CHRYSLER CHAIRMAN Lee A. Iacocca, America's industrial Caesar, is a bit defensive nowadays. People have been beating him up for losing car market share, chewing him out for not introducing new products fast enough and generally giving him a hard time.
So, Lee -- he told me to call him Lee -- is sort of walking around with his eyes cast over his shoulders, watching out for the next back stab, the latest unkind cut. This column is not one of them. I come to praise Caesar, at least to say a few good words about his excellently restyled 1991 Dodge Caravan ES minivan.
The new Caravan has some flaws, of course. It also has some pretty tough competition from new entries, such as the Toyota Previa, in an increasingly crowded minivan market. But after driving the Previa and a bunch of other minivans, I've got to toss a laurel to the Chrysler gang. They created the minivan market in 1984 with the introduction of their Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan models. That market was theirs to keep or lose. With the 1991 Caravan ES, a nifty piece of work, it looks like they'll keep it.
Background: Fifty-five percent of the 850,000 minivans sold in the United States in 1989 came from Chrysler Corp.; and though all of the figures aren't in for 1990, auto industry analysts speculate that Chrysler will wind up with a similar minivan share. Why? Because despite some fit-and-finish problems and a certain lack of imagination in their interior layout, the Chrysler minivans did a terrific job of filling a variety of family transportation needs easily and reliably.
The new Chrysler minivans, then, are a substantial improvement on the theme. The interiors are downright attractive and practical. Cup holders and box-drink holders are now located throughout the cabin. Seatbelts and shoulder harnesses are exactly where they should be. The instrument panel is a pleasure to look at and a cinch to use. And four-wheel-drive versions of Caravan and Voyager minivans are available.
Praise: Top grades for redesign effort. The tested Caravan ES was equipped to carry seven people. I carried five passengers on a round trip of 600 miles with nary a squabble or complaint about passenger comfort -- not even from the back-seaters. Astounding!
Complaints: I had no transmission problems on my trip. However, there have been some reader complaints about the tendency of their four-speed automatic "Ultradrive" transmissions to "gear hunt" -- arbitrarily shift up and down -- in 1990 and 1991 Chrysler minivans with that optional equipment (standard on the Caravan ES). Chrysler needs to get cracking on this to see if there is a real fire beneath that smoke.
I did have an electrical problem, though -- a blown fuse that crippled the horn.
Head-turning quotient: It was hard to get out of shopping centers in this thing. People kept coming up to the Caravan ES, wanting to peek inside.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Ride was terrific. Ditto handling. Remarkably, the new Caravan ES doesn't sway in the wind the way its predecessor did. Credit a reworked suspension on this front-wheel-drive vehicle. Acceleration was smooth and trouble-free. Credit the fuel-injected, three-liter V-6 engine rated 141 horsepower at 5,000 rpm.
Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with graphic equalizer, four speakers, Chrysler Infinity system. Good road boogie.
Mileage: About 20 to the gallon (20-gallon tank, estimated 390-mile range on usable volume of 87-octane unleaded), mostly highway with six occupants and light cargo.
Price: Base price of the tested front-wheel-drive Caravan ES is $19,140. Dealer's invoice price is $17,023. Price as tested is $19,660, including a $520 transportation charge.
Purse-strings note: A very definite buy that becomes an even better buy at mid-year, when Chrysler makes a driver's-side air bag available as optional equipment.
Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.