CARLSBAD, CA – Californians have come to accept traffic jams just about any time of day on Interstate 5, known to locals as the Santa Ana Freeway, as they drive north to Los Angeles. Factor in a jackknifed manure spreader and a bad day can get worse.

What better time than to take stock of the vehicles prowling the road in arguably the most highly prized U.S. market: Southern California.

Ferraris and Bentleys are not all that exotic here. The more surprising revelation – in the backyard of the environmentally minded California Air Resources Board – is the abundance of fullsize pickups and SUVs, their V-8s idling while in gridlock.

A search for the world’s best-selling minivan is alarmingly fruitless. Don’t Californians know Chrysler Group manufactures the No.1 minivan duo in its Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country?

Apparently not. During a 45-minute unscientific survey of north- and southbound lanes of heavy I-5 traffic, about five Toyota Sienna minivans are spotted for every Chrysler or Dodge family hauler. For the record, R.L. Polk & Co. reports Sienna held 36% of the California minivan market as of May, compared with 6% for Town & Country and 5% for Caravan.

Which explains exactly why this drive in the all-new ’08 Dodge Grand Caravan is taking place here. Expose enough minivan intenders to the new sheetmetal and a test drive, and Chrysler might be able to regain ground lost in California to Toyota and the Honda Odyssey. Smart thinking.

Chrysler has cleverly defended its hallowed minivan turf before. Three years ago, as Honda and Toyota sales were taking off, Chrysler launched its second-row Stow 'n Go seating feature, which was an instant hit and boosted Chrysler’s share of the U.S. minivan segment to 38.1% in 2006.

In 1996, however, Chrysler held more than 44% of the market, followed by several years of declines. Meanwhile, Toyota and Honda, respectively, have doubled their minivan market shares to 16.8% and 18.3% since 2000, according to Ward’s data. General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have left the sector altogether.

Chrysler is lavishing attention and resources on the launch of its fifth-generation minivan, clearly intending to secure its dominant position.

The new minivan should do that nicely. It handles well (for a large, front-wheel-drive, car-based family hauler); offers a smooth-shifting 6-speed transmission; integrates desirable safety features such as electronic stability control and side curtain airbags as standard equipment; and has a wholly utilitarian, comfortable and kid-friendly interior.

And despite additional content, every Chrysler minivan is priced at least $835 less than similarly equipped models from the previous-generation platform.

Esthetically, Chrysler’s third- and fourth-generation minivans were jelly bean-shaped, while the new vehicles are squarish and slab-sided, reminiscent of the first-generation van, which launched in 1984 and pioneered the segment.

The look of the new minivans may be overly conservative, but Chrysler can’t be blamed for playing it safe. The bland Toyota Sienna sells well, while the radically restyled Nissan Quest has done poorly and was dulled down in a later refresh.

Besides, no one buys a minivan to make a fashion statement. Chrysler’s design team was focused on maximizing functionality and value with its latest iteration.

Part of that mission was to reduce the amount of “tumblehome” on the body’s vertical surfaces to improve interior headroom. A vehicle with steeply raked side windows, such as the sleek and sexy Lamborghini Countach, has lots of tumblehome but little head room.

Chrysler designers wanted a more upright stance for the new minivans, with taut, clean body side panels and a smaller proportion of glass, much like the successful 300-series vehicles.

Clearly, minivans are designed from the inside out, and the interiors of the new Chrysler minivans are bound to set a new benchmark for convenience, comfort and functionality.

Designers achieved a greater level of differentiation between the luxury-oriented Town & Country and the more sporty and youthful Grand Caravan, as each has unique dashboards, instrument gauges and door panels.

The pre-production models driven here suffer from a few misaligned pieces of interior trim, but on the whole fit and finish is up to snuff. Materials are high quality (particularly the woven fabric headliner), but a few critics complained about too many hard surfaces within the driver’s reach.

Two center consoles are available, including the standard unit that is fixed, with four removable dishwasher-safe cupholders. The premium console represents a nifty bit of engineering; it slides rearward and offers multiple storage areas, including one large enough to accommodate a purse.

