Five 1992 4WD Minivans vs. Alaska’s Dalton Highway

From the March 1992 issue of Car and Driver.

Alaskan’s advice on driving the Dalton Highway in November: “Take spare windshields and tires. Take money. Take colorful clothes you can spread on the tundra to signal aircraft. Take Alaska Airlines south to Maui.”

This came of course, after William Jeanes and Csaba Csere had warmly embraced the notion of driving the entire population of four-wheel-drive minivans as far north as possible on planet Earth.

William or Csaba came up with this idea before they knew anything about avalanches in the Brooks Range, grizzly-bear warnings, minus-40-degree temperatures, and four hours of daily sunlight. Before they heard that the 28-foot-wide Dalton Highway is entirely gravel, its 500-mile length punctuated by exactly two settlements that, on any given day, might or might not have fuel or electric lights or vegetarian lasagna. Before either knew we had to get permission from the state even to use the Highway—which is there to service the 800-mile-long trans-Alaska oil pipeline and not for motoring journalists, one of whom is carrying his sleeping bag in a brown­ paper sack that says, “Let’s Go Krogering.”

But by the time they’d learned enough to want to reconsider, it was too late. By then, five minivans, a GMC Yukon tow vehicle, and eleven people were already loitering in Fairbanks. (The Chevy Astro arrived via Federal Express. Really.) By then, C/D staffers were already grinding through stacks of reindeer sausage at the Westmark Fairbanks hotel, this despite warnings from our guides—John and Suzy Fouse—who had both arrived wearing tent-sized parkas and six inches of layered clothing that made them look like miniature submarines.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

Alaskan veterans both, the Fouses had helped assemble the outpost whence the pipeline’s oil emanates, which was also our destination: the otherworldly Prudhoe Bay, half on land and half atop the Arctic Ocean, a place that might have been a setting for Mad Max IV or Return of the Alien except that, as a backdrop for sci-fi movies, it is not sufficiently believable.

“It’s warm here now,” explains John Fouse as he gestures at Fairbanks’s minus-15-degree weather. “But where we’re going, it may get cold. And we only have an 18,000-pound winch on the Yukon.”

Our heaviest minivan—the Astro—weighs 4449 pounds. So why a problem?

“Because you have the weight of the van added to the weight of what it’s stuck in,” he replies. “Which could be a chunk of the Brooks Range slightly larger than Alabama.”

We set out anyway. Fouse ominously announces on the CB radio, “Gather up the wagons.” (The Donner Party tried to cross the Sierra Nevada—a Wally Cox of mountain ranges compared with what we are facing—in wagons roughly the size of our own but without cruise control. A subject for Geraldo: People who have eaten people.)


Fifth Place: Chevrolet Astro

David DewhurstCar and Driver

The Chevrolet Astro, which first appeared in 1985, constituted the General Motors reply to the enormously successful Chrysler minivans, Yet, if one looked closely at the Astro, one saw that it offered an entirely different atmosphere than the Chrysler people-haulers. The Astro was somehow more industrial, more trucklike.

This trucklike personality did not happen by accident. Whereas the Chrysler minivans were built to find a place in the family garage, the Astro was aimed at a dual target: the family garage and the workplace, GM frankly expected that its Astro would send more copies to the working world than to the softer demands of the suburbs, The Astro retains this duality of personality, not always to its advantage when compared with minivans that make commercial use a secondary goal, if it’s a goal at all.

At an as-tested price of $21,656, the Astro was our lowest-priced entry, though the range was intentionally narrow (the Caravan, at $22,104, was the most expensive). The Astro was the heaviest, by well over 200 pounds, but it was by far the most powerful. Its 4.3-liter V-6 pumped out 200 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque.

The Astro’s commercial heritage is reflected in its dimensions: it was the tallest and widest of our vehicles, but missed by only one inch being the shortest. The rear-door design, side-by-­side doors with small square windows in them also say “truck.”

Put frankly, the Astro just didn’t do very well on our test. Despite a power advantage, it wasn’t the quickest, and despite a cargo volume that led the pack (152 cubic feet), the Astro would not hold the ubiquitous four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood, and it had the least capacity for hauling lengths of pipe.

