VMR Canada

1992-1995 Chrysler Mini-Vans
A Revolution on Wheels

Note: this article first appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of Used Cars.

You can count on one hand the number of cars that have had as much influence on the U.S. automobile market as the Chrysler minivan. Not only did it change the everyday transportation mode of American families, it saved Chrysler as an independent automaker.

The concept was simple: A box on wheels that maximized usable space and felt and drove like a car. Volkswagen had first approached the concept with its Microbus, but is was too small and underpowered to gain wide acceptance in America. The sixties also brought the introduction of a Corvair-based van from Chevy and a small Falcon-based van from Ford.  Of the two, the Corvair came closest to the minivan concept, being based on the innovative compact car of the same name. But it was still underpowered and all Corvairs were under attack from Ralph Nader for supposedly "dangerous" handling characteristics. Besides, America in the sixties was into big, flashy and fast, so even if the perfect minivan had been introduced, it's doubtful whether it would've gone anywhere.

In the late seventies, Ford toyed with a car-like and garage-able minivan, but ultimately it never went beyond the concept stage. That's one they'd like to have back!

So that left Chrysler (and Renault in Europe) to introduce the now ubiquitous minivan. Subsequently Ford and Chevy introduced their response, the Aerostar and the Astro, but they were truck-based, rear-wheel drive and off the mark. The Japanese at first ignored the segment and then imported a variety of models, all of which missed the target as well.

GM tried again in 1990, but their vans were too radically styled and just bizarre enough to never mount a serious threat. Incredibly, it wasn't until the nicely done 1992 Mercury Villager/Nissan Quest twins that anyone copied Chrysler's winning formula. That's eight years with virtually the entire segment to themselves, an unheard of amount of time in the ultra-competitive automotive industry. Chrysler exploited this to the maximum, using clever marketing campaigns, introducing an upmarket version in 1990, the Chrysler -badged Town & Country and cultivating high levels of owner loyalty that led to repeat business.

Then came the Ford Windstar, which in many ways equaled the Chrysler trio and sold extremely well. And others were readying new models.

Just as Chrysler appeared vulnerable, it introduced the current generation minivan (1996 models), which simply outclassed every other effort out there. It rides quietly, steers better than many cars and offers class-leading packaging and an incredible array of thoughtful touches.

A year later, GM introduced its very competitive minivans, the Chevy Venture, Pontiac Transport and the Oldsmobile Silhouette. For 1998, Toyota abandoned its answer to the question nobody asked, the Previa, and introduced the capable Chrysler clone, the Sienna.

Just as all these new models are flooding the market, the minivan segment as a whole is beginning to soften. This is mostly due to the latest phenomena, the sport utility vehicle. So all these new competitors will have to battle for a piece of a shrinking pie. Despite a shrinking market and new competition, as of this article's publication Chrysler still owns this segment with an over 50% market share. In less than two years, Chrysler promises to raise the bar again with an all-new third generation minivan.

What's Available

For the purposes of this review, we're going to focus on the 1992-1995 models. These were refined but basically carryover models with new styling. They sold in large numbers so there is a plentiful supply on the used market.

As before, three models were offered. Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country. Aside from trim and some option availability the Plymouth and Dodge versions are identical and were available in standard and "Grand" (stretched) form. The Chrysler Town & Country was available only in the stretched version and is outfitted like a luxury car.

Trim levels for the Dodge and Plymouth include Base, SE and LE. Top of the line models were identified as ES for Dodge and LX for Plymouth. The option list continued to increase, offering consumers a myriad of choices. Three engines were available. A 2.5 liter four cylinder was the base motor on the standard wheelbase Base and SE models and was unavailable anywhere else. The Base extended models (Grand) and standard wheelbase LE and LX models received a 3.0 liter Mitsubishi-built V6. All others, include the all-wheel drive models, received a Chrysler-built 3.3 liter V6. A five speed manual transmission could be had only on the standard wheelbase Base model, otherwise you got a 3-speed or 4-speed overdrive automatic. These powertrain selections remained constant through the 1995 models except for the introduction of a 3.8 liter Chrysler-built V6 in 1994, which was available only on the Grand versions and standard equipment for the Town & Country.

