(first posted 1/14/2015) “Oh no, not again. Brendan’s writing about another minivan”. Yes I am, and I want to apologize upfront to those of you who view the minivan as a fate worse than death. But at Curbside Classic, “every car has a story”, and this, my friends, is a very defining vehicle in automotive history, as well as a car that I’ve always had an enthusiastic fascination with.
Chrysler literally shook the industry when they released their 1984 Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager “Magic Wagons”, which are credited for creating the minivan segment in North America. Essentially tall K-car wagons with a rear sliding door, these “minivans” were instant hits, with their space and fuel efficiency, as well as mass appeal. Initial competitors failed to capitalize on Chrysler’s successful formula, and thus didn’t pose any significant threat. But with more competitive minivans on the way from rivals, Chrysler’s little-changed minivans were becoming stale in that face of competition, and an overhaul was key to their continued dominance.
In the event that you did not already know, the second generation “AS” minivans, were not all-new, but heavily reengineered versions of the original 1984 “S” minivans. Their “new” platform was yet another derivative of the ubiquitous K-platform, dating back to 1981. It wasn’t difficult to find a plethora of other parts shared with the outgoing minivans and other K-cars either, as a wide range of components from engines and transmissions, to door handles and switchgear were all pulled from the Chrysler community parts bin.
Dimensions were more or less the same, with all models retaining the single rear sliding door layout – the world would have to wait until the third generation Chrysler minivans to experience dual sliding doors in a regular-sized minivan. Naturally, the styling of these new vans was largely evolutionary, as Iacocca wouldn’t have allowed for anything but. Corners were rounded a bit, bumpers were better-integrated, and the hood was lowered, all for a slightly sleeker appearance.
As critics, we are often quick to disapprove of such mild redesigns. Yet, for this type of vehicle at this point in time, one should not condemn Chrysler for such a cautious update. More radically-styled minivan competitors from GM, Ford, and Toyota had failed to take a serious portion of Chrysler’s market share. Add in Chrysler’s virtual dependance on the minivan for survival, and their choice not to significantly alter their winning formula is very justifiable.
As with most Chrysler badge-engineered products, each van was given a few unique trim pieces to add minimal distinction. The Dodge Caravan was given a crosshair grille, black masked taillights, and thinner dual-strip front turn signals. The Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country shared wider single-strip front turn signals and grooved taillight lenses. Voyagers received an egg-crate style grille, while Town & Countrys were adorned with Chrysler’s chrome waterfall grille and crystal pentastar hood ornament. Unique wheel styles and, of course, badging rounded the differentiation process out.
The interiors were treated to more drastic makeovers. Gone were the sharp-edged K-car dashes, replaced with more rounded instrument panel. Exterior lighting and wiper controls were relocated to pods on either side of the gauge cluster, and a vehicle information center with all warning lights was placed atop of it. As typical of most Chrysler products, a complete gauge cluster was available, even on the minivan.
Seats were redesigned, with thicker padding and greater contour. All-new fabrics and leathers were a welcomed change, as those on the outgoing model were looking increasingly vintage. Despite more modern interiors, red and blue interiors were still available along with gray and beige. The biggest news, however, was the Quad Command seating option available on Town & Countrys and higher-trim Caravans and Voyagers.
Replacing the second-row bench with two individual bucket seats not only went a long way in increasing rear seat comfort, but I’m sure it also decreased the number of sibling fights, much to parents’ pleasure. Integrated child safety seats were another option that probably came to the relief of some parents, as child safety seats are often expensive and difficult to install.
The 2.5L Chrysler I4 (from the K-cars), 3.0L Mitsubishi V6, and 3.3L Chrysler V6 were all carry-over from the previous generation. 1994 would see increased output for the 3.3L, as well as the addition of a torquier 3.8L V6. Transmission choices were still a 5-speed manual (that’s not a misprint!), 3-speed TorqueFlite automatic, and an overhauled 4-speed Ultradrive automatic. As with other features, engine and transmission availability varied by model, wheelbase, and brand.
A number of enhancements were made to the minivans’ suspension, in order to improve both comfort and handling. For the first time, all-wheel drive was available on higher-trim models. Sending ninety-percent of torque to the front wheels under normal conditions, when front wheel slip was detected, the system would divert an appropriate amount of torque to the rear wheels, improving traction.
At least in your author’s opinion, the most fascinating aspect of the 1991-1995 Chrysler minivans was the often dizzying array of trim levels, sub-trim levels, special editions, and decor packages available over their five-year run. Starting with the basics, you could choose your Dodge or Plymouth minivan in base, mid-level SE, and upscale LE, in short- or long-wheelbase “Grand”, of course. Simple enough. But there was also the sportier-styled Caravan/Grand Caravan ES, which was equipped like an LE. There was also the short-wheelbase only Voyager LX, which was basically a less boy-racer Caravan ES that came with multi-spoke cast aluminum wheels.
Caravan/Grand Caravan and Voyager/Grand Voyager SEs could also be equipped with the Sport Wagon package (2 pictures above), which oddly enough attempted to make them appear more SUV-like, with gray bumpers and 5-spoke wheels. 1994 brought a 10-Year Anniversary Edition package available on SEs, which included special badging, two-tone paint, gold paint stripes, and special wheels.
There was also a Gold Special Edition on SEs that included gold accent molding, gold paint stripes, gold BBS-style wheels, and on short-wheelbase models, the Grand’s larger 15″ brakes. For 1995, Voyager SEs also gained a Rallye decor package, featuring special door badging, cast aluminum wheels, and two-tone paint. Additionally, all LE models could be equipped with the Woodgrain decor package, featuring the infamous woodgrain Di-Noc. There were even more, but I think you get the picture.
The Town & Country ordering process was a lot simpler, with only one model in standard woodgrain or “woodgrain delete”, which replaced the Di-Noc with gold accents.
Offhand, there is no other vehicle I can think of in which so many distinctive trims were available. With combined sales of these minivans reaching over 500,000 annually, it makes sense that for a very small amount of money, Chrysler would want to provide its very diverse range of potential minivan buyers a bit more exclusivity beyond the basic low-, middle-, and high-end models.
This red Grand Caravan SE I photographed is either a 1994 or 1995 model. All minivans received a mild refresh in 1994, with new exterior moldings (LE and ES models received Coke Bottle rocker panels) and less brightwork being the obvious visual changes.
Inside, a redesigned instrument panel incorporated slightly better ergonomics, marginally softer-touch materials, and a passenger’s side airbag. A number of other small convenience and safety improvements were also made, helping these aging minivans remain among the most competitive vehicles in their class.
The number of 1991-1995 minivans on the road has really dwindled in the past ten years, and I was very impressed with the great condition of this Grand Caravan. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of the nicest I’ve seen in quite some time. I’m willing to bet it’s a low mileage example, and judging (yes, I’m judging) by the parking job, I’ll also bet it’s senior driven.
Seeing one of these vans is very nostalgic for me. Numerous people I knew as a child, including family members, neighbors, friends’ parents, and family friends, owned one. They were the ubiquitous family vehicle of their time, and one of the defining vehicles of the Nineties. The close of the decade would see the surge in popularity of SUVs, and further down the road, CUVs (which aren’t all that different from minivans) would in turn become the most popular choice for family vehicles. But in the early-to-mid-1990s, the minivan was seemingly invincible. They were kind of cool, and dare I say, they were even trendy. If the 1984 minivans created the segment, then the 1991 minivans proved that Chrysler had the formula for success. Competitors tried, but none could match the appeal of the Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager, and Chrysler Town & Country.