Tools were required to remove unwanted seats. What did work well was the Astro’s all-wheel anti-lock braking system.

The Astro’s poor finish was no doubt colored by an engine malfunction that still has us puzzled at deadline time. In Prudhoe Bay, we spotted oil drips, and then saw what appeared to be oil and water pumping out of the dipstick: normally a sure sign of failed head gaskets or loss of the separation between the oil and water systems. Stormin’ Norman’s Garage in Deadhorse allowed otherwise, “A seal,” quoth Norman. Indeed, with extra oil aboard, we nursed the Astro back to Fairbanks, using only one quart of Mobil 1 in the process.

But there was more. This is not a new criticism, but this driver-side footwell is a feature that simply should never have been allowed to reach the consumer. In order to operate a modern vehicle, one should not find it necessary to hike one’s left foot up on the wheel-well impingement in order to have room for the other foot on the floor. Size eleven, if you’re curious.

Even assuming its engine malfunction to be unusual, our Astro just seemed out of phase with the rest. —William Jeanes

1992 Chevrolet Astro
200-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 4449 lb
Base/as-tested price: $17,790/$21,656
Cargo volume, seats in/out: 23/152 cu ft
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 10.3 sec
1/4 mile: 17.9 @ 76 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 204 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.67 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg



(continued)

A mere 30 miles north of Fairbanks, all traces of festering civilization conclude, even the neon Coors signs. One by one, the radio stations go dead. And there is a twenty-foot homemade white cross by the roadside, in memory of one Chuckie Kelly, who evidently erred here from the path of righteousness and the northbound lane. We are now officially On Our Own. Walk 50 feet off the Highway and you may well be standing in a spot just as it was 50 or 500 or 5000 years ago.

The Dalton Highway is narrow, and much of its loose granite surface—which is as sharp as Wilkinson sword blades and will soon chew up tires on both the Aerostar and the MPV—is mixed with coarse granular snow so dry and crunchy that it is like driving on dirt.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

The road is named after James W. Dalton, a durable guy who was much in demand as an Arctic-construction expert after he directed the assembly of the DEW line for our Department of Defense. Construction of the highway—known originally simply as the Haul Road—began in 1974. The road crosses one third of Alaska and spans the state’s highest mountain pass. Dalton did not leave the project in the hands of government. Here is the proof: the highway was completed in 154 days.

On this road—which has no stop signs, traffic lights, or no-passing zones for some 500 miles—there is room enough only for an eighteen-wheeler in the oncoming lane and a large accident in yours. Which we almost have as we meet our first southbound tanker, whose driver has evidently watched way too much pro bowling or is paralyzed at the sight of six civilian vehicles. He throws his rig into a 50-mph 18-wheel drift on an intercept guaranteed to demolish every minivan in our convoy. Then he gets off the brakes. Miraculously, the rig straightens and hurtles past in a hail of blue-white snow and granite shrapnel.

Two of the minivans’ windshields are now cracked. All but the Previa’s will be starred, scored, or spider-webbed by day’s end. (Our motto: “It’s only funny until someone loses an eye.”) The Dalton Highway’s rules of etiquette are different from ours. They do not apply on holidays, evenings, weekdays, and mornings. Also, there aren’t any.

Guide Fouse, who evidently failed to see this feat of Third World driving, gets on the CB and repeats rules he mentioned at this morning’s instructional:
1. Drink lots of water, because the humidity is only five percent and will fall as we get farther north.
2. Don’t touch a door handle with your bare hands or a bumper with your tongue.
3. Assume the road beyond a hill or around a corner is entirely clogged with Peterbilt.

This time, nobody laughs.

Nor do they laugh at the next roadside sign, which bears a message we don’t often see back home: SPEED LIMIT 50, NEXT 416 MILES.


Fourth Place: Toyota Previa All-Trac

David DewhurstCar and Driver

As we prepared for our Alaskan onslaught, we questioned the inclusion of the Previa. Here was the lone four-wheel-drive minivan sold in the U.S. that offered no power choice other than its 2.4-liter in-line four­-cylinder. Would it, we worried, stand up against minivans with V-6 power? In the end, we reasoned that it would be unfair not to include the Previa, for it was after all an all-wheel-drive minivan, and besides we were interested to see how its mid-mounted engine affected performance on snowy and icy roads. Would its favorable weight distribution overcome a horsepower deficit in hard winter use?

