PEOPLE GAVE ME funny looks when I pulled up to red lights in what looked like only the middle chunk of your standard- sized van. They were right: Something had been left out of Dodge's new minivan -- all the extra hulk I never wanted.
On second look, the gawkers always broke into the kind of affectionate smile we reserve for cute babies and expectant pandas. Again, they weren't wrong: The Dodge Caravan is Chrysler's baby van, and it coddles passengers the way a mother would a new child.
The good news in leisure transportation this past year has been the rise of the minivan. Chrysler started the fun with its introduction of the snub-nosed, aerosleek Dodge Caravan and its identical twin, the Plymouth Voyager. Toyota soon followed suit with a wedge-faced skywalker model immodestly touted as Wonder Wagon. Ford and General Motors have similar models on the assembly lines for introduction early this year.
The new vans fall smack into an empty space between your full-sized van and the family suburban station wagon. It is a market niche no one ever addressed until Lee Iacocca, the chairman of Chrysler, was looking for something new to be remembered by. It was Iacocca, you'll recall, who made automotive history with the creation of the Ford Mustang a quarter-century ago. Most experts think he has done it again with his American-built mini-van, which has become so popular that you must order one and then wait. This may be Iacocca's final salute to those who said Chrysler was dead.
Toyota heard about Detroit's better idea and could easily enter the competition, since small is normal in Japan. Its van was already on sale there.
Meanwhile Volkswagen, granddaddy of the leisure family van, maintained the baseline for everyone else with a tricked-out version of its old reliable "bus." It is called the Wolfsburg Limited Edition -- a standard Vanagon with corduroy seat covers, power steering, a fold- down seat that makes into a double bed and mosquito netting all around.
The minivans are spacious boxes that carry more than a station wagon but can still fit into the family garage. They all provide the luxurious seating of a long-haul camper and the all-around visibility of a crystal ball. Some have low, easy-access floorboards, high-tech dash panels and central locking. The Toyota van even offers an optional electric drink cooler/ice maker beside the front seat. All bridge the traditional gap between urban transportation and travel wagons. For this article, I drove a Dodge Caravan, the Toyota Van and the Volkswagen Vanagon.
The new Chrysler product is a thing to behold. Even if you've handled vehicles from sports cars to school buses, this is a new driving experience. The Caravan's front- wheel drive provides a peppy and very comfortable rie, since the passenger compartment is all located behind the front axle -- just like a passenger car. The front seats are padded armchairs low enough that one simply slides into them without the traditional step up -- still necessary on the VW Vanagon. With its 2.2-liter transverse engine, the Caravan drives and handles like a dream, though it loses power on long hills at highway speed (the optional 2.6-liter Mitsubishi engine is said to overcome this).
Best of all, the Caravan parks like a car and, with its exceptionally low five-foot, four-inch roof, will fit into any parking garage, even though vans are usually banned. When the parking attendant objects, just say (as I did), "It's not a van. It's a minivan." Then watch him grin and nod.
The Caravan's single weakness is its cargo space. It requires the rather cumbersome removal of the third seat to create a decent rear deck, and even then it is less commodious than Toyota's or Volkswagen's.
The Toyota is the sports car of the minivans. Like a sports car it has very responsive handling -- and very stiff suspension, making for a bumpy and noisy ride. The Toyota is the van of the future as far as electronic features are concerned: a dash console you can dine on, optional double sun roofs, central locking and outstanding stereo sound. In the Toyota, you know you're driving a Japanese van. Its high-hat silhouette (five feet, ten inches tall but only 66 inches wide) creates a long and narrow cargo capacity that I found more useful than the Caravan's. The Toyota's rear hatch door was easy to operate, and removing the third seat was less difficult than in the Caravan.
Driving the VW Vanagon proves that the more things change, the more they stay the same. If God gave us the Japanese to teach us something new, he made Germans to remind us of how to stick with a good thing. The Vanagon is Teutonic-solid, built like a brick and as reliable as beer from Munich. The updated model is a very far cry from the VW camper I drove in Europe two decades ago. Its new liquid- cooled "Wasserboxer" engine has finally overcome this van's traditional power weakness. More than the Dodge and Toyota, it drove like a torquey machine that meant business. Not quick on the uptake, but strong in the rest of the power band.
The Vanagon is clearly the cargo winner. It carries seven people plus a large cargo deck. The third seat need not -- in fact, will not -- come out. Instead, it folds down to form a platform large enough for a full-sized refrigerator (that's what I carried home in it). In the Wolfsburg Limited Edition, this becomes a well- padded double bed or lazy-man's lounge (where my son read two books on one 500-mile drive).
The down side is that the Vanagon hasn't learned much ergonomics from the Japanese or, for that matter, from the Americans. The instrument console is hard to read at a glance. The large right-side mirror should be convex, not flat. The dash panel hasn't a single level space anywhere to rest a book or a beverage -- a dinosaur of modern design. Worse, at six feet, five inches high, the Vanagon is not allowed into most parking garages, making it a liability in the city. But in the suburbs and the countryside, it is still a no- frills master of what it does.
Final choices are difficult, but I would say it's the Dodge for comfort, the Toyota for fun and the Volkswagen for hauling. Enjoy.
Peter Ross Range last wrote for Weekend on the new scooters.