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IACOCCA AND CHRYSLER GOT IT RIGHT WITH THE VOYAGER, CARAVAN TWINS

SHARE IACOCCA AND CHRYSLER GOT IT RIGHT WITH THE VOYAGER, CARAVAN TWINS

Lee Iacocca has packed up his golden parachute and retired as chairman of Chrysler Corp. - perhaps to re-emerge as boss of TWA or some other troubled company, thus adding to his legend.

Or maybe he'll just sit out on the front porch and drink Wild Turkey, smoke those big black cigars he favors and dictate more memoirs to his ghostwriter.Either way, his impact on the domestic auto industry is safe in the history books, including his "fathering" of the Ford Mustang, his "saving" Chrysler in the early 1980s, his "re-invention" of the domestic convertible, and, perhaps his most lasting contribution of all, his "creation" of the minivan.

I put those accomplishments in quotes because for every person who believes Iacocca is a giant of the industry, there is another who thinks he was just in the right place at the right time and has a special talent for taking credit for other people's work.

Whatever, all those things happened on Iacocca's watch and if they had been failures he would have taken the blame, so it's only fair that he get the credit for their success.

Especially the minivan. The Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan minivan line that Chrysler introduced to an eager marketplace in late 1983 is probably the company's greatest achievement while Lido was at the helm.

It wasn't Toyota or Nissan that came up with an entirely new form of family transit, nor was it GM or Ford. True, those companies and more have introduced minis of their own since 1983, but the Chrysler twins continue to lead the sales charts, a remarkable achievement considering that competitors have had 10 years to take their best shots.

That's not to say that the Chrysler minis are absolutely the best minivans - thousands of buyers of Toyota Previas, Ford Aerostars and Mazda MPVs, to name just three, obviously believe otherwise. But in the only election that counts, a majority of the minivan buyers - more than 3 million of them - have voted with their checkbooks for Voyager/Caravan.

Chrysler got it right - or right enough - the first time, and the Caravan and Voyager have regularly generated about 40 percent of the company's profits while holding the No. 1 and 2 spots, respectively, in the "small wagon" segment. (Probably a misnomer today since minivans have all but buried station wagons.)

I evaluated a '92 Dodge Caravan on these pages in December, 1991, and the new '93 Plymouth Voyager I've been driving this past week isn't changed all that much from the Dodge. The few changes for '93 include a new sport suspension that, when combined with the heavy-duty suspension system increases overall body stiffness by 20 percent.

There's also a new cooling system to keep the Voyager off the boil on hills or when pulling a heavy boat or trailer. Then there's a tilt feature for the optional second row bucket (or quad) seat near the sliding door that allows easier access to the back seat.

Other new features include a mechanism that makes the sliding door easier to close and, for the Green Generation of the '90s, there is a change in the air conditioning refrigerant from Freon to something more environmentally friendly called R134A.

Perhaps the most useful addition to the Voyager over the Caravan I drove a year ago - at least for those who have young children, and most minivan buyers do - is the new $200 child seat option. Two child seats are integrated into the center seat (directly behind the driver) which accommodate kids from 20 pounds to 40 pounds with a five-point belt system.

Unlike aftermarket child seats, these are invisible when not needed. Only a couple of discreet pull-down rings suggest there is anything there, so neatly are they integrated into the seat back when they are in the "up" or closed position. A pull of the ring and they pop down for use. Very slick.

I said above that Chrysler got it right the first time and it did, but that doesn't mean the company has let it go at that. The Caravan/Voyager twins were completely redone for the 1991 model year.

Virtually everything inside is new - the only sheet metal carried over from pre-1991 models was the roof - but owners of older models won't have any trouble recognizing the newer ones. Major exterior changes are wraparound headlights, a new grille and a more rounded rear hatch lid. Chrysler wisely opted for evolution, not revolution.

The "wildberry" (a dark red) Voyager LE I've been driving this week was equipped with the top-of-the-line 3.3 liter MPI V6 (a 2.5 liter and 3.0 liter are standard with lesser models). Since not too many people are into drag racing with junior and sis on board, this powerplant is more than adequate for a minivan.

Base price was $20,703, but the $1,476 Customer Preferred Options package of power windows and driver's seat, and a very good Infinity-speakered stereo with CD player (more and more of the cars I test, including the Voyager, have had a CD but no cassette player), along with the $239 sport handling group, the $599 anti-lock brakes, the $200 child seats, the $198 4-speed automatic transmission, the $102 engine upgrade and a few other items pushed the bottom line to $23,227.

If that sounds like an absolute ton of money for something that isn't imported from Germany, I hear you. But the truth is that very few of the cars I'm testing these days have sub-$20,000 stickers.

The Voyager's gas mileage is rated at 18/23 mpg, which sounds about right because I got a little over 20 mpg in combined city/highway driving.

My nitpick notes tell me that on my first day of driving the Voyager I had a hard time getting comfy in the driver's seat. It seemed a bit high, tight and skimpy on thigh support. As is often the case, though, I got used to the seat over the next couple of days and gave it no further thought.

My notes also remind me that the oversized horn buttons, located in the two "thumb" positions on the steering wheel, kept getting in the way of my thumbs. More than once I inadvertently honked the horn, drawing glares, obscene gestures and, for all I know, muttered death threats from my fellow motorists.

This was probably my fault, but I believe motor vehicles should be designed to protect the driver from his own klutziness. Why can't they just put the horn button back in the middle of the wheel where it belongs?

Or, better yet, how about a nice chrome horn ring like the one on my old '49 Ford. I didn't have to fumble around to find it and it didn't get in the way of my thumbs. (On second thought, maybe that's a little too '50s. But I would still like to see it on the center hub. Geo has shown that it can be done even with an air bag in the hub.)

My final nitpick note is that if you go shopping for a Plymouth Voyager you may also want to take a look at the Grand Voyager, the stretched version that affords more space behind the rear seat than the standard model, which has room for only a few grocery bags in what passes for its "trunk."

In a car built to carry seven people, you may want more room for all the things they carry with them, and the Grand Voyager has 15 inches of additional space between the back of the rear seat and the rear hatch door. I suspect you would be glad you had them if you regularly carry a lot of people and a lot of gear.