(first posted 3/15/2014) I wanted to put Classic in quotes in the title, because really, it’s just a dustbuster minivan. But it’s a clean example in that classic late-80s/early-90s Chevrolet maroon, and it survives. And it is the poster child for the question: Why was it so hard for every other automaker to figure out the Chrysler minivan’s charm?
Families nationwide understood the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager immediately: it carried more people and stuff than a wagon with the ease of a traditional van – yet it drove like a compact car. As importantly, even though this was a brand-new genre, its functional design just seemed obvious and right. Of course this is what a minivan should look like. The minivan itself seemed so obvious upon its debut that you wondered why it took until 1983 for somebody to build one.
Yet skulls at Ford and GM remained thick. Their first offerings, the Aerostar and the Astro/Safari, were shrunken rear-wheel-drive vans that drove like trucks. They missed the mark by a mile and didn’t even dent Chrysler minivan sales. GM retrenched first, issuing its Motorama-riffic U-platform vans, of which the Chevrolet Lumina APV led the way. (The pictured Olds Silhouette was the upscale version.)
The Lumina APV was part of the Lumina family of cars. Chevrolet advertising even called it “the family Lumina,” slyly identifying the target market while also linking two unrelated platforms, bodies, and styling. Wildly unrelated styling.
America didn’t buy it. We didn’t buy it last decade either when Ford tried it with the Taurus sedan and Taurus X crossover, even though those vehicles shared a platform. We can accept a two-door, a four-door, and a wagon as being in the same family, but we feel it in our bones: minivans and crossovers are just different vehicles.
GM might have been better off making its first car-based minivan on the Lumina’s new W platform with a look that bore a family resemblance to the sedan. They might have needed to lengthen that platform a bit, as its 109.8-inch wheelbase was no match for Chrysler’s 112-inch wheelbase. That was the short Chrysler wheelbase version, by the way; seven inches were added for the long-wheelbase version introduced in 1987. But maybe this whole line of reasoning is moot, as the Lumina wasn’t properly suited up to fight the class-leading Ford Taurus anyway and ended up being mostly a fleet queen. We covered that here.
GM did try to get one thing right by making only six-cylinder engines available. Chrysler’s first minivans were saddled with available fours that were probably adequate in the Aries/Reliant but weren’t entirely up to the task of lugging the much heavier Voyager/Caravan around. Even then, the 120-hp 3.1L 60-degree V6 GM chose was considered not to be enough engine for the even heavier Lumina APV.
GM eventually solved that by adding the venerable 3800 to the engine lineup in 1991. If you’ve just got to have a dustbuster minivan, by all means hold out for the 3800. The 3.1 is said to suffer from chronic leaky intake manifold gaskets. The 1996-only 3.4L V6 may offer 10 more horsepower than the 3800, but it does so with less torque and so is said not to perform as well. This 1991 model could have either the 3.1 or the 3800. You know it’s a 1991 because that was the last year for Lumina APV badges on the doors, and the first year for a radio antenna sandwiched between the roof and the headliner rather than attached to the cowl.
Inside, the Lumina APV seems roomy and airy, though that enormous, deep dashboard is disorienting until you get used to it. Amusingly, the headlight and wiper-washer switchgear that flanks the gauge pod were lifted directly from the Beretta. I owned a Beretta for eight years and thought these switches worked surprisingly well. A light and easy finger flick activated the lights or the wipers, and my hands stayed at the wheel. But I’ll bet these switches are a lot farther away from the Lumina APV driver and therefore are less handy.
The seating arrangements were flexible and competitive for the day, especially in higher-trim models where you could get seven separate seats. You still had to remove them to haul cargo; fold-flat seats were yet to come.
But those looks. Da-humn. There was no getting over them. Ford figured it out first with its Windstar in 1994: copy Chrysler as much as you can. GM finally came around in 1997 with its second-generation U-platform minivans, which looked as conventional as could be. But the next year, Toyota would introduce its Sienna and Honda its second-generation Odyssey, both of which would finally challenge Chrysler’s minivan supremacy. Ford and GM never caught up. Ford threw in the towel on minivans in 2007, and GM in 2009. But by then the minivan’s golden age had ended, as crossovers had eaten into their market share. And that’s a market where Ford and GM know how to play.