Exterior Design

Styling is not what attracts people to minivans. Utility rules. With these vehicles, form truly follows function. With the Caravan and Voyager, you really don't gain much in the way of exterior distinctiveness by moving up through the trim levels. A little extra trim and fancier wheels are present on the up-market LE, ES and LX, and monochrome and two-tone paint schemes were offered to bring some character to the party, and but it is hard to do much with a box on wheels. Of course, with the Town & Country you get the works: alloys, paint stripes, distinctive grille, special paint, etc.

Fit and finish are average. Chrysler set no build quality standards with these vans, but you don't have to worry about things falling off either.

Interior Design

Chrysler's minivans have always been about being car-like and in the interior this is most noticeable. Other than sitting higher and further forward, you'd swear you were in a car.

The controls and layout of the dash are good, offering an easy to see "information center" readout along the top with all sorts of warning lights. A full set of well placed gauges, including a tachometer, greets you on the LE, ES, and LX models. Others make do with a speedometer and temperature and fuel gauges, although the gauge package is available on SE models at extra cost.

Cupholders, assist straps, locking drawers abound, adding to the usability of these vehicles. A glaring omission, in our opinion, is the lack of reading lights for the rear passengers. Anyone with kids can understand the desirablity of those!

A driver air bag was standard on all '92 and '93 models; dual airbags for '94 and '95. The dashboard was slightly re-designed for 1994.

In minivans, seating configuration can vary greatly, accommodating a range of tastes and requirements. Chrysler offered them all, so you can choose between front buckets and two rear bench seats of four bucket seats with a rear bench. The rearmost seat folds down for extra cargo capacity and all seats (except the front buckets) are removable. Although the idea is to give the owner seating versatility, in reality those bench seats are awfully heavy and a pain in the neck to move in and out. You'll probably settle on a configuration and keep it.

Ride/Handling/Performance

Fun to drive and minivan are two words just not heard in the same breath. Minivans are wonderful conveyances of people and cargo, but the driver will get little enjoyment out of the process. Having said that, Chrysler has done a good job of getting the most out of what is a pretty simple suspension system. The ES and LX models even come with stabilizer bars front and rear, 16in alloy wheels and tires and tighter shock calibrations in an effort to bring some semblance of "sportiness" to the driver. Just don't confuse it with Corvette, or a Stratus for that matter.

Acceleration is acceptable with the sixes, pretty anemic and noisy with the four. You can get by with the four if you spend most of your time around town, but we recommend one of the sixes. Besides being more adept at moving the big box around, they do it more smoothly and quietly. The 5-speed manual transmission is just about impossible to find, so you'll most likely end up with one of the automatics. Neither is particularly smooth. The 4-speed is a direct descendant of Chrysler's disastrous "ultradrive" (see side-bar) but apart from the occasional abrupt shift, it appears to be rid of its demons.

Comfort/Noise

Room and comfort for the front seat passengers is good, although lower back support is lacking, at least on the base and SE models we tried. Two middle seat passengers have plenty of room to stretch out and the seatback is adjustable. The rearmost seat in the standard length van simply does not offer enough legroom for anyone over 5'7". If you plan on carrying adults in the rear, you really need the stretched version. do ok as long as they aren't over 6 feet and the front passengers do not have their seats all the way back.

It's difficult to quiet things down in a big box, and road noise is noticeable at 30mph and up. A sound insulation package was available on the SE and standard on the LE and up models and helps somewhat. The six cylinder motors operate unobtrusively, but the four gets buzzy and drones at highway speeds.

Safety

The Chrysler trio received a good safety rating as a result of its performance in government crash tests. Dual airbags became standard in 1994. Previously, only a driver bag was standard, with no passenger option. ABS brakes were optional in all years on SE models and above, standard on the T&C.

Reliability

This is one area Chrysler does not set the benchmark in this class. Not bad, just not at the top of its class. These are very durable machines, however. They take a lot of abuse from kids jumping all over them, slamming doors, spilling drinks and food. They just shrug it all off and keep delivering.

We've had several reports and inquiries about excessive oil consumption by the Mitsibushi-built V6 with over 90,000 miles, so if you are looking at one of those pay close attention and ask questions in that area.

Even though the 4-speed overdrive transmission had supposedly been fixed by the 1992 models, VMR still recommends you pay close attention to the way it operates, and inquire about any repairs. This transmission is not one of Chrysler’s finest efforts, and it mars an otherwise fine product.