We should first define this horsepower deficit. The other competitors had engines with horsepower ratings ranging from 200 (the Astro) to 150 (the Caravan), with the other two providing 155 horse each. Thus, the Previa fell far below the Astro, but gave away no more than 17 ponies to the other three. Is this a lot of horsepower when it’s Godzilla below zero and icy? You bet. But, as it turned out, the Previa was able to overcome the difference.

To arrive at a competitive price, $22,013 as tested, our Previa lacked a few creature features. It was the only vehicle fitted with roll-up windows, for example. Even in its stripper form, however, the Previa soon gained a following among the C/D explorer scouts.

The reasons for its popularity were subtle, yet pronounced. We’ve written before about the excellent design of the Previa’s interior. This atmosphere, plus the excellent ergonomics within the cabin, plus seats that cradle you in an orthopedically responsible embrace, made the car just plain pleasant to occupy.

On the speed front, the Previa was the slowest of the quintet, but this consideration loses some steam when the roads are in a condition that lessens your desire to floorboard the throttle.

In normal use, if one can apply that term to Alaska driving, the Previa just did not seem underpowered enough to matter. At cruising speeds it was quiet, and on the utility front, it can carry an astonishing amount of luggage with its seats remaining in place. Removing its center seat requires tools, however.

The Toyota All-Trac system worked just fine on our 1100-mile excursion, though there’s no provision for locking the center differential.

The operation of the Previa, aside from the lower horsepower, was superb. The ride was matched only by the Caravan for smoothness and comfort, and the four-wheel disc brakes (unique among our group) were unex­celled for performance.

As a measure of how well overall the Previa did, note that the Previa scored the highest of any minivan in styling (nine on a scale of ten), and that none of its competitors outscored it in handling, ride, ergonomics, comfort, or fun to drive.

In sum, we no longer doubt the Previa ‘s ability to compete in this company. —William Jeanes

1992 Toyota Previa All-Trac
138-hp inline-4, 4-speed automatic, 4092 lb
Base/as-tested price: $20,313/$22,013
Cargo volume, seats in/out: 23/147 cu ft
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 12.8 sec
1/4 mile: 19.2 @ 71 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 196 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.71 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 17 mpg


(continued)

At mile 56 we cross the Yukon River, its surface an overlapping jigsaw puzzle of ice floes the size of the USS Vincennes and the same color. This is the fifth­-longest river in North America and the point at which most summer tourists turn tail and make tracks back to Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn. The Yukon here is as wide as the Mississippi. It is spanned by a wooden-decked bridge 2290 feet long. To celebrate this crossing, Chris Jensen (a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the only non-C/Der who inexplicably failed to say “no” when invited) inserts his Rinkbinders cassette so that we can sing the chorus to “The Yukon—She’s Callin’ Me Back.” It is also Jensen who explains the lack of humidity to the liberal-arts majors: “See, any water in the air tends to get hard and fall on the ground. Gravity: it’s a law we can live with.”

David DewhurstCar and Driver

We dismount here briefly to swap minivans. Nobody knows the temperature, but it nonetheless establishes conclusively that all those friends and neighbors who over the years have told you, “Once it gets below minus 15, it never really feels any colder,” have never stood next to the Yukon River at sunset (3 p.m.) on November 20. The cold here is not just an annoyance, not merely a part of winter’s quirky charm. It is a vital, physical force, a sucker punch in the solar plexus the moment you open a door.

In the time it takes to walk 50 yards from the Previa to a roadside plaque, the cold penetrates my two pairs of gloves and one pair of mittens, then forces its way through $240 worth of Vasque boots, two pairs of cotton socks, and a mismatched set of polypropylene boot liners. By then, my fingers are drunk. Grasping a pencil to take notes is difficult. (I had long since abandoned pens, whose ink ceased to flow even inside the minivans.) I am wearing a black rubberized face mask—apparel that tech editor Don Schroeder says resembles “some sort of medical device for persons with ruptures”—and when I remove it, a dime-size chunk of my iced mustache breaks off with it.

