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1996-2000 Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge Minivans: The reasons behind the choices

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1996-2000 Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge Minivans:

The reasons behind the choices

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The 1996 minivans were billed as a "clean sheet" design, but ended up being similar to the '95s. Was Chrysler fibbing about how new they were, or were the '95s simply the ideal design?

Mainly, it seems to have been the latter - with some key changes that the company quickly made, improving the packaging and adjusting various details.

The old design had been based on the Plymouth Reliant compact cars, but a new start was spurred partly by their move from the old Chrysler CADCAM system to CATIA. The two systems were very different, with CATIA being extremely precise; having different starting coordinates; and allowing for the integration of body and chassis design, which the industry had often kept separate. Simply switching over the design system allowed for tighter tolerances and, quite probably, better overall quality.

On a less technical level, Chrysler started the new generation, the first actually designed from the ground up to be a minivan, by looking at customer input from research and letters, and going through warranty data.

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Customers liked prior models' seat heights, with their "step in" seating (especially appreciated by those with limited flexibility), so keeping those was a priority. Still, engineers also started to design seats and accommodations for 95% of people (based on body size), rather than the old 60% rule. That meant, among other things, increasing front seat travel by nearly two inches (to 7.87 inches, or 200 mm), and creating a new sliding door upper hinge to avoid hitting their heads.

The company looked at seven different rear-seat setups, including fold-up seats, removable individual seats, seats on tracks, and seats that folded flush with the floor (the later "Stow 'n' Go"?). Customers favored removable seats and wanted to be able to slide the middle seat row back and forth. As a result, engineers designed "one-hand latching" and rollers to make seat removal easier; bench seat stanchions were moved inboard, reducing bending stress in the frames, and thereby allowing weight reduction.

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In 1996, Plymouth Voyager had better residual (resale) value than the Mercury Villager, Ford Aerostar, Chevy Lumina APV, or Toyota Previa minivans.

Front and quad seats were 0.5 inch (12 mm) farther apart than on prior models, increasing walk-through width.

The cowl was lowered for better visibility; the instrument panel was also lowered by 4.7 inches (119 mm), while the sight line was made 4.9° higher for easier viewing of traffic lights. The center pillar was moved back, providing a panoramic view. Lowering the belt line by 0.75 inch (19 mm) and raising the tops of the window openings by 2 inches (50 mm) increased the view for rear passengers.

85% of controls were within "normal" reach, and the rest (parts of the radio and HVAC controls) a mild lean away. The center stack was canted toward the driver and the HVAC controls were tilted upward. Survey data specified the actuation method for each function - knob, button, or slider - and the size of the controls, spacing, and lettering.

The steering column side-view angle was reduced 6.5° for a more car-like driving position; the steering wheel was closer to the driver's center, and pedals were moved for the same reason (both changes were made possible by the wider front track).

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Three floor heights were researched; lowering the floor was not well received because it reduced the sense of command of the road. Even though some customers found the previous models' step to be higher than desired, they liked the command of the road provided by the higher driving position and the easy access without stooping or bending provided by that height. Thus, minivans kept the original floor height; though entry and exit were eased by 35mm lower sills. That allowed for larger tires and the ability to install electric vehicle batteries or CNG tanks, and to have a single setup for FWD and AWD.

In 1996, Chrysler reported that 1995 Town & Country buyers had a median age of 48 and a median income of over $90,000, making them the most affluent Chrysler vehicle buyers. Voyager buyer medians were 30-39 years old, $48,000 household income, and 50% college graduates. Grand Voyager medians were 35-43 years old, $53,000 income, 55% college graduates.

Including the second sliding door required relocating the rear HVAC unit to the right rear corner of the body; the rear unit also included overhead ducts and outlets along the roof rails on both sides of the body.

