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Chrysler unveils 'most researched' vehicle in its history

A cross between a van and a station wagon, it seats up to seven, handles and can be equipped like a passenger car, and fits in the family garage. And best of all for Chrysler Corporation, it's here.

The Chrysler minivan, known as the T-115 in its development stage, is a year ahead of General Motors and up to two years ahead of Ford.

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In 1985, GM will introduce its midsize Chevrolet and GMC M-van, but unlike the Chrysler minivan, it will be conventional rear-wheel drive. Then, sometime in '85, the small Ford van, about the same dimensions as the GM entry, will bow. The big difference is that both GM and Ford will build rear-drive minivans, not the flat-floor, front-drive unit now being produced by Chrysler.

"I first saw the mini-max in the design center at Ford six years ago," recalls Bennett E. Bidwell, executive vice-president of Chrysler Corporation. "It wasn't front-wheel drive, but it was the same principle -- and the objective was to get it to front-wheel drive. Ford at that point in time didn't have any front-wheel drive. The Ford Motor Company kept saying, 'You're crazy.'"

Just about then a floodtide of key executives began leaving Ford for Chrysler , including Harold K. Sperlich, now president of Chrysler's North American automotive operations; Don R. DeLaRossa, vice-president of design; and chairman Lee A. Iacocca. Soon the mini-max was no longer a Ford, but a Chrysler.

Actually, the ideam for such a van (wagon? truck? sedan?) goes back almost 20 years, according to L. Donald Gschwind, vice-president of product planning at Chrysler. The research "became more serious," Gschwind adds, after the Arab oil embargo in 1973-74.

"It's the most researched vehicle in Chrysler history," he reports, and cost the company $650 million, including $400 million to gut and totally refit its 2. 5 million-square-foot Windsor, Ontario, assembly plant.

Dubbed the Dodge Caravan and the Plymonth Voyager, plus a commercial vehicle known as the Mini Ram Van, it is 39 inches shorter and 8 inches wider than the best-selling station wagon, yet it has 40 percent more carrying capacity. Because of the front-drive configuration, the floor is absolutely flat and is only an inch higher than the average car; or, to put it another way, 7 to 8 inches lower than the average big van.

Well, is it a van, wagon, or sedan -- or fully enclosed light truck? Chrysler executives see it as all of them.

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"Each buyer will define what the T-wagon means to him," Gschwind says. It can carry the driver and up to six passengers, but it can also be adapted to many commercial variations as well, and can carry up to 1,700 pounds, more than many full-scale pickup trucks.

The company's top-echelon management team expects the resurgent automaker to sell at least 190,000 minivans between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 1984, including 30, 000 in commercial form. The plant now is producing 425 units a day on one shift , but will add a second shift early in 1984.

Can Chrysler do it? Judging from my 1,800 miles so far behind the wheel of a spanking-new Plymouth Voyager, it has a good shot at success.

The all-around road view from the driver's seat is superb because of the snub-nosed front end (all that is visible to this driver is the top of the Chrysler pentastar on the hood) and voluminous flush-set side glass. The coefficient of drag is 0.42, very good for this type of unit.

The feel is solid, though, expectedly, it is sensitive to crosswind buffeting because of the boxy shape.

Another plus: You can step in a front door and walk to the rear -- bent over, of course -- without stumbling over the engine or transmission hump. And a six-footer can stand beneath the raised liftgate in the rear -- a nice touch.

With a view to longevity, the vehicle includes more than a half-ton of galvanized steel, as well as rubber gaskets between some of the hardware and the body panels to reduce the probability of rust.

The style is a little offbeat and may take some getting used to, but the inside comfort on a long trip is a major plus for the Chrysler management team. In a 1,100-mile-plus drive from Pine Mountain, Ga., to Boston, with a 2.6-liter Japanese-built engine beneath the hood, I got between 24 and 26 miles to a gallon of unleaded fuel. Not bad!

Despite more than 700 miles in one day, I was far from weary of the driving task. Adding to the comfort are the high-off-the-floor seats. The instrument panel is all new and easy to read.

The Chrysler-built 2.2-liter engine is standard and is available with either an automatic or 5-speed manual transmission, while the automatic-transmission 2. 6-liter built by Mitsubishi is an option.

Performance with the Mitsubishi 2.6 is fully acceptable, but with the Chrysler-built 2.2 and automatic transmission it lags. The gear ratios are oriented to economy, not performance. A future turbo, maybe for 1985, should help out. For increased economy, a diesel may also be down the road.

Is there nothing wrong? When the first Chrysler minivan rolled off the assembly line a few weeks ago, a balky sliding door could not be opened, to the chagrin of the Chrysler executives on hand. The vehicle I've been driving must have been right behind old No. 1, because the sliding door also proved balky at times. The door-handle mechanism seems less than comfortable to operate as well , at least to this driver.

The quality of overall construction, however, is high.

The manufacturer expects the minivan to cut into the family-sedan market because of its space and versatility.In Chrysler's view, it could also supplant the big station wagon sometime down the road.

The base wagon is list-priced at $8,678; typically equipped, it is expected to go out the door at under $10,000, but can run much higher. The top-of-the-line, fully loaded LE version I've been driving is crowding $14,000. A 15-gallon fuel tank is standard, with a

20-gallon tank an option.

When the GM and Ford minivans reach the road, they'll probably have an advantage over the Chrysler front-drive design in load and towing capacity, but not in interior space. Also, with optional V-6 engines, as opposed to Chrysler's 4-cylinders, they'll get less mileage on a gallon of gas.

Looking ahead, the market appears ripe for the minivan. An automotive consumer profile by J.D. Power & Associates earlier this year concluded that 20. 7 million US consumers would at least consider buying a domestic minivan.

The Power study showed that the demand for minivans could hit 400,000 a year by the mid-1980s, assuming at least two US carmakers take the minivan route. So Chrysler stands to make a lot of money on its success. Vans and sports cars are , as a Chrysler official explains, a "rich mix," unlike less-equipped small cars.

The Caravan-Voyager was designed as a car, certified as a truck, and is being sold as a multipurpose vehicle. Confused?

Actually, the truck certification means some fancy footwork by Chrysler on emissions, safety, and mileage requirements for the vehicle. But what difference does it make? The Caravan-Voyager is a solid entry into what is expected to be an ever-growing market for the minivan.

It may not look like a passenger car, but it sure feels a whole lot like one.

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