Alaska adventurer Joe McGinniss wrote: “In this sort of cold, you do not think of normal things—upset stomach, fatigue, financial problems, whether there was life after death. You were able to think only of the cold: it monopolized every facet of your being, like first love, or the news of a death in the family.”

David DewhurstCar and Driver

Yet it is here, hard on the banks of the rock-solid Yukon River, that one brave soul has dropped a few Alco aluminum boxes that double as a coffee shop. The cold has not frozen his sense of humor. A sign next to the entrance warns, “No shoe , no shirt, no service.”

We do not know when or if we will eat during this trip, so associate editor Phil Berg has laden each minivan with giant freezer bag full of “survival gorp.” This mix is created, he reveals, by combining pretzels, Wheat Chex, Rice Chex, Cheese Nips, peanuts, M&Ms, dried prunes, apricots, and bananas. He refuses to divulge the quantities of each, lest the recipe be widely copied. The banana and apricot stick to each other to resemble dried human ears and several less accessible body parts even more unappetizing.


Third Place: Mazda MPV

David DewhurstCar and Driver

Travel light. The Mazda MPV was not the lightest of our group of five four-wheel-drive minivans. Its 4126 pounds is a whole person heavier—127 pound—than the Caravan, and 34 pounds more than the Previa. It’s the most compact, however, so it forces you to pack slim.

The MPV was the shortest van in our group and had the least space for people in its second and third rows of seats. Luggage room is less than half that of the Toyota or Chevy with all the seats in place. Maximum capacity is only two-thirds that of the Toyota. So the MPV feels small and nimble, more like a car than any of the other minis except the Dodge. We like that feeling of a pint-sized van, but wish it involved less weight.

The 155-hp MPV accelerates less swiftly than the Chevy or the Ford and reaches a top speed of 105 mph, a bit shy of the less powerful Dodge. Still, the Mazda V-6 revs smoothly.

The electronically controlled four-speed automatic, which is standard, has a unique gear-holding feature, which means you can delay the transmission from upshifting by pressing a button on the shift lever. This is useful if you’re descending a hill. The button will also downshift the transmission from fourth to third gear. The transmission’s computer will signal for an upshift if the engine is revved above redline in any gear. It’s smart and handy, but the same feats can be done manually.

The MPV can be switched easily into rear-drive mode, though its four­-wheel-drive system has a center differential and can be used full-time. Mazda says you’II gain better fuel mileage and lower wear and tear on the front driveline by running in rear-drive mode in fair weather. Our MPV got 16 mpg; it remained in four-wheel-drive for almost the entire tundra trek. There is a center differential lock for improved traction on the slick paths around places like Prudhoe Bay.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

We noticed the MPV was more stable while accelerating on icy corners with the center differential locked. The MPV was competent braking on icy roads, too, though we were never in a situation that called on the standard rear-­only anti-lock system to work. In fact, we drove the MPV as if it had no anti-lock control and suggest you do too.

The MPV’s other virtues—direct steering, linear handling, and controls that work without surprise—place it at mid-pack in the four-wheel-drive mini­van class. Why? In spite of all of the MPV’s accomplishments, this minivan has ride problems when compared with the Toyota and the winning Dodge. The MPV rides stiffly, and its solid rear axle can bounce the tail of the van sideways on frost heaves. The MPV is sportier than the other four vans, and its stiff suspension is best suited to curvy, dry pavement.

A lack of space and the he-man ride keep the MPV out of first place, though one other flaw may have affected our judgment: The MPV’s heater only warms sufficiently when the ambient temperature rises to 0 degrees Fahrenheit and warmer. For colder climates, it’s tough to dress warm enough when you’re traveling this light. —Phil Berg

1992 Mazda MPV
155-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 4126 lb
Base/as-tested price: $20,535/$21,780
Cargo volume, seats in/out: 9/103 cu ft
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 11.4 sec
1/4 mile: 18.4 @ 74 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 202 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.72 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg


(continued)

Wrapped in enough goose down and Thinsulate to keep 3M profitable until Easter, we cannot walk quickly and shouldn’t anyway. Fall and you become a snow-dusted Galapagos tortoise on its back. Breathe too rapidly and the air has no chance to warm as it is inhaled, frosting your lungs. It is like taking God’s own gulp from the top of a mug of Vernors ginger ale. Followed by a dry cough. This is not a place that man was intended to inhabit.

