Minichamp Again?

Chrysler's new minivans try to reclaim the crown from Honda's Odyssey.

BACK IN MARCH 1984, my wife and I cluelessly stepped into the ranks of trendsetters: We paid $12,000 for one of the first minivans ever built.

Never mind that our spartan Plymouth Voyager's tiny four-cylinder engine -- the only kind Chrysler made then -- could barely climb hills. What mattered was that this newfangled vehicle had enough interior space to provide crucial buffer zones between our three boys, all under seven.

That's still the essential appeal of minivans. Despite the rise of sport-utility vehicles, minivans are the champion family haulers of all time. And until two years ago, Chrysler was the acknowledged leader in this category. But then Honda (HMC), which had slept through the first decade of the minivan era, introduced the second generation of its Odyssey model. It was bigger than its predecessor, had all the silky smoothness of a Honda Accord and, most strikingly, had a third-row seat that folded into the floor to add storage room. Chrysler had been trumped.

So Chrysler counterattacked late last year with its fourth-generation minivans. Did Chrysler reclaim its long-held title of minivan king? Close, but no cigar. The Chrysler offerings have some commendable features but also some surprising shortcomings. Here's how they stack up against the Honda Odyssey.

Chrysler still has the widest range of minivans. On the low end is the short-wheelbase Voyager with a modest 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine and a base sticker price of $19,800 with destination charge. The long-wheelbase Dodge Grand Caravan can be had with a 215-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 and costs nearly $30,000. And a new 230-hp V-6 will be available this spring on the top-of-the-line Town & Country, the only minivan with available all-wheel drive, which carries a sticker price between $25,000 and $39,000.

Despite the chorus of praise for Honda's foldaway third seat, Chrysler decided not to imitate that feature on its 2001 minivans. The company gave assorted reasons. The foldaway seat allows too much road noise into the vehicle. It won't fit into the short-wheelbase minivans. And it requires a lower floor, which would have interfered with the Town & Country's all-wheel-drive mechanism.

Meanwhile, Chrysler's third-row seats create a disturbing problem. Their headrests are so high that they greatly enlarge your blind spot, making it difficult to see cars behind you in adjoining lanes. After test-driving a Town & Country for a couple of days, I removed the third-row headrests for safety's sake.

I also noticed this problem, though it was somewhat less severe, when I test-drove a short-wheelbase Chrysler Voyager (known as the Plymouth Voyager before Chrysler killed the Plymouth brand). And both Chrysler minivans, short and long, have wide midbody pillars that slightly restrict side visibility.

But the new Chrysler minivans have many worthy features. The bucket seats, in the front and middle rows, are the best on the market by far. Ride and handling are very good, with more "body stiffness" on the new models. One unique feature: a center console that can be moved back and forth from between the front seats to between the middle-row bucket seats. The console has a power outlet for cell phones. Better yet is the available automatic rear lift gate, which emits a series of warning beeps before it starts coming down.

Chrysler pioneered dual sliding doors on minivans. Now a power-operated sliding door on the passenger side is available on most models. The higher-end models get power-operated sliding doors on both sides. They're equipped with sensors to avoid accidentally closing on something.

The Chrysler minivans offer a wide range of options, including side-impact airbags (standard on the Town & Country Limited; $350 on lower-end models) and a videocassette player and flip-down screen for rear-seat passengers. The system sells for about $1,500 and comes with wireless headphones.

Honda lacks the variety of Chrysler's minivan lineup. The Odyssey comes in one size, in either the LX version or the high-end EX. The LX has manual sliding doors on both sides, while the EX has power sliding doors. And a CD player, optional on the LX, is standard on the EX.

The Odyssey and the long-wheelbase Chryslers are about the same in overall length and, more important, in total interior space: 170.7 cubic feet for the Odyssey and 164.9 for the Chryslers.

The Odyssey, unlike the Chrysler vans, has just one engine offering, but it's a good one. Its 3.5-liter V-6 puts out 210 hp with all the smoothness and quiet that has made Honda famous for its engines. In fact, I didn't find the Odyssey at all noisy inside, even though that's supposedly a drawback of the foldaway third-row seat.

The EX model that I test-drove carried a sticker price of $28,840, including the destination charge. That puts it in the ballpark with the Dodge Grand Caravan -- although a good $7,000 or more cheaper than the luxury, all-wheel-drive Town & Country. (The Odyssey, like the other Chrysler models, comes with front-wheel drive.)

I did find a few minifaults with Honda's minivan. The seats are okay, but not nearly as comfortable as the Chrysler seats. The cell-phone jack is way down near the floor, so you can't keep the cord in while using the phone. And the Odyssey doesn't offer an optional videocassette system.

But Honda does offer the minivan world's only in-dash navigational device. A $2,000 option on the EX, it's by far the easiest to use of all such gizmos I've encountered. You just tap in your destination address on a touch screen, and the system guides you all the way there.

Bottom line: Chrysler's vision-blocking third-row headrests are a design flaw that, to my mind, keeps the company from regaining leadership in minivans.