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Chrysler Grand Voyager AWD


There are ideal vehicles for covering rallies. Usually something reasonably quick, with good handling and compact dimensions for scurrying along gravel roads to get to spectator points or the start or finish of special stages.

Four-wheel drive is a bonus, and something like a Subaru Impreza WRX is ideal.

So what was I doing covering the 2002 Hawke's Bay Rally in a mammoth Chrysler Grand Voyager AWD Limited?

Well the car had to be road-tested and it made more sense to make the journey to and from Auckland in a test car than it did in my office hack Toyota Corona, even though the Corona has been a faithful companion on three Rallies of New Zealand and numerous other events. There were plenty of sceptics around the office and I almost gave in to their scepticism and opted for the Corona. I'm glad I didn't.

The Grand Voyager was rather large to be threading its way into narrow and twisting gravel roads. Not that it couldn't have done so with reasonable aplomb, because the four-wheel drive Chrysler proved to be surprisingly agile - yes agile - on winding roads.

But I opted not to take it into the Hawke's Bay hinterland, concentrating on going to rally service parks and hitching with friends into special stages.

Turning the big van around on narrow gravel roads would have been tricky and would have carried the risk of doing some damage to this $82,000 luxury wagon.

So here we were on a wet Friday afternoon, the Grand Voyager and I, barrelling along in weather that was frequently foul.

Just me on board, metaphorically rattling around in the massive cabin that has generous room for seven people.

The following day, in fact, that spacious cabin became an impromptu tearooms as we huddled out of the cold and wet of a not-so-sunny Hawke's Bay.

Make no mistake about it, the Grand Voyager is BIG.

In the USA they call the vehicle that underpins the Voyager a Minivan. Here we'd call it a big van.

Not that we'd call it a van anyway. To us it's an MPV, in the way Ford's Explorer is an SUV. Americans cut through the hype and refer to the Voyager as a van and the Explorer as a truck.

And that helps in getting your head around driving the Chrysler.

Not that the test Grand Voyager was like any van we'd ever driven.

The only bench seat was the three-occupant third row, and it was sculpted to take the three passengers. Like the front two rows, the rear bench was leather-upholstered.

The Voyager's other four occupants sit in individual bucket-style seats, all complete with fold-away armrests. The middle row seats get armrests on both sides.

Chrysler calls those centre-row seats Quad Command buckets, and like the rear bench they can be removed to provide a cavernous 4.68 cubic metre cargo hold.

The removable seats are mounted on wheels for easy removal and storage.

There's a neat lockable storage drawer mounted beneath the front passenger's seat.

The four-spoked steering wheel, which has a nicely-sized diameter, is leather-wrapped and pleasant to use. The top of the steering wheel boss slopes down at each side to give a better view of the white-faced, retro-style instruments. The instrument dials and the stylish Chrysler badge on the steering wheel boss give the view from the driver's seat a pleasantly-classy ambience.

Tabs on each side of the steering wheel control the sound system (left) and cruise control.

The dashboard centre console, which houses the excellent sound system and the air-conditioning, gets tasteful woodgrain inserts.

The console gives a snugly intimate feel to the driver's side of the cockpit.

An oddly-small (by comparison with the large wands found in Japanese MPVs and SUVs) lever sprouting from the right-hand side of the steering column controls the four-speed automatic gearbox.

The Grand Voyager rides on a 3030mm wheelbase (standard Voyager's wheelbase is 2878mm) and is 5094mm long (standard van is 4803mm). It's 1997mm wide and stands 1804mm high. Front track is 1600mm and rear is 1626mm.

There's plenty of cabin space too. The driver and front seat passenger get 1007mm of headroom, centre-row passengers get 1000 and rear row occupants get 972.

Legroom is equally good with 1032mm (front, 997mm (centre) and an excellent 1010mm for the rear seat passengers. This is no seven seater with a cramped rear seat.

And people used to seven-seaters with enough room for passengers but minimal space for their luggage will be impressed by the amount of cargo room behind the Grand Voyager's rearmost seats.

Dynamically, the Voyager proved surprisingly good. You have fewer expectations of a van, but the Grand Voyager behaved in a manner that belied its van heritage and its bulk and weight.

Its weakest point is its engine. The 3.3-litre naturally-aspirated V6 develops maximum power of 128kW at 5100rpm. Peak torque is 278Nm at 4000rpm.

In an age of overhead camshaft engines, the Voyager makes do with a pushrod-operated overhead valve unit.