Nor was our first night’s destination, 250 miles north of Fairbanks and 60 miles above the Arctic Circle: the village of Coldfoot. Except, calling Coldfoot a village—each of its three buildings is a variation on an Atco aluminum mobile home—is an insult to villages. But that is where we sleep. The Arctic Acres Hotel smells like a combination of Lysol, napalm, and the common involuntary gastrointestinal response to power-gulping Everclear.

Coldfoot was a gold-mining camp named in 1900, when Alaskan stampeders got as far as the Koyukuk River (which, in Eskimo, means “place where one makes love repeatedly,” proving what all of us have long suspected about twenty-hour nights), then got cold feet and ran. In its heyday, which is not now, Coldfoot consisted of gambling halls (one), whorehouses (two), stores (two), and saloons (seven).

David DewhurstCar and Driver

We plug each minivan into 110-volt sockets, called bull rails, and hope for the best. Our Arctic winterization program consists only of filling the crankcases with Mobil 1 and installing battery warmers. And every night, we feed each vehicle two bottles of Heet, like vitamins, to forestall condensation. It is, after all, at Coldfoot that the temperature once fell to minus 60 and stayed there for seventeen days. It is at Coldfoot that the thermometer plunged to minus 82 one January, then rose to 97 the following August: a seasonal swing of 179 degrees. Mother Nature, as played by Sam Kinison.

The weather accounts for a lot of unusual behavior on the part of the reclusive residents. Some of the winter’s diversions: an outhouse race (the “Iditapotty”), a survival-suit race, a banana-eating contest, an ore-truck pull, an ugly animal contest, a moose-decorating fest, a greased-pole walk, and—C/D‘s favorite by a unanimous show of still-attached limbs—a chainsaw toss.

Around midnight, as we sleep in our Arctic Acres aluminum cubbyholes ($98 per night), Coldfoot’s resident cook falls in an 86-proof heap outside my door. Cackling like Joan Rivers and bellowing, “Don’t tell my mother,” she is then dragged feet-first to her room. Jensen counterattacks, belting out Rinkbinders’ lyrics: “I take a lot of pills to stay awake/wash them down with antifreeze/ and that’s my big mistake.”

The next morning, she suffers in silence in the cafe, her head face-down on a simulated-pine countertop. Breakfast is delayed. A waitress cheerily chats about the Coldfoot Classic sled-dog race and the difference between Alaskan and Siberian huskies, then concludes this brief discourse when she reports: “We had a dog once. Something ate it.”


Second Place: Ford Aerostar XL Plus

David DewhurstCar and Driver

Ford’s Aerostar and Chevrolet’s Astro, introduced as 1986 models, were the two oldest minivans in this test. The next oldest was Mazda’s MPV, which is fully three years newer. That age might seem an insurmountable handicap, but the Aerostar is rolling proof that consistent development and improvement can keep an old van competitive.

For example, two years ago, Ford added the four-wheel-drive option that included a new 4.0-liter V-6 engine (derived from the ancient European V-6). That drivetrain (combined with an optional 3.73 axle ratio) resulted in the quickest acceleration of all the four-­wheel-drive minivans-turning a quarter-mile in 17.3 seconds at 77 mph. Moreover, the big V-6 and the four­-speed automatic transmission also pro­duced silky upshifts and responsive downshifts in the mountains as well as in the flats. On the down side, the Aerostar got 15 miles to the gallon. the largest appetite of the group.

Ford’s “Electronic” four-wheel­-drive system worked flawlessly during the drive. The electronics engage a mechanical lockup device in the center differential when there’s excessive slippage between the front and rear axles (our car also had the optional limited-slip rear axle). Though we were never aware of the system’s operation, traction remained excellent at all times.

The Aerostar’s braking system was less impressive. Not only did it take the longest distance to stop on dry pavement (though not by a large margin), the anti-lock control only acts on the rear wheels—it is still quite possible to lock up the front wheels and lose steering control on snow and ice.

