Van Hunting? Put These On Your Mini List

For eight years, Chrysler's minivans have outclassed the competition. But Mercury and Nissan have narrowed the gap considerably with the stylish new Villager and Quest. These nearly identical twins, assembled by Ford, are the strongest challengers yet to the Chrysler vehicles on features and performance. But they trail on availability and price.

Like Chrysler's Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, the Mercury Villager and Nissan Quest handle superbly--more like a car than a truck. And they surpass the Chrysler minivans by meeting all passenger-car safety requirements, including headrests for all seats and reinforced door beams to protect against side-impact crashes. But the Villager and Quest won't have a driver's air bag until a year from now. On Chrysler vehicles, the air bag is standard.

The real test of a minivan's performance is how well it carts stuff around. If you've ever wrestled out the Caravan's rear seat to load up for a trip, you will be delighted by the Villager's and Quest's versatile seats, which fold down, come out, or slide forward on tracks for at least 14 different seating and cargo configurations. For example, flip down the middle and rear seats to form a table-like flat surface in back.

FEWER DEALS. Neither beats Chrysler on price, but they come fairly close depending on what options you buy. Base-model Caravans can be found with a sticker price of $13,500, but most buyers add options that push the price above $17,000. If you want cruise control and power windows, for instance, the price tag starts at about $18,000 for a Villager and $18,600 for a Quest, not including taxes and destination charges. The pair differs slightly in how the features are packaged. Antilock brakes are standard on the Mercury, an option on the Nissan. And fewer cars mean fewer deals. Mercury will sell only about 70,000 Villagers and Nissan 50,000 Quests a year, against Chrysler's almost 400,000 minivans.

The Mercury/Nissan duo has a few minor annoyances. The lights on the air-conditioning and cruise-control buttons that signal when those features are turned on are so small as to be unnoticeable. And closing the far rear window requires extra effort.

However, these are minor faults on an otherwise fine minivan. Chrysler's vehicles still offer the broadest range of prices and options. But the well-packaged Villager and Quest can be very attractive alternatives.

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