Rear overhang was increased by 4.3 inches (109 mm) on short wheelbase bodies and 3.9 inches (99 mm) on long wheel base bodies. The wheelbase of the short-wheelbase body style was increased 1 inch (25 mm). The maximum cargo volume of the short-wheelbase body with rear seats removed was 30% greater than the previous model; the long-wheelbase body was 27% larger than its predecessor. The short-wheelbase body exceeded the cargo capacity of the previous long-wheelbase body by 10.4 cubic feet (0.3 cubic meters). Front overhang was increased 2.1 inch (74 mm) to provide 5 mph bumper impact capability and to increase cooling system capacity.

The overall height was increased by 1.8 inches (46 mm) and width was increased by 3.5 inches (90 mm) (within the width of a single garage door). The result, though, was four inches (101 mm) more hip room and five inches (127 mm) more shoulder room in the front and middle seats.

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The track rose by 3 inches (76 mm) at the front and 2 inches (50 mm) at the rear, allowing for larger tires with chain clearance, and the reduction of the turning circle by 3.5 feet (1.07 m) on long-wheelbase bodies and 3.4 feet (1.04 m) on short wheelbase bodies. It also provided an additional 0.8 inch (20 mm) of cargo width in the cargo area.

Structural comparisons on the relative merits of a simplified, but longer, front structure housing a longitudinal powertrain showed the transverse powertrain to be equally light and crashworthy, while reducing the overall length. Along the way, engineers found that the Chrysler powertrain was the most space efficient in the market.

A mid-mounted powertrain was the most structurally efficient but was discarded because it would have made the entire vehicle higher than desired.

The engine compartment was smaller than on prior models; making it serviceable required inventing a removable cowl plenum chamber and windshield wiper module for which a patent was being sought.

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A full QFD analysis was done on the suspension system; owners of Chrysler and competitive minivans in ride-drive comparisons spoke of the need to improve quietness while maintaining ride and handling. Press materials stated, "State-of-the-art suspension hardware was not an issue," indicating that customers wanted a quiet, comfortable, stable vehicle rather than buzzword compliance and sports-car handling.

A short/long arm front suspension design was considered but provided no functional benefits for the minivan, and took up more space than the MacPherson strut suspension; a cross member was added for isolation. A potential upper strut mount provided additional suspension travel and compliance for low harshness. To use common parts between FWD and AWD, the front suspension cross member was tall to provide a mounting surface for the front stabilizer bar and steering rack above the rear drive shaft.

Independent, coil-sprung rear suspensions and link-coil systems with a solid axle were designed and built for comparison with the old leaf-sprung solid axle; the alternatives had issues in handling balance between light and heavy loads, when compared to the leaf spring system. The leaf spring system demonstrated better transient handling behavior under a full load than the others. At the least, it would have been necessary to include an automatic load leveling system as standard equipment to make the alternatives handle acceptably with a full load. Leaf springs, which mount completely below the floor, also contributed to the desired floor height and allowed maximum cargo width at the rear wheel housings.

Exterior Design

Customers said they wanted something attractive, tasteful, not too futuristic, and stable - something that would still be attractive in years to come. They also wanted something that looked more car-like.

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The body appeared lower and more car-like because the side windows are nearly 3 inches (75 mm) taller than before. The availability of the only 16-inch wheels in the minivan market also made the body appear lower. The cowl was dropped and a modern, aerodynamic front end used.

Aerodynamic features include the low hood, steeply raked windshield and nearly flush front door side glass. Eventually, the team was able to achieve a drag coefficient as low as 0.35 depending on body style and equipment (over 10% lower than the prior body). In spite of a larger frontal area, overall drag was less than before.