Despite being a relatively low-line XL Plus model and spot-on our $22,000 as-tested target price, our Aerostar was a lavishly equipped machine. New features for 1992 include a redesigned instrument panel, a driver’s air bag, three-point belts for all outboard seating positions, and flush headlamps.

In addition, our Aerostar came with several useful options. The preferred equipment package and the power convenience group provided air conditioning, tilt steering, cruise control, tinted glass, and power windows, locks, and mirrors. The high-capacity A/C-heater option provided the coziest heat output in the group. The optional seven-passenger seating setup has a nice feature: the rear bench seats fold flat to form a bed.

The result was a machine that seemed the plushest, most luxurious vehicle in the test. It provided plenty of space for seven passengers. It offered as many power options as any other. It most easily coped with the intense cold. And it generally offered the smoothest ride and the highest performance. As a winter-ready people mover, the old Aerostar offers plenty of advantages. —Csaba Csere

1992 Ford Aerostar XL Plus
155-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 4218 lb
Base/as-tested price: $18,549/$22,000
Cargo volume, seats in/out: 13/136 cu ft
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 9.5 sec
1/4 mile: 17.3 @ 77 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 209 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.69 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 15 mpg


(continued)

At this time of year in the Arctic, the sun rises at eleven and sets at three. And we are fast approaching November 24, the day the sun sets 27 minutes after noon and stays set for 54 days, 22 hours, and 51 minutes. We are, however, in luck. There is a full moon, which reflects off the snow and bathes the afternoon landscape in aqua-neon luminescence. Outside Coldfoot, I douse the Mazda’s headlamps and drive for ten miles on moonlight alone. This makes associate editor Berg very nervous. He asks several times, “What did she mean, ‘We had a dog once, something ate it’?”

For Arctic dilettantes like us, the weak sun induces a kind of polar jet lag, as each day is foreshortened. By 4 p.m., in total darkness, we are hungry for dinner. By 6 p.m., we are thinking about bed. To while away the many dark hours, Coldfoot (known to the truckers as “Coldfood”) offers its guests a paperback library with as many as 21 titles. The most popular: Tom Bodett’s The End of the Road.

Except that it isn’t the end. In fact, the next day’s drive takes us another 250 miles due north, clean through the forbidding Brooks Range—the northernmost mountain range in the world. Few of its peaks have been climbed, fewer still named. Few portions are charted. Few Alaskans have ever even seen them. These white-and­-brown granite peaks are sculpted grotesquely-saw-toothed, jagged, razor­backed. They are arrayed unnaturally, as if they had fallen from the sky. Since the last ice age, the Brooks Range has remained in a huge Amana deepfreeze, largely unaffected by the smoothing influence of erosion. This range marks the Arctic Divide: all water south flows to the Pacific Ocean, all north to the Arctic Ocean.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

We approach Atigun Pass—elevation 4800 feet—and observe two warnings. The first is merely for grizzly bears, whereas the second actually gets our attention. It is a sign with the self-canceling message: AVALANCHE AREA NEXT 40 MILES: DO NOT STOP. Berg insists I slip on my red high-top sneakers and pose next to a likely looking avalanche. Then he blows the Aerostar’s horn four times. This commands the attention of a Dall sheep, who eyes us with deserved suspicion. Observes photographer Dewhurst, “The sheep’s horns are far more impressive than the Aerostar’s.”

Cresting the Brooks Range, our sturdy group again falls silent. Before us stretches the North Slope, the final 100 miles of the continent. Not a single tree or bush. Just flat frozen tundra and permafrost that extends to the horizon, where there is no distinction between terra firma and sky. The atmosphere here is so quintessentially cold and clear that you can often see right to the Beaufort Sea, except there is no telling where seawater begins. It too is uniformly hard, flat, and white. ARCO oil­men later tell us such stupendous visibility is dangerous. People tend to say things like, ”I’ll just walk to that hill over there,” but the hill turns out to be a pingo (a frozen lake bed that has risen as much as 300 feet above the surrounding tundra), and instead of being “just over there,” it is, in fact, 34 miles over there.


