Curbside Classic: 1989 Dodge Caravan Turbo – Desperate Measures

( first posted 10/13/2011)   The Caravan story is a mighty big one, even if it came in a fairly compact wrapper. I’ve taken a run at it before (CC here), so today we’ll just focus on one of its oddity versions: the turbo. As this picture makes pretty clear, the turbo-van was not some Shelby-esque man-van. No, like most of Chrysler’s minivans, it ended up in the hands of mommies shuttling their kids, and they were none too thrilled about it.

So how (or why) did Chrysler’s 150 hp 2.5 turbo four end up in such an unlikely home? For lack of anything better, pure and simple. The Caravan/Voyager minivans sold way beyond Lee Iaccoca’s famously wild imagination. For almost ten years, Chrysler struggled to keep up with demand. Stamping out the boxes fast enough was a challenge in its own right, necessitating a whole second dedicated plant in St. Louis, for the long wheelbase versions. But powering them all was the real problem.

The Caravan was engine-poor from the get-go. All Chrysler had then was their 96 hp 2.2 liter four. To placate the expectations of those trading down from V8 station wagons, the Mitsubishi 2.6 liter four was optional, with all of 104 hp. Its slightly better torque helped, barely. But the Chrysler twin’s lack of performance was an issue from day one, especially when loaded up in the seven-passenger version.

With the arrival of the lwb versions in 1987, Chrysler had to up the ante. Chrysler’s bigger 2.5 L four replaced the base 2.2, and now a V6 was optional, Mitsu’s SOHC 3.0 L, making 136 hp. I specced out and ordered one of the first V6 lwb Caravan CVs to use as a portable production van for the tv station in 1987, and with an empty body in back, it ran quite well indeed, for the times. The crew was annoyed at not getting a big Econoline, but they came to love it, and it was a trooper. Of course, this came with the old three-speed TorqueFlite transaxle.

By the latter eighties, gas was cheap and power was in, and folks were over the hairshirt days. The wanted V6s in their minivans! But Chrysler couldn’t get enough of thems from Mitsubiushi to meet the demand. What to do? Eureka! Install the turbo four, which was becoming very popular in the smaller K-car sedans. Why not?

With today’s technology, why not indeed? Sophisticated electronic boost control, variable vane turbos, and a host of other improvements can make a modern turbo four feel like a six, or even better. But back then, it was a complicated mish-mash of vacuum and electronic controls, and they just didn’t work very well, especially in a heavier vehicle. The turbo four had serious turbo lag from a stop, and unless one was flooring it, the reliable but dumb three-speed automatic tended to shift like it was behind a V8: way too early. The result was highly unpleasant, and the exact opposite of what the target demographic was looking for: smooth low-end power, not herky-jerky moaning and whining.

I wish I had found a lwb turbo Caravan, because in my Caravan CC, a commentator insisted that the turbo was only installed in the swb Caravan/Voyager. Tell that to my friends that had one (a lwb turbo). We had a ’92 3.3 L V6 Caravan, and had told them how much we liked it (except for the transmission blowing a few times). They couldn’t afford a new one, so they showed up proudly one day with a used lwb turbo. I didn’t have the heart to comment on their choice. They learned to hate it, but it hung in there. And here’s the perfect tow-mobile!

The turbo’s rep (in the vans) quickly spread, and by the end of 1990, it was quietly shown the door. Chrysler’s new 3.3 V6 was finally ready to take its place. It had exactly what the turbo didn’t; good torque from the bottom, and decent power all through the rev band. And the new Ultramatic transmission really was remarkable, until it started grenading. It was the first fully-electronically controlled tranny of its kind, with adaptive memory. I drove one of the early ones, that some other friends had (half the families at our school drove these), and it was a revelation. Smooth, almost imperceptible shifts, and that OD fourth was such a boon.

Some turbo-vans were built with five speed sticks, and a few enthusiasts have turned them into serious sleepers, including one that does twelve second quarter miles. It’s good to know that someone has finally found a proper use for them.