Early in 2008, with a pregnant wife and two other kids, we decided we needed something that could easily haul three kids, one of them in a big car seat–in other words, something with three rows. Our list ended up being pretty short. At the time we didn’t want a SUV, and wanted to be able to pay cash for something. With a budget of about $7,000, we were limited to the third-gen Chrysler minivan, which I figured might not be the most reliable thing on the planet but would be pretty economical. I ended up being right about one of those two statements.
I could be wrong, but this might be my longest term of vehicle ownership. It definitely was the most expensive. In February 2008 my mechanic called from the dealer auction and had found a cherry 1999 Plymouth Grand Voyager that was “loaded”, and he thought would fit right in our budget. After about 30 seconds of consideration and hearing the word “budget”, I said “Go!”. After he brought it back, I realized it was completely loaded and had the “good motor”. Today, I cringe while typing that last statement.
While I’d driven a lot of Chrysler minivans with the 3.0L and 3.3L that left me completely unimpressed, the 3.8L in our van was a whole different animal. I know many have lamented how underpowered their 3.3 extended vans are fully laden with kids and gear; had Chrysler put in the 3.8, that complaint would have been alleviated in favor of another: fuel economy. On the highway I quickly learned it would exceed 20 mpg, but in the city it cold barely muster 13-14, generally turning in an SUV-like 12.
My mechanic mused when we got it that it likely had a replacement transmission, as it had 135,000 miles when we bought it and that no Chrysler van’s original transmission lasted that long. My second dislike came on a cold day just over a year after purchase when it literally shelled the transmission, with the whole family on board, about three miles from home. I took it to the best transmission place in town, one with a stellar reputation for which they charged a healthy premium. I was out nearly half the purchase price for a transmission at that point, but it carried a three-year, no-questions-asked warranty, so I sucked it up and called it good.
Yet for all its faults, it was a fantastic family hauler. That thirsty 3.8 proved to make it an excellent highway vehicle since even loaded to the brim with everything young kids could bring, it always held speed without much drama on the Interstate. It was relatively comfortable and spacious, and I was able to bring my bike along inside the van when we would go out of town. That’s probably what helped to keep it around so long, that just about nothing else without the financial penalty of a SUV could do what it did.
Oh and the faults. Let’s start talking about the faults again. About nine months after the transmission issue, we went to visit my grandmother-in-law’s home in Arkansas for Thanksgiving. During a panic stop on the Interstate in Kansas City the front brake pads literally disintegrated (I wish I had pictures of the remnants I pulled off) and I had to be hyper-aware for the next 200 miles until I could replace the pads on Thanksgiving Day, in Granny’s driveway. After that it would eat pads yearly despite the few miles we put on them, and despite trying numerous brands of (only expensive ceramic) pads.
Ceramic pads on a minivan? I also made sure to change the oil every 3,000 miles with Mobil 1 oil and Bosch filters, used synthetic transmission fluid, and kept up on every bit of maintenance I could. While it may have been a basic minivan, it was maintained like a Ferrari; after all, I entrusted the thing with my family. Did it ever let me down? Almost always!
After about four years of ownership, I had replaced so much that I figured we should keep it as long as we could and focus on other bills. It rewarded my loyalty, of course, by breaking–a lot. It ate water pumps (two by my count), two starters, a fuel pump, every power-window motor, struts, valve cover gaskets, serpentine belts and a timing chain.
Let’s see – what good did it do? I already established that it had plenty of power and could haul down the Interstate just fine; in all honesty, it did a great job at that. It had the Infinity stereo, which was frankly pretty fantastic, probably one of the better stock audio systems I’ve heard in a pre-2005 vehicle, although with a terrible, awful little joystick to adjust balance and fade. It also had two air conditioners that did a decent job of keeping all occupants comfortably cool, but required filling twice per summer despite never having a perceptible leak.
With young kids, having a not-so-perfect vehicle allows them to spill, drop, track, and do kid-type things without us caring too much. They all quite literally grew up in the thing and, aside from some minor issues, it never let us down completely with the kids inside. Except for the brakes shelling. And the transmission explosion. Oh, and that time it kept overheating last summer in Kansas City.. ok, that’s redacted.
About 2011 we started thinking about replacing it, but neither my wife or I had relished the thought of a car payment. We would look on and off, but never was it the right time to commit to either putting a ton of money away again or getting a car payment. While there were lots of nagging things wrong, I knew the transmission was solid and the motor seemed to be reliable. I even put new tires on it in early January of 2015, since on another brutally cold morning my wife called me from the store to say the back end was sitting very low. Somehow the sidewall had blown on the passenger-side rear tire. Well, if I’m keeping it for another year or two why not, right?
Over the first weekend of February 2015 I took my sister car shopping. While she was eyeing the Fit and CR-Z, I took a look at the new Pilots and Odysseys. Great vehicles, without a doubt, but my stomach went into knots when I ran payment calculators on my iPhone. As I sat reading CC, as I always do on Sundays, in my head I decided to keep it going for another couple years. Shortly after, I took the van to go get my sons their Sunday morning breakfast muffins and I noticed it was low on power. While stopped at a light, I heard a sound. Oh, son of a…..
What’s funny is that I watch that video and notice the duct tape on the breather hose. A good six weeks before that, on another brutally cold morning, I noticed it running more odd than usual when cold so I popped the hood and noticed the hose had basically fallen apart. Annoyed, I quickly wrapped it in duct tape and shook my head. I think that’s probably the point where I had just had enough.
My Dad asked me what I had done after I heard it rattling like death. Well, I took it home, checked the oil (maybe a quart low) and was rewarded again by the Chrysler Curse with a oil fill-cap that came apart in my hands while I was trying to top it off. I grabbed my vise grips and took it off. After taking another quart it did the same thing. I put my foot to the floor and went to go visit him. If it was going to blow, I was going to blow the wretched thing. To spite me, it somehow held together.
I threw it on Craigslist for $650, and had it sold within a few hours to someone who was willing to do a motor swap. I picked up Dad’s regular-cab 1999 F-150 Sunday night, and started looking online for local dealers that had what I wanted to replace it with while working on a plan on how to take Monday off work. I may have been willing to finally suck it up and get a auto loan, but one thing I wouldn’t do – deviate from the list of vehicles I’d already researched to replace it.
This proved to be the most expensive vehicle I ever owned: $15,000 of depreciation and repairs over 7 years and 50,000 miles of use. Of course, that doesn’t count fuel and tire costs–and, more importantly, the cost of frustration. It definitely made me gun-shy toward older vehicles, and will definitely be the last Chrysler product I ever own.
As with every other of my vehicle changes, this actually worked out perfectly in the end. Once everything had aligned just right, I found a absolutely stellar replacement, and couldn’t have been happier to have the Chrysler out of my life. If I could give one piece of advice to anyone considering Chrysler minivan ownership: Don’t. Just “Nope!” the heck out of there and go pick something else. I know I had some argument over my feelings about the Honda CRX COAL, but I’m guessing I won’t get many of those on this one…