First Place: Dodge Caravan SE AWD

David DewhurstCar and Driver

Does this rounded box on wheels define the typical minivan to you? Yes? Perhaps it is because the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager twins are so familiar. Chrysler has built 2.9 million of them since 1983. In marketing-speak, one could say Chrysler hit the nail on the head. With a steam­-powered pile driver.

Chrysler’s makeover of this minivan in 1991 was hardly revolutionary. That means the current version remains a distant relative of the once-ubiquitous K-car, the small front-wheel-drive sedans and wagons that saved the company’s financial heinie a decade ago. The K-car was a bare-bones car. It was also practical, simple, and budget­-priced. And if the present-day Caravan bears any resemblance to the K-car, it’s in its virtues, not its vices.

Interestingly, this passenger-car heritage was to the Caravan’s advantage on the Dalton Highway. The 3.3-liter V-6, which also appears in many of Chrysler’s luxury cars, was smooth and unobtrusive. The Dodge kept up with the truck-based entries (the Ford, the Chevy, and to a lesser extent, the Mazda) through the mountains without breathing hard, while tying the Toyota Previa for first place in ride quality over the Dalton’s ruts, bumps, and ice. The Caravan’s drivetrain generated nary a complaint, with a front torque bias that provided useful traction in snow and mild understeer. With regard to the somewhat-notorious four-speed Ultradrive transmission, either Chrysler has improved it or we were lucky: it was the smoothest-shifting automatic in the group, and it avoided all the busyness we’ve associated with Ultradrives past.

The inside of the Caravan was hospitable, with comfortable front seats, decent ergonomics (an exception was the distant radio placement), and pleasing switch and control feel. The heater warmed frigid subzero air with ease, although the lack of a split defroster/floor setting annoyed some editors. The boxy exterior translates to similar interior proportions; while not the roomiest in the comparison, the interior was handy and nicely finished, with removable rear seats yielding a low and flat load floor. Simple and practical.

Our Caravan was adept at the numbers game. C/D‘s observed mileage was 17 mpg, tied for best with the four­-cylinder Previa. The window sticker showed $22,104, a higher number made respectable with the standard air bag.

This was one of the more inconspicuous vans on the test, making its way along the 1100-mile test route without incident. In fact, the logbook for this car was filled not with superlatives, but mostly consistent praise. The Dodge did most things well without committing any unforgivable sins, which, in the less than favorable circumstances of Arctic Alaska, is enough to make it exceptional indeed.

The first-place honors for Chrysler’s minivan shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the company’s been at it longer than anyone else. —Don Schroeder

1992 Dodge Caravan SE AWD
150-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 3999 lb
Base/as-tested price: $19,127/$22,104
Cargo volume, seats in/out: 13/115 cu ft
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 12.3 sec
1/4 mile: 18.5 @ 74 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 201 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.71 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 17 mpg


(continued)

McGinniss says the North Slope—under which languishes nobody knows how many billion dollars’ worth of natural gas and crude—is “that part of North America which could make you believe that the earth was indeed flat and that, at last, you had come to its edge.” It is also large. The North Slope’s surface in square miles is meaninglessly immense, like the budget deficit or the Reverend Al Sharpton. We cannot grasp its enormity until a local explains, “Our school district is approximately the size of California.” And there are far fewer students here than caribou, two of which loiter astern the Previa and stare glassy-eyed at it, as if reflecting upon its ovoid styling. The pipeline here is kinked by a “sag bend”—a short buried section that acts as a caribou crosswalk, although the caribou have not yet read the memo on this and cross wherever they please, using the steel supports to scratch their backs.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

We continue north to Prudhoe Bay and Deadhorse, which are, like Paul Reubens and Pee-wee Herman, inexplicably the same thing. Still, it offers fuel. What remains in the tanks of the Caravan and the MPV would not fill a urologist’s Dixie cup. An Arctic fox emerges from the shadows. Perhaps to observe these fellow polar travelers who mysteriously pound their mittens on their thighs. He watches our refueling. Every inch of his fragile two-­foot-long body is covered in willowy, snow-white fur that is so supple it blows every which way in the wind, like hair. I approach on my stomach—yet another new tourist floor show calculated to amuse the wildlife—offering dried human ears from Berg’s gorp. The fox rejects these, as did we, as did Berg, in favor of Planters’ peanuts and prunes—the latter not an indigenous foodstuff, but a substance that can be relied upon to make Alopex Iagopus unpopular in his den. Fouse calmly points out that our group now includes a triple felon. Feeding the wildlife here is a breach of state, park, and Bureau of Land Management laws, and the leftover Rice Chex scattered on the tundra may constitute felony littering.