All in all, we've talked to countless owners of these vehicles and seldom do we hear of anyone dissatisfied with their performance or utility.

All vans came with a 3yr/36,000 mile transferable factory warranty, so if you are looking at a '95 model there may be some coverage left on the factory warranty.

Service

Despite their endless utility, Chryslers trio are pretty simple vehicles. This makes them relatively easy to service compared to, say, a Previa.

The 2.5 liter 4cylinder and the 3.0 liter V6 engine are overhead cam designs. The 3.0L calls for a maintenance check on its timing belt at 60,000 miles. If not replaced, it should be done at 90,000 miles. The four calls for replacement at 120,000 miles. Both will cost you somewhere between $225 to $350, depending on where you have it done. The procedure on the six is slightly more that the four. The bigger sixes (3.3L and 3.8L) are pushrod designs and do not require this service.

Struts are used only in the front, so you'll save money when those need to be replaced.

Summary

With declining demand for minivans in general, and hundreds of thousands available for sale, now is a good time to get a great deal on a used minivan.

All things considered, Chrysler's lineup for 1992-1995 are not only the best overall vehicles in the minivan segment (for their time), they are also the best overall values -- just be wary of that 4spd transmission.

The transportation revolution they started may be over, but the versatility, efficiency, and economy of these vehicles still can't be beat.

Models to Avoid

There have been a few bumps along the road of minivan domination. VMR recommends that you avoid these models:

1989-90 models with 4-speed overdrive "Ultradrive" automatic transmission

Any model with over 80,000 miles and its original 4-speed automatic transmission.  It's ready to blow, trust us.

1989-90 models with turbocharged 4-cylinder engine

 

Chrysler's Hatch Problem
When the story broke, it was all over the airwaves. Chrysler's vaunted minivans were under investigation for faulty rear hatch latches that popped open during rollovers. Regardless of the merits of the charge (any large opening is susceptible to deformation during a rollover with subsequent latch failure), Chrysler clearly dropped the ball by stonewalling and allowing the negative publicity to mushroom.

Although there has been no determination that a safety defect exists with the minivan latches. Chrysler will replace, free of charge, the latch with a stronger design. Call Chrysler at 1-800-MINIVAN.

 

SAFETY RECALLS

1992 All models - The brake pedal pad attachment to the pedal arm may not have adequate strength due to mislocation of welds, and could break. Failure of the pedal pad to pedal arm attachment results in loss of braking ability, and could result in an accident. Replace brake pedals with new unit if necessary.

1991-92 All models - The steering wheel armature stamping can crack and separate from the center hub attachment to the steering column, causing possible loss of control. Dealer will inspect steering wheel for armature cracks in the center hub attachment area. Any steering wheels showing cracks will be replaced.

1992 All models - The zinc plating operation performed on the upper steering column shaft coupling bolt caused hydrogen embrittlement and breakage of the bolt. Dealer will replace the zinc plated bolt with a phosphate plated bolt.

1992 All models - Fuel tank flanges were not bent as required to allow the specified clearance for the fuel tank mounting straps and fuel lines at the tank, causing damage to the mounting straps and fuel lines at the tank. The damaged straps may break, causing the tank to drop and fuel lines to break. Dealer will repair the flange by bending to the correct angle and replace any damaged fuel lines or mounting straps.

1992 All models - The bolts used to attach the strut to the body and the rear lift gate can accumulate fatigue damage due to a bolt being loose, the gas strut is over-pressurized, and the frequency of opening and closing cycles is high. Have dealer inspect the assembly and make appropriate repairs.

1992-93 All models - Covers on the solid stalk mounted seat belt buckles can become dislodged causing the release button to stick inside the cover, allowing only partial latching of the seat belt. Contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403 for information.

1992-93 All models - The center rear seat, right outboard side, safety belt anchor hook can become unattached from the body anchor position. In the event of a crash, the occupant may not be properly restrained. Contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403 for information.

1992-93 All models - The ABS hydraulic control unit can experience excessive brake actuatior piston seal wear causing possible loss of ABS function. Contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403 for information.

1993 All models - Fifteen inch wheels may have a malformed lug nut seat configuration which causes poor nut to wheel contact and centering of the wheel, possibly causing loss of the wheel. Dealer will replace wheels with the malformed configuration.

 

 

(c) Copyright 1998-2001 VMR International, Inc.

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