Motoring: More metal for your money

ROAD TEST Chrysler Voyager

Chrysler asserts that its Voyager ranks alongside the Model T Ford, VW Beetle and Mini in the mould-breakers' hall of fame. It has a point. Sceptics predicted a short life for the Voyager when it was launched as a one-box car, as opposed to a van with windows, in 1983 - a year before the Renault Espace. Some 14 years and 6 million Voyagers later, the precursor of what's known Stateside as a minivan (here it's an MPV, or people carrier), is going stronger than ever. A global best-seller - the Voyager is market leader in Germany, Holland, Austria, Norway and Sweden, as well as the US - Chrysler's pioneering MPV is now on sale in Britain at on-the-road prices ranging from pounds 18,395 to more than pounds 25,000.

Chrysler's Jeep Cherokee off-roader owes much of its success to being American: as marketing tools go, "Made in the US" is one of the best, it seems. The third-generation Voyager may reflect American roots - it is, for instance, bigger and heavier than most rivals, but it is assembled in Graz, Austria. What's more, it is decidedly European in character and style.

There are basically four models. The 2.0LE and 2.0SE are five-speed manuals. Both the 3.3 V6s - one with the 2.0's wheelbase, the Grand Voyager's stretched to give more room - are four-speed automatics.

The first thing I did with the 3.3LE on test was to remove one of the two central seats so that our Labrador had room to stretch on the open- plan floor. Because the seat is very heavy, the job was not as easy as anticipated. Snag number two, which would rule out the Voyager chez Bell, was a flawed ventilation system that left spouse and me in conflict. Why no volume controls on the fascia vents? Or opening windows on the two rear sliding doors?

Apart from these and other minor niggles, the Voyager acquitted itself well. Old and low-tech though it is, the generous V6 engine is smooth, quiet and sufficiently muscular to give reasonably lively acceleration and, aided by long-legged gearing, relaxed motorway cruising. There are, however, quicker, more nimble rivals, and certainly more economical ones. If you want frugality, wait for the coming turbo-diesel. Or, in the interim, opt instead for the 131bhp 2.0, claimed by Chrysler to be as fast as the gas-guzzling V6.

There are more versatile automatics than the Voyager's four-speeder, but few that shift so seamlessly. Tucked away to the right of the steering column, the chunky selector works well. Although the Voyager handles and steers more like a car than a van, it doesn't rate highly as a driving experience. It's not that sort of car.

In comfort, space, refinement and equipment, the V6 is a match for any rival. Apart from rough-road thunking, which betrays crude rear suspension, the ride is smooth, the front seats very comfortable and the lofty driving position commanding (though the rear headrests obscure the mirror view aft). Central passengers are as comfortably ensconced as those up front, in individual armchairs. Only those in the back travel second class, on a removable bench that folds forward to increase boot space. Despite this feature, the Voyager's seating is less versatile than, say, the Renault Espace's. You do, though, get lots of car for your money. Plenty of equipment, too: included in the price are anti-lock brakes, cruise control and air- conditioning. Leather costs pounds 900 extra.

CHRYSLER VOYAGER 3.3 LE

Specifications

Engine: 3301cc, V6, 12 valves, 156bhp at 4700rpm; four-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive

Performance: Top speed 109mph, 0-60mph 11.8secs, overall fuel consumption 23 CA (combined average)

Price: pounds 23,695

Rivals

Citroen Synergie 2.0 SX, pounds 19,780

Van-like styling lacks flair, but cabin roomy and versatile. Cloned with Fiat Ulysse and Peugeot 806. No V6 option, but 2.0 manual as lively as Voyager V6 auto. Keenly priced, though 1.9 turbo-diesel VSX seven-seater costs over pounds 24,000.

Ford Galaxy 2.8 Ghia, pounds 23,435 Britain's most popular MPV. Made alongside VW Sharan and Seat Alhambra in joint-venture Portuguese plant. Faster, more entertaining to drive than Voyager, but not as big or roomy. Still the best, most car-like MPV on the market.

Renault Espace 3.0 RXE, pounds 27,335

High price of classy V6 Espace reflects new up-market status. Slower, gruffer, more economical 2.2 turbo-diesel from pounds 20,635. Benchmark packaging leaves no nook or cranny wasted. The most versatile MPV.

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