The frost-encrusted settlements of Prudhoe Bay and Deadhorse are a tightly packed hodgepodge of spectral shapes and surreal shadows poking out of unremitting gloom. Cranes, derricks, lengths of pipe, abandoned Chevy Suburbans whose cabs are filled with snow, and yet more Atco trailers stacked in rows like freight trains. One of them is the Prudhoe Bay Hotel—where we spend yet another night in accommodations whose walls are festooned with vehicular running lights.

Nothing here is familiar. No stoplights. No street signs. Few signs of any sort, in fact, even on the grocery store, one of whose recent shipments accidentally wound up scattered along the Dalton Highway. A tow truck could not reach the scene at a speed that exceeded the bears’, whose variety here is sobering: black, brown, Kodiak brown, polar, grizzly. When the tow-truck driver arrived, he took one look, said “Grizzly groceries,” and left.

Prudhoe’s population varies between 3500 and 8500, depending on America’s thirst for crude and the number of persons killing one another in the Middle East. On the two days we visit, however, the number of sentient beings actually conducting business appears to be, perhaps, twenty.

The next morn, we decide that beating a Deadhorse is worth a try. Fouse somehow endears himself to ARCO, whose chief of public affairs (of which there are understandably few in Deadhorse) has invited us to tour the Kuparuk oil field. We did not think it possible, but the ARCO site is 40 miles north of Prudhoe. The company at least possesses one traffic sign. It says, CAUTION: CARIBOU HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

ARCO’s oil wells are scattered right to the horizon in a 180-degree arc. They are housed in aluminum one-car garages. Like the pipeline, they are so unobtrusive in this vast lunar landscape that, were they painted white, nobody would be able to locate them, which is why they aren’t. Perhaps 100 yards from ARCO’s main employee residence—an orange high­school-size aluminum pod on stilts whose architecture may have been the handiwork of Dennis Hopper—are nine caribou dozing in the now.

Nowhere in this alien expanse, as far as we can determine, has a drop of petroleum been unloosed. No grease. No oil. Not a smudge. Which is ironic, because it is at this moment that the Astro inexplicably vomits an impressive quantity of Mobil 1 out it dipstick tube onto the final few miles of the oilfield service road. Fouse dubs the Chevy the “Astro Valdez.” Assistant art director Tom Cosgrove says, “We had an Astro once; something ate it.”

We reach our goal, Olik Tok Point, at noon. There is a desalinization plant here, where ARCO collects seawater that will be pumped underground to pressurize the oil. This is as far north as you can drive a vehicle without pontoons or tank treads. Mile zero. There is no manmade structure that now stands between us and the North Pole, and the wind knows it. (On February 25, 1991, the breeze here reached an invigorating 109 mph.) If we drove twenty yards farther we’d be atop the Arctic Ocean. Although except for 45 days each summer, the ocean here looks exactly like the road on which we’re standing, which looks exactly like the previous 100 miles of tundra. Frost from the Previa ‘s windows peels off in six-inch onion-ring shavings. The temperature here is 40 below. “That don’t sound too bad if you say it fast,” says Fouse.

David DewhurstCar and Driver

We suit up for the obligatory photo and walk the few steps to the ice—which Fouse confidently asserts is “five or six feet thick this time of year.” Then we step off the edge of the continent.

So.

After I fell through the ice up to my knees—catching any further descent into the Arctic Ocean by hooking both arms on the lips of a small crevasse—my blue­jeans, within twenty seconds, achieved the same consistency as ballistic Kevlar. When I fingered the cuffs, they broke off in chunks, like peanut-butter cookies.

Jeanes is on the CB: “It’s getting dark again. We should turn around and repeat the whole trip backward.”

Inside the warm Previa, Cosgrove watches me tear my frozen pants off, which stand upright without me in them, like hip waders. He announces to no one in particular, “We had an executive editor once. Something ate it.”

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