Aerodynamic refinements were applied to the windshield pillar, liftgate header, liftgate transverse curvature, body side sills, outside mirror size and configuration, windshield wiper height and cowl screen shape. Some of the details:

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    A raised lip on the cowl screen deflects air flow upward, creating an area of swirling air at the base of the windshield which causes water pushed down by the wiper blades to run off to the side rather than up the glass.
  • Low profile windshield wiper blades park inside this area of swirling air, reducing drag.
  • The liftgate header slopes downward slightly and had a noticeable lip to facilitate air separation and reduce drag.
  • The liftgate transverse curvature was reduced and the liftgate pillar line had a clearly defined break between the side and back to enhance cross wind stability.
  • Liftgate pillar shape refinement was responsible for a 2.8% drag reduction.
  • Refinement of the body side sills to shield the tires from oncoming air flow reduced drag by 1.4%.
  • Outside mirrors were larger, but great attention was placed on making these mirrors, which can produce as much as 5% of the total vehicle drag, aerodynamically smooth. Through subtle shaping of the stalk and head, air flow remains attached to the mirror housing and its wake was minimized.
  • A lower air dam on the front fascia provides the largest single improvement in drag - 4%.

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Designers produced a fresh approach to the interior. The instrument panel theme was form following function, including housing the largest HVAC unit ever used on a Chrysler vehicle. Another was holding the passenger air bag.

The panel's fluid design flows into the door trim panels and uses color separation and shapes to form a friendly appearance. A contrasting-color instrument cluster bezel surrounded the panel-mounted center airflow outlets and flowed into a bezel of the same color on the front door trim panel that houses the inside door handle. These bezels were black on Dodge and Plymouth models and were color-keyed to the darker of the two interior colors on Town & Country. The information center "eyebrow" was retained by customer demand.

Much of the interior design revolved around providing more storage. A storage area was added to the left trim panel forward of the second seat on three-door bodies. The area was open to the floor to increase cargo storage width. It included a net to hold odd shaped items with some equipment levels. The trim panels also include larger, covered storage bins and cupholders.

Interior trim colors were lighter above the belt line than below to provide a feeling of airiness and spaciousness (though windshield pillars, liftgate pillars and the top cover of the instrument panel were dark to minimize visual distraction). When an overhead console was installed, a molded bezel in headliner color provided a smooth transition to the console and minimized the apparent size of the console face plate.

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The sculptured three-spoke steering wheel included a smooth center pad under which were a compact air bag and inflator assembly and the membrane horn switch. Having the horn switch in the center of the wheel was the customer's preference, and it made room for the speed control switches on the steering wheel spokes.

  • Driver forward visibility, up and down
  • Largest cargo area in its class
  • Most miscellaneous storage
  • Highest closed storage capacity
  • Lowest ignition key effort and travel
  • Firmest steering column mounting
  • Most interior lamps (T&C LXi)
Significant Features
  • Platinum-tipped spark plugs on 3.3- and 3.8-liter engines
  • Computer controlled engine cooling fans
  • Temperature-compensated liftgate gas props
  • Full-body anti-chip primer; waterborne base coat paint
  • Shoulder belt height adjusters for second seat
  • Automatic (41TE) transmission with adaptive controls
  • Sixteen-inch wheels and tires
  • Second sliding door
  • High-gloss cowl screen and mirror housings
  • Windshield wiper de-icer
  • Power memory seat and mirrors
  • Dual zone temperature control
  • Individually controlled interior lamps

Some other standard and optional features included (aside from those mentioned in the text):

  • Starter would not operate with engine running
  • Outside liftgate release handle
  • Battery saver: unneeded electrical loads switched off automatically
  • Eight-way power driver and passenger seats including power recliners
  • Reclining intermediate and rear seats; folding intermediate seat back (folding rear seat back continued)
  • Memory seat and mirrors operated by remote keyless entry transmitter (Town & Country LXi only)
  • CD and cassette players combined with radio
  • Infinity Acoustic 10(R) audio systems - 10 amplified speakers with CD and cassette or cassette-only radios
  • Sun visor sliding extensions

Some major improvements not already covered by the text were:

  • Underhood lights
  • Dual-action rear drum brakes for low parking brake effort
  • Number of tilt-wheel positions doubled
  • HVAC system: best-in-class performance with electronically operated controls and computer-operated air conditioner evaporator temperature control (Chrysler claimed an industry first there)
  • Child safety seat with a molded, contoured back and cushion pad

1996 Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan, and Plymouth Voyager

Disclaimer: this story is based on Chrysler releases from the period and not on Allpar's original research.

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