A Van For All Seasons

Chrysler Corp.'s minivans have become something of an American icon. With 4.5 million on the road, these utilitarian family-haulers are a quintessential part of suburban life. That kind of resounding success is tough to improve on. And, all too often, designers overreach and mess up a good thing in their attempts to do so.

The all-new minivan, though, is nearly as much of a breakthrough as the boxy original that rolled out in 1983. Chrysler's designers and engineers markedly improved the utility of the new vans while at the same time making them sleekly stylish. Most surprising, perhaps, they also were able to capture the road manners of a sedan. Chrysler has "achieved a real coup, pushing the design benchmark even higher," says Charles L. Jones, head of design at Xerox Corp. and an IDEA judge.

Above all, however, minivans exist to haul people and their toys, tools, or materials. As such, the more room they have inside, the more useful they are. Through clever use of space, Chrysler engineers significantly increased the new vans' interior area--by more than 30%--without making them much bigger on the outside. The new short-wheelbase version is roomier inside than the old long-wheelbase model, which is nearly a foot longer. Chrysler achieved this feat by extending the windshield farther forward, pushing the wheels toward the bumpers, and adding a few inches to width and length. The door sills are 1.5 inches lower, making it easier to climb in and out.

Compared with the old vans, the new models make a quantum leap in styling, too. Chrysler designers transformed what had been essentially a box on wheels into a more rounded, pleasing shape. The body's sculpted blend of a carlike front end and cargo rear is deftly executed. The wheels' broad track lend a stable look. The van's new shape has utilitarian pluses, too: The windshield, which is four inches lower, offers better visibility, while smoother lines reduce wind noise and boost fuel efficiency.

Thoughtful details are everywhere. There's an optional sliding door on the left side, so drivers no longer need to run around the car to get kids or gear out of the back. On both doors, designers deftly hid the sliding track in the seam where steel meets window glass. Inside, the rear bench seat has tiny wheels that fold down like airplane landing gear. That makes it easy to roll the seats out the back and across the garage floor to make room for more cargo. Better yet, now a four-by-eight sheet of plywood fits neatly on top of the folded rear seatbacks. You don't have to yank out two rows of seats.

It's hard to successfully rethink a runaway success like the original minivan, but Chrysler has pulled it off. The company has given its customers a whole lot more van--for about the same price. The cheapest Plymouth and Dodge minivans will start at around $16,000 and the most deluxe Chrysler Town & Country will start at $30,000.

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