It may be slow, cumbersome and poorly made, but the latest Chrysler Voyager is saved by its incredible flexibility says Michael Booth

Time does not always treat pioneers with the respect their perspicacity and courage deserves - just ask Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Likewise, the Chrysler Voyager was the world's first people carrier when it launched in 1983, and 10 million have been sold since. But in the last few years it has been jostled out of the way like a pensioner in the sales by cheaper, better-looking and more frugal rivals. Unless you simply had to have an American car - and I've heard there are people who live in Norfolk who won't buy anything else - you went for the Espace.

The 2005 version of the longer "Grand" Voyager is where the fight back begins. There are some light cosmetic changes, which include a faintly grotesque, Peugeot-style enlarging of the grille, but Chrysler is most proud of its new Stow 'N Go (Lynne Truss must be spinning in her bank vault) seating system in which both the second and third rows of seats fold flat into the floor, turning the Voyager into the mother of all carpeted vans. There is a maximum 4,690 litres of space on offer, which is 1,500 litres more than an Espace. Make it watertight and it could be an unusual fish tank suitable for cod and the like.

We've seen this before on the Vauxhall Zafira and others, but Stow 'N Go works well and is a first for a full-scale MPV. The seats have helpful numbered tags which you pull in order, and are assisted in their disappearance by hydraulic rams to prevent troublesome groin strains. The middle row of seats also slides back and forth, allowing you to make your own compromise between leg-room and luggage space. Or, should you pick up a couple of stilt-walking hitch-hikers, you could always fold the middle row into the floor to give the rear bench masses of room. I'm sure Voyager owners will enjoy many a happy game of mobile musical chairs.

This flexibility makes other criticisms about how it drives (abysmally) and how fast it is (it isn't) mostly irrelevant. Just as it would be churlish to mock Montserrat Caballé's time over the 100-yard dash, it is missing the point to complain that a diesel people carrier is slow and unwieldy, especially when it has cool, remote-controlled, electric sliding doors, as the Voyager does.

Far more important is that, when you climb into the Captain Kirk driving seat you instantly feel like Robert de Niro in Meet the Fockers, at the wheel of his state-of-the-art Winnebago. Simply put it in gear, slip into a semi-catatonic state... and wake up in Wichita.

Of course, like all Chryslers, the Voyager is expensive, yet feels like it is built by trailer trash from bits of their discarded furniture (the seat leather in particular seems harvested from road kill by banjo-playing mountain men). There are exposed screw heads on the door panels; the rattly, rough diesel engine turns any unoccupied chairs into leather-covered vibraphones; and there are horrid slivers of orangey plastic wood on either side of the central console (but nowhere else). Reliability is not what it could be - those electric doors cause problems, I've heard - and I wonder how long it would be before the folding seats play up and begin to remove your fingers one by one. But, if it is absolutely necessary for you to have such a large family and you really must insist on taking them everywhere you go, right now the Voyager offers the most adaptable, capacious solution (although condoms would be cheaper).

It's a Classic: Fiat 600 Multipla

Ah, but was Chrysler's Voyager really the first people carrier? Fiat would disagree and point to the original, six-seater Fiat 600 Multipla, launched 50 years ago - a marvel of packaging at just 3.53m long and 1.49m wide. It was powered by a tiny, 633cc engine (later a 767cc) located in the rear, with the seats arranged in three rows of two. With only four doors, getting in and out was a bit of a kerfuffle, and it's probably best not to bring up the subject of crumple zones, but the Multipla sold well in its home market and continued in production for over a decade. Oddly, unlike the original Voyager of 1983, the original Multipla never really spawned any imitators and didn't ever catch on anywhere outside of Italy (perhaps because in the 1950s and 1960s parents thought nothing of cramming four or more kids on the rear bench of a Mini Minor, so a purpose-built six-seater wasn't deemed necessary). It was a pig to drive too, with an awkward gear change and, without any passengers to weigh it down, it struggled to maintain a straight course.

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