground clearance