The Great Family Van Derby

The first week in April is usually early to start the picnic season in Michigan.

But when four adults and nine kids bundled up on a recent Saturday to dine alfresco in Independence Oaks Park north of Detroit, we had more on our minds than turkey sandwiches and potato salad. The journey was as important as the destination: We were putting the top three new minivan models--the Dodge Grand Caravan, Ford Windstar, and Honda Odyssey--to the test.

Because each is slightly different in styling and features, choosing the "best" minivan is largely a matter of personal taste. To gauge their appeal, BUSINESS WEEK arranged for three families to take the vans on a half-day outing. Parents, all minivan veterans, would take turns driving. In general, our group was unanimous in its praise for two things: pretzels and four doors. Unlike traditional three-door minivans, the Dodge and the Honda have rear doors on both sides, a convenience everyone could appreciate. More about that later.

WARM WIPERS. The Dodge Grand Caravan SE we tested was an all-new version of the Chrysler models that launched the minivan segment way back in 1983, while the Windstar and Odyssey were introduced last year. The "Grand" in Grand Caravan identifies its extended 200-inch overall length, the largest Chrysler makes. The Windstar is about the same size and, like the Dodge, has a V-6. The four-cylinder Odyssey is noticeably smaller at 187 inches long. It's also shorter: 65 inches vs. 68 for the other two. The Odyssey doesn't offer a V-6.

Our Dodge was loaded with every feature imaginable, at a sticker price of $21,890. The rear sliding door on the driver's side is a $450 option. A $230 feature we liked was a defroster made up of three lines of wire near the base of the front windshield to free the wipers should they freeze up.

Our Odyssey LX came with four standard carlike swing-open doors. This model, priced at $24,020, also has captain's seats in the middle row. They keep the kids apart but reduce the seating to six instead of the usual seven. Our weekend Windstar GL was something of an anomaly for a review car: a bare-bones model. Certainly, the Windstar can come with power everything. But Ford, for whatever reason, sent us their base model, with crank windows and no rear defroster. No matter: It shows how much you get in a minivan even without the doodads--and how hard it is to find a new one under $20,000. With a scant $1,000 in options, including air-conditioning and floor mats, ours carried a $20,875 sticker. Prices include destination charges but exclude title and taxes.

The Windstar is only available with the three-door layout that most minivan owners know: two front doors and one sliding rear passenger-side door. This layout has distinct disadvantages. "With just one way in on the side, the kids all charge into each other" as they climb aboard, said Andrew Keys, a single dad of three who traded in his aging Ford Aerostar minivan last month for an economical Ford Escort station wagon. Moreover, "you'd be amazed what collects beside the seat behind the driver. If you could just get to it, you could clean out that space."

Despite the consensus about four doors, Chrysler's setup did not win raves. Marianne Perraut preferred Honda's swing-open doors "because it's harder for my kids to manage the sliding doors." Marianne usually drives her two children in a Plymouth Grand Voyager. The day of our outing, they were joined by two cousins and a friend.

"A LITTLE PLASTIC." Kathryn Treece, my wife, is the main driver of our Mercury Villager. It is midway in size between the Odyssey and Windstar--about right for us and our son. She had trouble adjusting to the Dodge's door handles, which must be pulled to "unlatch" an epen door before it will slide shut. Nonetheless, she preferred sliding doors to swing-open ones. With sliding doors, she noted, "if you've got another car in the garage, you're not always bumping up against it. Same thing in a parking lot."

At the picnic, the kids would taste a soft drink, put it down, and try another. Likewise, we kept trying out the minivans--and disagreeing on our tastes. Andrew liked the Dodge best overall: "If anything, it was too smooth. I kept finding my speed creeping up." For Kathryn, the Windstar had the best acceleration and most sensitive brakes, while the Grand Caravan felt "the heaviest."

Marianne was comfortable in the Honda and Dodge, less so in the Ford, which to her felt "just a little plastic." She enjoyed driving the Odyssey the most but added, "I'd never buy it," since the others offered the extra seat and more space in the back. Behind the rear seat, the Odyssey has a storage well, but Kathryn dismissed it as "narrow and small."

I agree. In theory, the Odyssey offers extra space, because the rear seat folds down flat into the floor. In practice, that only works with four passengers or fewer. Opting for the standard middle bench seat for three, instead of the two captain's seats, only compounds the problem. The bench makes for a two-three-two seating arrangement. To get to the rear, you fold the back of the middle qeat forward, then tilt the entire seat up. Sound complicated? It is--so kids just climb over the half-folded seat in their rush to get out. On an earlier test drive of the seven-passenger Odyssey, with the three-person middle seat, I found the rear seat almost unusable.

CLOSE CALL. In testing controls and switches, I disliked the cramped buttons on the Caravan's cruise control. Andrew faulted the small radio controls on the Honda. Both he and Marianne noticed less acceleration in the Odyssey than in the V-6s, although I thought the Honda had sufficient power. Otherwise, said Andrew, "I was struck by how basically similar all three are. They're all smooth-riding, all similar in size, and all have the same feel on the road."

None of our group had complaints about road manners. In their ride and handling, all three vans were relatively car-like, given their substantial size. The fact that none of them emerged as the undisputed winner is a sign of how close the competition is these days. The key differences seem to be number of doors, engines, and seating arrangements, followed by the option lists.

Finally, interior noise on these three has been reduced considerably compared to prior minivans. This can be a big help when the driver and someone in the rear seat are trying to hold a conversation. On the other hand, it can be an unfortunate improvement when road-weary children launch into their umpteenth verse of This is the song that never ends.


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