(first posted 7/17/2017) Taking a look back, it’s truly quite interesting how the minivan segment in North America began, grew, evolved, and declined, even if the vehicles themselves aren’t all that interesting to most people. For the better part of the minivan’s existence in the 20th century, Chrysler ruled the minivan game, despite selling what could arguably be described as the most basic, humblest-origins offering.
Based on the love-it-but-mostly-hate-it K-car, the first and second generation Chrysler minivans wowed buyers with their numerous interior configurations, high level of space efficiency, and enough trim and option packages to suit every wallet and wish list. Minor updates and just one major refresh kept these K-based Chryslers the industry benchmark for twelve years, even in their final 1995 season. The fully-redesigned third generation that followed leapfrogged Chrysler even further ahead of competitors that were beginning to close in.
GM and Ford struck back early on in the mid-1980s with their rear-wheel drive Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari and Ford Aerostar offerings, which were larger and more powerful — the key to success in America, right? Unfortunately in this case, the answer was an astounding “no”. Americans liked the packaging of Chrysler’s minivans, no matter how primitive their K-car roots were. Back to the drawing boards for GM and Ford.
Early-1990s space age designs in the form of Toyota’s egg-shaped Previa and GM’s second attempt with its “Dustbuster” U-bodies also flopped, barely making a dent in Chrysler’s enormous market share.
Ford’s Taurus-based Windstar, the closest copy of Chrysler’s formula by another automaker yet, was still under development and a few years away from being ready. Yet the number two American automaker found a way to sell a more car-like, front-wheel drive minivan two years earlier, interestingly by way of a joint-venture with Japanese automaker, Nissan.
While the design and powertrain came from Nissan, Ford’s contribution came in the form of most interior switchgear and assembling both minivans at its Ohio Assembly plant in Avon, OH. Styling changes to the Mercury’s Villager, which took its name from the brand’s midsize station wagon of yesteryear, consisted of different bumpers, lower bodyside moldings, taillight clusters, and the lightbar grille similar to other Mercurys of the era. A mid-cycle refresh for 1996 brought with it new front and rear fascias, the front highlighted by a more traditional chrome grille.
When the Villager hit the market in mid-1992 as a 1993 model, it received a warm and optimistic welcome, with some critics even being so confident in claiming that the Chrysler minivans had at last, finally met their match. Indeed, the Villager had its many strengths, chiefly its artful styling, highly configurable seating arrangements (14 total), ride and handling characteristics, and a few thoughtful convenience features such as rear HVAC controls, rear headphone jacks, and table top-like second row seat backs with cupholders when folded.
Unfortunately, these aspects didn’t make the Villager perfect, and a several key deficiencies severely hampered the vehicle’s appeal and overall success. Above all, it came down to size and price. Riding on a near identical 112.3-inch wheelbase to the short-wheelbase Chryslers (112.2), the Villager was nearly a foot longer externally, placing it within three inches of the long-wheelbase Chryslers. In spite of this, the Villager offered three inches less legroom than the short-wheelbase Chryslers, and only marginally more cargo capacity, despite its added heft.
Furthermore, the Villager didn’t make up for this with its price tag. Its entry-level GS trim started at nearly $3,000 more than a base Voyager or Caravan, and its top LS trim was over $1,000 more than all but the Voyager’s and Caravan’s top trims with added all-wheel drive, something not available on the Villager.
Adding insult to injury was the fact that the Villager’s third row bench could not be removed, unlike most competitors. It only folded and slid up to store behind the front seats. Other minor demerits included a somewhat cumbersome control layout, and the lack of a driver’s side airbag until 1994 and a passenger’s side front airbag until 1996.
The Villager was an all-around decent effort, but when it came to what minivan buyers wanted most, the Villager came up short. In years when Chrysler was selling well upwards of over 100,000 and in some years even 200,000 units each of the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan, with a handful more of Chrysler Town & Countrys, Mercury Villager sales in the U.S. never surpassed 77,000.
By this featured car’s 1998 model year, the final of the first generation, Mercury sold less than 40,000 Villagers. Nissan sold even fewer Quests during this period. Despite a seemingly easy formula to replicate, the art and science of minivan building in the latter part of the 20th century proved rather difficult for Chrysler’s competitors, and the Mercury Villager was no exception.
Photographed: Hingham, MA – December 2016