Hard to believe it’s been almost 30 years since the Chrysler Corporation changed the game and sent every other automaker scrambling to compete with their brand new mini-vans. The Dodge Caravan, Chrysler Town & Country and Plymouth Voyager saved Chrysler from going belly up after a poor showing in the 1970s, creating a unique blend of comfort and utility in a shrunken van package based on the popular K-Car platform (Hey, it was the 80s).
Soon after Chrysler introduced their mini-vans, General Motors and Ford came up with their versions and several foreign car companies began developing smaller vans to sell in the United States. This post is going to take a closer look at some of my personal favorites from that time period and while they can’t stack up to Chrysler’s trailblazers, they deserve a “Good job, good effort.”
Chevrolet Astro-GMC Safari
Introduced for the 1985 model year, the Astro and its GMC counterpart set themselves apart from Chrysler’s mini-vans by 1) Being taller and wider than Chrysler’s offerings, but still smaller than the Chevy Van/GMC Vandura and 2) sharing chassis lineage with the wildly popular S10 and S15 pickups. The Astro/Safari had more room than Chrysler and Ford’s mini-vans and did not suffer in popularity even when GM introduced more traditional mini-vans (Chevy Lumina APV/Pontiac Trans Sport/Oldmosbile Silhouette) at the turn of 1990s. The Astro and Safari lasted in the GM lineups until 2005.
Toyota introduced the Wonderwagon in the United States around the same time Chrysler introduced their mini-vans, making them the first foreign automaker with a mini-van in the US (although vans of the three Volkswagen vans that came before it might have something to say about that). The Wonderwagon was a rarity in (like another foreign van to come in this post) the fact that it had a mid-engine lay-out similar to the American cab-over-engine vans that were popular in the 1960s. The heavy layout made the Wonderwagon susceptible to rear wheel wheelies, which doesn’t help it stand the test of time.
Mitsubishi Wagon/Expo LRV
The name says it all, right? Similar to the Wonderwagon, Mitsubishi’s first legitimate stab at the mini-van had a mid-engine lay-out and slightly sharper styling than the Wonderwagon, and it only lasted in the US from the 1987 to 1991 until it was replaced by the small and cutesy Expo LRV, which lasted until 1996. The Expo LRV was also sold by Chrysler Corporation, ironic enough, under the Dodge and Plymouth Colt/Eagle Summit names and had a more traditional lay-out with the engine not being between the drivers. These vans were the little brothers to the Caravan/Town & Country/Voyager.
Ford’s first entry into the mini-van market came for the 1986 model year, one year after GM and two years after Chrysler and the Aerostar, while a noble concept, didn’t have the power of the Astro/Safari nor the charm and luxury of the Chrysler offerings. Still, over 2 million were built in the 12-year model run, making it somewhat popular with Ford customers. The later models had engine noise and air conditioning issues, not surprising considering how compact the engine bay was, but if you’re lucky, you can still see an Aerostar roaming the streets. At least one person owns one in my neighborhood, as it see it regularly on my walks.