1996 Chrysler Minivans Preview: Focus-Group Engineering

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From the February 1995 issue of Car and Driver.

Generation Xers may be too young to recall Chrysler’s roller­coaster ride through the Eighties. Especially now that the No. 3 Amer­ican automaker seems to be going from success to success and leads the Big Three in profits per vehicle. But at both ends of the decade, the company sat per­ilously on the brink.

First there was the brush with bank­ruptcy at the start of the Eighties, when the company’s cash coffers were bare and the banks unwilling to extend loans. Chairman Lee Iacocca saved the day and made his reputation by fast-talking the federal government into guaranteeing loans for a billion-five.

Chrysler paid back the money from profits it made on the 1981 K-car and its numerous derivatives. Unfortunately, over-reliance on aging and inbred K-car descendants brought the company again to its knees late in the decade. By 1988, Chrysler was in the process of remaking itself, but the new line of products was then years away.

One particular K-car derivative—the most successful one—kept the company going through this age of anxiety. It was the minivan, and it was an instant hit when it was invented by Chrysler in 1983. Not too big, not too small, the minivan was easy to park, yet it offered room for passengers to stretch out and move around in ways that a station wagon, which it would virtually replace, never could.

Chrysler’s two main minivans, the Plymouth Voyager and the Dodge Caravan, have for ten years dominated the market, at times grabbing almost half the minivan pie while 11 other competitors shared the other half.

But, as the high-rolling Jim Bakker was chagrined to discover, nothing lasts for­ever. Ever-better entries like the sleek Ford Windstar and the Mercury Villager/Nissan Quest and the new Honda Odyssey could reslice that pie.

Enter now the new 1996 Chrysler mini­van, the first ground-up redesign of the original. Taking no chance with this fam­ily jewel, Chrysler went straight to the world’s foremost minivan experts—cur­rent Chrysler owners. Clinics were held all around the country to evaluate new feature ideas and to listen to gripes, praise, and suggestions from these minivan cogno­scenti in the development of the new fam­ily hauler. Here’s what Chrysler heard and what was done.

Don’t give us a smooth, slick jelly­bean—jellybeans look small, and small isn’t good. Chrysler’s response: a clean, fresh design that lowers the drag coefficient from 0.41 to 0.35, while retaining a familiar two-box design.

In addition to looking big, it should be big. The van’s new interior is more than nine inches wider than before (exterior girth is up just five inches), three or four inches longer (long or short wheelbase), and 0.5 inch taller. As a result, the short minivan has more interior volume than last year’s long van (141 cubic feet), and the new long van can carry a class-leading 166 cubic feet of detritus. The space is also more practical: the rear hatch sill is lower, a full-sized Igloo cooler will now fit behind the rear seat in the short van, and the long van can swallow the requisite four-by-eight drywall with the rear seats folded.

Versatility is king. Make the rear seats easy to move and remove. The weight of those rear seats has been reduced, thanks to light alloy construction. Unlatching the rearmost seat now deploys a set of rollers to facili­tate moving the seat between mounting locations inside the car, or around the garage. It’s not quite as innovative as the Honda Odyssey’s fold-into-the-floor seat or the Villager’s roller-track seat, but those approaches both compromise maximum cargo capacity. The optional buckets not only tilt and slide forward to permit access to the rear seat, but they also return to their previous setting.

Four side doors would make it easier for my elderly relatives to get in and out. But also: A left­-side door opens into traffic and could put my kids in danger. A new left-side sliding door (with a child-protection latch) will be optional.

Make the sliding doors easier to use. Now both sliding doors will ride on ball bearings in tracks that have not been through the paint shop. The track that guides the rear of the door is discreetly hid­den below the rear side windows. Very slick.

It’d be nice to be able to make a U-turn in my own county. An added 3.1 inches of track shaves three feet from the turning­-circle diameter.

There are other improvements. To increase driver comfort, the seat-track travel has been increased 1.2 inches to accommodate 98 percent of the popula­tion, and the seatbelt latch now moves with the seat. The steering wheel has been shifted to line up with the driver (it used to be an inch to the right). The cowl is 4.8 inches lower, the side-window beltline is an inch lower, and the upper edge of the windshield is moved up for a Panavision view of the road. The instrument panel wraps around the driver to put all buttons and switches within easy reach, but there’s still a clear pathway to the rear seats for tending the brood en route. To keep things cool back there, rear air-conditioning vents have been placed along both sides of the roof.

Beneath the skin of this new S-body (NS in insider lingo), very few parts carry over from the current S-body van, the structure of which dates to the 1984 model year. Bumper and cooling requirements increase the overhangs, adding seven to eight inches in length, but weight gain was held to just 110 pounds for the short van and 175 pounds for the long van. The all-­new structure is 70 percent stiffer in tor­sional rigidity, despite being larger and offering a left-side door.

Engine choices will include the new balance-shafted DOHC 2.4-liter four­-cylinder and slightly revised versions of the current crop of V-6s in 3.0-, 3.3-, and 3.8-liter displacements. (Europeans will also get two more four-cylinders: a 2.0-liter and a 2.5-liter turbodiesel.)

The familiar MacPherson-strut front suspension bolts to new upper mounts and an isolated aluminum subframe. The tra­ditional space-saving rigid rear axle is now isolated from the leaf springs, which are themselves isolated from the body.

A short drive in an early prototype indi­cates that great strides have been made in powertrain and road noise isolation in the new S. Power and acceleration are com­petitive but not outstanding relative to the current crop of minivans. Maneuvering in tight quarters is easier thanks to the improved visibility and the smaller turn­ing circle.

Chrysler’s budget for the defense of its ten-year minivan domination was $2.3 billion. Based on our brief experience with the new secret weapon, it looks like that kind of money goes further at the Penta­star than it does at the Pentagon. We’ll find out if it goes far enough when the new minivan hits the streets this spring. Stay tuned to C/D and CNN for reports from the front.



1996 Chrysler Minivans
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front- or all-wheel-drive, 5- or 7-passenger, 4- or 5-door van


DOHC 16-valve 2.4-liter inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, 141 hp, 160 lb-ft; SOHC 3.0-liter 12-valve V-6, iron block and aluminum heads, 148 hp, 172 lb-ft; pushrod 3.3-liter 12-valve V-6, iron block and aluminum heads, 158 hp, 203 lb-ft; pushrod 3.8-liter 12-valve V-6, iron block and aluminum heads, 166 hp, 227 lb-ft 

3- or 4-speed automatic


Wheelbase: 113.3–119.3 in
Length: 186.3–199.6 in
Width: 75.0 in
Height: 68.5 in
Passenger Volume, F/M/R: 58/54–58/46–52 ft3
Cargo Volume, Seats in/out (SWB): 15/141 ft; seats in/out (LWB): 23/166 ft3
>Curb Weight (C/D est): 3400–4150 lb


60 mph: 9.0–12.0 sec
1/4-Mile: 17.0–19.0 sec

City/Highway: 15–20/20–27 mpg 

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