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SEE ALSO: Dodge Buyer's Guide

The recently-introduced second-generation Chrysler Corporation minivans benefit from a dozen years of minivan experience to make them versatile family vehicles. They are a little bigger, rounder, and more stylish than the originals on the outside. Inside is increased useful space with easy accessibility, particularly with the innovative optional left-side sliding passenger door. Evolution, innovation, and experience have worked together to keep the newest Chrysler minivans class leaders.

The 1996 Chrysler minivan line is the broadest offered by any manufacturer. Sold in the U. S. under Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan, and Chrysler Town & Country nameplates, they were developed over a two and one half year period of time at a cost of $ 2.6 billion. Both long and short wheelbase versions are available. These vehicles are designed for world-wide use and are being built in three countries on two continents. They are powered by a variety of inline four-cylinder and V6 engines, and feature automatic transmissions exclusively in the American market.

We tested the short-wheelbase Plymouth Voyager a while ago. This week we report on the long-wheelbase, fully equipped Dodge Grand Caravan LE.

APPEARANCE: From first sight the clean design of the latest Grand Caravan LE is quite apparent. The Dodge trademark four-section grille bisects its wide curved and wraparound headlights. Below the bumper is a wide air intake with low driving lights on either side. Its monochrome paint finish is set-off by gray plastic cladding below the side rub strips, and provides a two-tone effect. The short steep hood melds into the wide, sweeping windshield and the truck-size side mirrors. Both the body sides and tinted glass are well rounded, while the privacy glass presents a pillarless side view. This five-door minivan has easy access through the wide-opening side sliding doors, the large front doors and the large and well-balanced rear hatch. Five-spoke alloy wheels brighten up each side.

COMFORT: The LE is the top-of-the-line Caravan, and as such is fitted with a lot of features that make a trip to the market or across the country very comfortable. With its 2-2-3 seating layout, plus the easy-to-remove rear seats, it offers a variety of cargo handling and passenger hauling arrangements. The drivers' seat is power adjustable, while the front passenger has a large lockable storage box under the seat. The cabin is equipped with dual temperature controls, plus overhead outlets for even air distribution. Other amenities include tilt steering wheel with cruise controls on it, remote keyless entry, integrated child seating for the rear seats, rear hatch defogger with washer/wiper, and an overhead console displaying outside temperature and compass direction. The 10 speaker AM/FM/cassette system is easy to set and tune and delivers high quality sound throughout the cabin. Cup holders and storage boxes are located almost everywhere.

SAFETY: Standard safety equipment on the 1996 Caravan includes dual front airbags, adjustable- height front and second-row shoulder harnesses, side door beams on front and rear doors for impact absorption, a front crumple zone, a collapsible steering column, 4-wheel antilock brakes, and child safety locks on the sliding doors. Built-in child safety seats are optional.

ROADABILITY: There is no "truck" feel when driving or riding in the Grand Caravan. This should come as no surprise. There is no truck in the Caravan's ancestry. For 1996, the chassis has been extensively redesigned for increased rigidity and decreased noise and vibration. It provides a stable platform for the independent front/beam axle rear suspension. The ride is soft but controlled and varies little with changing loads. The new Caravan has a smaller turning circle for better maneuverability in tight situations and when parking. Visibility is very good, and wind and road noise are quite low.

PERFORMANCE: Our Grand Caravan was equipped with the top-of-the-line 3.8-liter overhead valve V6 engine. This engine produces 166 horsepower and 227 lb-ft of torque and has received many enhancements to increase performance and fuel economy and decrease maintenance. The major service interval is now 100,000 miles. The engine is matched with the 41TE four-speed automatic transmission, the only minivan transmission currently available with sophisticated adaptive electronic and hydraulic controls for smoother shifting. This smooth powertrain helps the Grand Caravan perform all minivan activities well.

CONCLUSIONS: Early leaders can sometimes fall behind when competition increases. With the improvements to the 1996 Dodge Caravan, it should stay a step ahead of the competition.


       Base Price             $ 23,680   
       Price As Tested        $ 26,750
       Engine Type            V-6, ohv - 12v, smpfi*
       Engine Size            3.8 liter/231 cid   
       Horsepower             166 @ 4300
       Torque (lb/ft)         227 @ 3100
       Wheelbase/Length       119"/200"
       Transmission           four speed electronic automatic w/od
       Curb Weight            3950 lbs.
       Pounds per Horsepower  23.8
       Fuel Capacity          20.0 gal.
       Fuel Requirement       Unleaded regular (87 oct)
       Tires                  Michelin MX4 P215/65R 16 m+s
       Brakes                 vented disc/drum, ABS standard
       Drive Train            transverse front engine/front wheel drive
       Trailer Capacity (lbs) 2000
       * -- smpfi sequential multiport fuel injection
       EPA Economy - miles per gallon
         city/highway/observed     17/24/20.3     
       0 to 60 mph                 10.4 sec.
       1/4 mi (E.T.)               18.0 sec.
       Coefficient of Drag  (Cd)   0.35