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Caravan still king of minivans

Others challenge, but Chrysler line remains on top

SHARE Caravan still king of minivans

I've never been a fan of bumper stickers, vanity plates, license plate brackets proclaiming eternal loyalty to one's alma mater or window stickers memorializing vacations to Disney World or Carlsbad Caverns.

I never even displayed a "Baby On Board" sign back when I had one — a baby on board, I mean.

Considering the times that we live in, I believe in keeping my opinions on politics, abortion, gun control and what I'd "rather be doing," to myself.

But I don't mind that other people use their vehicles for such purposes. What else are you going to do while stuck in traffic if not read bumper stickers?

And being reasonably up on the great issues of our time, I usually understand their message even if I don't agree with it. Except, that is, for a bumper sticker I spied last week on a well-used Toyota Corolla driven by a twentysomething woman. It declared: "Minivans are proof of evil in the world."

Come again? Serial killers are proof of evil in the world. Maybe even "Expect Delays" signs on the freeway. But minivans? Minivans are proof of kids and soccer moms, sure, but evil? The only thing I could come up with is that the woman was making a subtle case for zero population growth.

Whatever, as teen girls like to say. But if minivans are evil, then this week's test ride, a 2000 Dodge Grand Caravan ES, is the most demonic of them all. It was the Caravan, introduced by Chrysler Corp. in the early '80s, that created the segment, one that has been copied ever since, with varying degrees of success, by most of the world's automakers.

The minivan market today is "mature," a word that has nothing to do with the age of the buyers but rather the lack of growth in the segment. The declining sales can be laid to the aging of the baby boomers, the phenomenal success of oversize SUVs (that provide similar seating capacity in a more macho package) and the somewhat tainted image of the minivan — no, not evil, just a bit too bland and wholesome.

Personally, I've never been big on using a car to make a statement on my wealth, status or lifestyle, and so I still find minivans to be remarkably useful conveyances. Sadly, my only personal experience with one was a disaster: a 1987 Mitsubishi Van Wagon that I jettisoned after five months. To paraphrase the ad for V-8 vegetable juice, I coulda hadda Caravan, but even car columnists aren't immune from buyer's remorse.

Compared with the big sport-utes that offer comparable carrying capacity, small vans are easy to drive, don't take up a lot of space in the garage or parking spot, get good fuel mileage and are easy to enter and exit.

As noted above, the Dodge Caravan (and clones Chrysler Town & Country and Plymouth Voyager) is the king of the minivans. After nearly 20 years of trying, the other brands are finally hitting very close to the target (especially the new Honda Odyssey) but the DaimlerChrysler trio still reigns (although the Voyager is being phased out with the Plymouth marque).

I looked back in our archives for the last time I reviewed a Grand Caravan ES and found it to be March 1990. I warned readers back then that, though the Dodge was a great minivan, it "comes at a price," $18,325 base and $21,705 with a host of options.

Welcome to the new millennium and a decade of inflation. This week's tester is based at $29,405 and, after options, and a $1,000 "value plus" discount, the bottom line totaled $30,660.

The options included $200 for "inferno red" paint; $1,320 for an options group that included rear-seat air conditioning, four bucket seats and a three-seat rear bench, and a security alarm; $124 for an integrated child seat; and a $590 destination charge.

That isn't much in the way of options, really, especially for an American car. The standard features on the ES model include an array of items normally reserved for luxury cars, including power windows, mirrors and keyless entry; 8-way power driver's seat; 10-speaker sound system, universal three-key gate/garage opener; 4-speed automatic transmission with Autostick (that converts the transmission to a clutchless manual) and dual sliding doors, once a novety on minivans, now a must.

One feature sure to be a hit with the kids was the factory installed video film system with a screen that pulls down from the headliner and a VHS cassette player neatly mounted in the console between the front seats — a much more user friendly system than the floor-mounted player found in GM minivans. Expect to pay another $1,500 for the in-car movie theater.

But it isn't the gadgetry that makes the Caravan worth the money. It's actually pretty sporty to drive, with surprisingly firm handling and cornering and brisk acceleration from its 180-horsepower, 3.8-liter V6 engine.

If you only have one vehicle in your family, the versatile Caravan would be a good choice. It can haul seven people, the seats roll out to convert it into a cargo van, and you can expect to get 17 mpg in city driving and 24 on the highway, about the same as a near-luxury sedan that seats four and has a smallish trunk.

What's evil about that?

You can reach Max Knudson by e-mail at max@desnews.com">max@desnews.com