Making a comparison of minivans

IT'S a car, it's a truck, it's whatever you want it to be. But beyond everything else, it's versatile. In short, it's the minivan -- and everyone, it seems, is getting into the act. Pontiac and Chevrolet will unveil a sporty minivan in 1989, while Japan's No. 2 automaker, Nissan, is polishing up a mini people-mover for the United States and Canada, following the example of a rash of competitors from Toyota and Detroit.

A cross between the standard van and a station wagon, the minivan is cruising to higher and higher sales as consumers look for a vehicle that can do a whole lot of things well. Base prices start under $10,000, but run up to $13,000 or $14,000 with some of the popular options.

Bear in mind that while it is likened to a car, the minivan is not a car and therefore does not have to meet the same safety standards as an automobile. Among other things, no front-seat headrests, for example.

Super salesman Lee A. Iacocca, Chrysler's chairman, began the stampede two years ago with the strikingly successful Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. An instant success, the Chrysler-built minivan not only shocked GM and Ford, but is still in the lead.

It has everything -- well, not quite -- that motorists are looking for in this type of vehicle. The company now is working on a small new minivan for the late 1980's.

The front-drive Caravan/Voyager is a lightweight as vans go, highly maneuverable in a pinch, and large enough to carry five, six, or maybe more, plus luggage. It also has a distinctive shape that is really quite good looking, once you've seen a few of them around.

The sliding side door on the minivans unzips the side of the vehicle to make loading and unloading easy. It's like removing the wall of a room.

A derivative of the K-car, the Chrysler minivans fit into the same-size parking space as the K-sedan. Inside the vehicle, however, the space is cavernous -- not as large as the Volkswagen Vanagon, but huge, nonetheless. Also, the K-minivan is more like a car than any of the competitors now on the road.

Wheelbase is 112 inches; length 175.9 inches. It's comfortable to drive and not tiring on a long trip. Engine accessibility is excellent.

What you cannot do with a Caravan is pull a heavy load. Of course, you can't pull a load with the VW Vanagon either. That's where the front-engine, rear-drive Ford Aerostar and Chevrolet Astro shine. If you want to pull a trailer or a boat, just hitch your load to the Astro or Aerostar. The Aerostar will pull up to 5,000 pounds, Ford Motor Company reports.

Meanwhile, to Ford's dismay, the automaker is recalling some 42,000 Aerostars, about 30,000 of them already in buyers' hands, due to a weld-separation problem in the rear end.

While Ford offers a 2.8-liter V-6 on its Aerostar, the base engine is a 2.3-liter, fuel-injected ``4.'' What the Aerostar does is twin the flexibility and passenger features of a station wagon with the toughness, cargo capacity, and towing capability of a truck. Both the Astro and Aerostar are sold as commercial vans as well as people carriers.

The Chevrolet Astro is a downsized image of the full-size GM vans and can pull a hefty load. Its payload is well over a ton and you can get as many as eight people inside with optional seating, according to GM. Standard engine is GM's often-used 2.5-liter, with a new 4.3-liter V-6 as an option. Leaf springs are used in the rear.

GM already is working on a smaller, front-drive minivan which may be more competitive with the Chrysler minivans. Ford also is expected to introduce a front-drive minivan by the early 1990's.

Step-up from the road to the floor of the Chrysler minivan is somewhat less than with today's Ford and GM vans -- an advantage when getting in and out of the vehicle.

Toyota is also after a piece of the bonanza with its mid-engine minivan. The 2-liter engine has sufficient pep for most drivers, headroom is good (even with a sunroof), legroom impressive, and it's easy to park. Built with a long, sloping snout, the Toyota minivan is more noisy than some of its competitors and the ride is not up to snuff except on a smooth road. And then there's that poor access to the engine, even for a simple oil check.

The Dodge Colt Vista wagon, built by Mitsubishi, is also out shopping for minivan buyers, but I have yet to drive one. Nissan, too, has a sharp new wagon, but what makes it a contender in the minivan race are the two sliding doors, one on each side.

What you buy depends to a large extent on what you want your minivan to do. If you want to tow a load, you won't consider the Volkswagen or the Caravan.

The VW ``bus'' is a whole lot of things, most of them good. It simply goes on and on, yet it's noisier than its competition. It also has been adapted into a very nice camping unit for a couple or very small family.

Because of its flexibility and space layout, the minivan could be a major threat to the traditional station wagon with nonsliding doors (except for the Nissan wagon) and limited inside adaptability.

Thomas A. Staudt, general marketing manager for Chevrolet, says that a survey ``suggests that the new, smaller vans and station wagons will be competing for the same buyers.''

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