(first posted 5/19/2013) Now before I go any further, I must confess something to you: I have a thing for minivans. For as long as I could say “Volkswagen Buggy” or “Ferrari”, I could also say “Dodge Caravan” and “Plymouth Voyager”. As a kid, minivans were cool. Today? Well, I’d rather stick to my memories of them.
Minivans were truly a unique type of vehicle twenty years ago. There were no crossovers. The only other large, high-riding vehicles were truck-based SUVs. And nothing could match the minivan’s configure-ability. They offered features just not found in other vehicles back then. Third-row seats, individual second-row buckets, rear climate control, and sliding doors! Three out of four of those can now be found on just about every SUV and crossover today, but to a young child, experiencing these for the first time was a real excitement.
So it’s no secret that I wanted one. I tried to convince my grandfather, but he stuck to his Oldsmobiles. Then I begged my mom. She wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan though, and as I grew older, neither would I. That’s right, I do not want to drive or own a minivan. It’s more of a fantasy, not something I want as part of my real life.
Now just like a twenty-year-old is only into girls around his own age, my interest in minivans has only to do with ones that were new around the time of my childhood. And it’s mainly for Chrysler minivans.
Looking back, the thing I like most about these Chrysler minivans was their ability to have so many personalities. From the basic no-frills base Caravans and Voyagers, to the boy racer Caravan ES, rugged Sport Wagon trim, and ritzy Town & Country that could even be had with the throwback wood grain siding. Now as you Chrysler people know, I’m referring to the 2nd generation 1991-1995 minivans.
These are the first minivans I remember seeing as a kid. They are also the first minivan I remember riding in (a ’94 or ’95 Voyager). These are the cars that taught me about badge engineering. I thought it was pretty cool back then, now I know better. They weren’t that bad looking either, at least in my opinion. I mean look at their competition.
On one end you had the RWD, truck-based monsters: the Ford Aerostar, GM’s Astro/Safari, and the spaceship Toyota Previa. Its front-wheel drive competitors were the infamous Dustbuster minivans from GM and the smallish Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager twins.
Towards the end of its lifecycle, Ford finally released the more competitive Windstar. But Chrysler would not be outshone nor outsold in the segment it created…
Enter the 1996 Chrysler minivans: Dodge Caravan/Grand Caravan, Plymouth Voyager/Grand Voyager, and Chrysler Town & Country. Gone were any remnants of the K-cars. Styling was fresh, sleek, and stylish in every form. I will go so far as to say that I think these are the best-looking minivans ever produced.
1996 brought a host of innovations, none more notable than a driver’s side sliding door. It always seems odd to me that it took decades for a carmaker to build any sort of van with a driver’s side sliding door. Needless to say, dual sliding doors were a huge selling point for these cars. Now, the five rear passengers didn’t have to wait (or fight each other) to get out through one door. Rear seats could be rolled out on their very own tiny wheels. With the choice of either intermediate bench or Quad Command buckets, seating arrangements could be configured for any situation. ’96s were also airier, as the greenhouse was 30% greater than ’95s.
With the exception of Caravan Sport and ES models, and all Town & Countries, these new minivans all came with gray bumpers and side moldings. It looked quite distinguished and provided a nice two-tone effect. As an added bonus, the gray plastic bumpers were less susceptible to scuffs and dents and thus held up better over time.
LE models were given gray lower body cladding, giving these vans a true two-tone appearance. These rather rare models were the best looking trim in this minivan connoisseur’s opinion.
Unfortunately, the Plymouth Voyager, my favorite, was not available in LE trim in the U.S. For some odd reason, it was in Canada. I didn’t believe this until I purchased a 1996 Canadian-spec Voyager brochure, where it was in fact included. Maybe more Canadians wanted leather seats and fancy alloys, but didn’t want to flaunt their luxury in a gold-trimmed Town & Country.
The rest of us Americans were left with the choice of Voyager in either plain or SE trim. But have no fear, (now quoting the 1996 U.S. brochure) “For a distinctive styling flair that’s paired with high-value equipment, choose the optional Rallye package. It’s the perfect way to showcase Voyager’s fun personality”. Fun personality? As a marketing major, I can only applaud the clever use of attaching this adjective to something so subjective. They could have easily said “fun to drive”, but that wouldn’t be fooling anyone.
So precisely what was all this styling flair and high-value equipment? Little more than features otherwise optional: 15-inch 10-spoke cast aluminum wheels, tinted windows, silver paint stripes surrounding the windows, body-color grille and door handles, and special badging so everyone knew you were driving a Rallye Voyager. Due to its $1,000+ MSRP over regular Voyager SEs, I assume opting for the Rallye décor package also included other packages such as lighting, climate, etc.
For ’97 the Rallye’s availability was expanded to Grand Voyager SEs. These models also now included the upgraded luxury cloth and low-back front buckets found in LEs and base Town & Countries. The writing font used on those super special Rallye badges spread throughout the Plymouth lineup and would be used for all Plymouth badging until the end. This would be the swansong of the Voyager Rallye, as this décor package would be renamed “Expresso” for ’98.
I drive by this ’97 Voyager SE Rallye often on my way to the gym. It’s always sitting in this playground parking lot. I assume the owner lives in a nearby home and doesn’t have enough driveway space. The Voyager changes directions often, so it must still be a daily driver. The lower body rust, though minimal, was a surprise to me. Most Chrysler vans from this period have actually seemed to ward off rust despite 15+ New England winters.
Moving around to the rear, there’s a considerable dent that too has begun to rust. The rest of the minivan was pretty normal for a 16-year-old vehicle. From the pictures, you will notice that the front grille badge has fallen off. I doubt anyone would want to steal a plastic Plymouth grille badge like they would a Mercedes hood ornament.
Between the three, I always preferred the Voyager’s styling touches the best. I’ve never been a fan of Dodge’s crosshair grille. And as seen on higher trim models, spoilers and mesh grille inserts don’t look nearly as good on a minivan as they would on a sedan or coupe.
The Town & Country started off okay, with its traditional waterfall grille and gold wheels, but went too over the top for ’98 with its enlarged main grille, large lower air intake, two mini air intakes, oversized fog lights, and the addition of separate running light strips, for a total of six separate headlights.
Meanwhile, stylists over at Plymouth kept it simple. Appealing egg-crate grille, fog light-less bumper, and modern-looking wheel covers. If buyers wanted a sporty, menacing-looking vehicle, they wouldn’t buy a minivan. Slapping “Rallye” badges on a Voyager was an odd move, as a minivan would be the last type of vehicle the word “rallye” would ever invoke. What I can say is that the Voyager’s styling made sense. Fun-loving or not, it fit the Voyager’s personality as a family hauler, with a bit of style.