You get quite a surprise when you open the stubby bonnet (which, surprisingly for an American car, uses a stay rather than gas-filled struts to keep it open). There in front of you are two black rocker covers, the top of the transversely-mounted motor looking for all the world like two pushrod Ford Kent fours joined at the hip.

The 128kW struggles in hillier going to haul along the 1973 kilogram Chrysler. But what the motor lacks in power or refinement it more than compensates with in willingness, even if that willingness translates to a thirst that gladdens the heart of BP.

In city running the motor provides brisk performance and on the highway the Grand Voyager cruises effortlessly.

The automatic transmission shifts smoothly and kicks-down with alacrity.

For quick driving through roads like the Napier/Taupo highway you need to lock it in one of the lower ratios of the four-speed automatic.

On that road, the Grand Voyager was something of a revelation.

The steering is nicely-weighted and communicative. It's car-like in its feel and response.

Turn-in to corners was crisp and much more direct than I'd been expecting.

The Grand Voyager understeers, but once you get the hang of turning in early it's never tiresome.

Despite its size, the Grand Voyager never seemed too big or too clumsy. The vehicle's bulk means, though, that you have to think about placement for corners and exit lines well in advance.

And despite the far-forward driving position I never found myself misjudging where the rear wheels were and clipping kerbs in the city or running the rear wheels on to the unformed shoulder in left-hand open-road corners.

Naturally the Grand Voyager AWD is no Impreza WRX when it comes to a sequence of tight corners. By the fourth corner, if you're pushing on a bit, the sheer mass makes its presence felt and the van's front wheels start to run wide. The remedy is to lift off and the front wheels regain their bite. On tight and winding roads, the Grand Voyager rewards the slow-in, fast-out cornering approach.

But if pushing-on on that sort of road is not the Grand Voyager's real forte (and let's face it if I'd had passenger with me I would probably have been solicitous of their comfort), it handles most open-road going extremely well. It turns-in impressively and holds its line with minimal understeer. The long wheelbase, the vehicle's weight and the well-tuned suspension ensure mid-corner bumps don't deflect the van from your chosen line.

I rediscovered some of the art of momentum driving during the brisk homeward run through a wet, miserable and occasionally foggy Napier/Taupo road and later on the State Highways into Auckland.

The all-wheel drive came into its own in atrocious conditions on the Friday night and Sunday morning that also pointed up the high efficiency of the clap-hands windscreen wipers and the strongly-performing headlights.

On the run back to Auckland on the Sunday afternoon, the skies were blue and the wintry sunshine was warm, and the Voyager was virtually on autopilot. It cruised easily at 100km/h and handled all but the tightest corners at a brisk clip, averaging a low-90km/h pace with absolute ease and no fuss.

It proved to be a very impressive open road tourer and - unusually for a van-based vehicle - rewarding to drive.

The standard equipment list is comprehensive.

It includes front and side airbags for the front cabin occupants; triple zone air-conditioning; power windows; power-operated exterior mirrors which are also heated and fold flat; and remote-control central door-locking.

The central locking is one of the Grand Voyager's most intriguing features.

It doesn't just unlock the top-hinged tailgate and the sliding rear doors.

It also opens them at the touch of a dedicated button for each door.

Hit the buttons and the doors slide or the tailgate lifts. The tailgate has a safety device which closes the door again if the opening door comes into contact with someone standing behind the vehicle.

When you close the doors electrically, they slide into place then are sucked flush to the body. You find yourself opening and closing the doors just to watch the final automatic closure. It's a big kid's delight.

Other standard gear includes a body kit; foglights; headlight washer; headlight-off time delay; heated front seats; Compact Disc player with 10-disc changer; chromed multi-spoke alloy wheels.

I had to forget about finding out what all the switches did. The Grand Voyager has so many features that you'd need to use the car day-in and day-out to get to grips with them fully.

People were sceptical when I said I was taking the big wagon south to cover a rally, but it proved a perfect companion for a long road trip, never missing a beat.

It was a grand vehicle for a grand voyage (with the amount of rain we drove through and with the amount of water on the roads much of the journey resembled a voyage).

And in a day of automotive clones it oozed character. It costs $81,900 which means if you can afford it you probably won't be too concerned by its petrol-drinking problem.

Chrysler is credited with inventing the MPV 17 years ago, and the 2002 Grand Voyager is proof that the US car maker is a master of the genre.

AutoPoint road test team: story by Mike Stock. Photographs by Mike Stock and DaimlerChrysler.

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