The top section of the premium console also slides rearward, independent of the bottom. Combined, the two sections can travel 21 ins. (53 cm), offering additional cupholders or storage space to second-row occupants.

In all, the Chrysler minivans offer 13 cup or bottle holders. No word yet on when an onboard toilet will be offered. For the time being, parents will be glad to have YES Essentials stain-resistant, odor-resistant fabric seats.

Climbing into the third row is relatively easy; the second-row captain’s chair pivots upward and, at the same time, inward toward the center of the vehicle, providing a few extra inches of access.

The third row is surprisingly comfortable for an adult, with adequate head and leg room. The ability to slide the second-row seats forward about 4 ins. (10 cm) will eliminate many sibling arguments.

Head restraints for all three seating positions in the back row improve safety. The 60/40 third row also folds flat into the floor, to maximize cargo space.

Additional safety features include pre-tensioning and load-limiting front seatbelt retractors, remote starting and all-row side curtain airbags that stay inflated in the event of a rollover. The minivans also offer a rear backup camera or a rear sensing system to detect stationary objects behind the vehicle.

Another clever new feature is second-row Swivel 'n Go seats, which rotate 180 degrees to face rearward. However, turning the seats is not a simple maneuver. First, a lock near the floor in front of the seat must be released. Then a fairly flimsy lever on the side of the seat must be pulled with one hand, while the other hand wrestles to spin the seat. It takes practice. The engineers should be able to come up with a more efficient procedure.

Once the seats are turned and locked in place, the dynamics of the cabin are significantly altered. A table stashed in the well in front of the second-row seats locks into a port on the floor, allowing all five occupants to play a board game or have a mobile picnic.

Between this feature and the soft greenish-blue ambient lighting overhead, the new Chrysler family haulers could give any conversion van a run for the money. Sunshades also can be deployed even when the second-row windows are down.

Swivel 'n Go is available in both SE and SXT trim levels on the Grand Caravan and is available in packages in all three Town & Country models (LX, Touring and Limited).

The only problem with Swivel 'n Go is that the second-row seats do not fold into the floor. So buyers will have to choose whether they want their seats to spin or stow.

Entertainment options are plentiful, as Chrysler offers the sector’s first Sirius Backseat TV. A satellite beams in three channels of kid-friendly programming, including Disney and Nickelodeon.

Gadget-happy teens and parents will be pleased with the optional MyGIG multimedia navigation system driven by a 20-gigabyte hard drive that can store about 1,200 songs. A jukebox feature allows for personalized play lists, and the system can accommodate external digital music players, as well.

A 10-speaker premium audio system with a subwoofer and 506-watt amplifier also is available.

Mechanically, the minivans are competent but do not raise the technology bar. Some 41% of parts are carried over from the previous minivans to the new RT platform.

The two primary engines (3.3L and 3.8L V-6s) are virtually unchanged.

These outdated cast-iron-block OHV mills come up woefully short when compared with the Odyssey and Sienna OHC engines, both equipped with variable valve timing, much more power and the same (or better) fuel economy. The Odyssey also offers fuel-saving cylinder deactivation.

Rather than re-engineering the engines, Chrysler adds an optional 4.0L SOHC V-6 borrowed from the Dodge Nitro and Chrysler Pacifica. Its output is much more competitive: 251 hp and 259 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) of torque.

Based on new Environmental Protection Agency testing standards, the 4.0L V-6 is rated at 16/23 mpg city/highway (14.6/10.2 L/100 km).

Chrysler also continues offering its antiquated VLP 41TE 4-speed automatic on the base minivans, paired up with the 3.3L, while 5-speed automatics are standard on Odyssey and Sienna.

Chrysler’s two larger engines, which will account for most of the sales volume, are mated to the 62TE 6-speed automatic.

The 4.0L and 6-speed work well in tandem. The combo might not be as punchy as the 3.5L V-6 (with 5-speed) in the Nissan Quest, but the Chrysler mill is very comfortable for casual driving and doesn’t mind being pushed hard from time to time.

’08 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 7-passenger minivan
Engine 3.8L (3,778 cc) OHV 60¡ V-6, cast-iron block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 197 hp
Torque 230 lb.-ft. (312 Nm)
Compression ratio 9.6:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 96 x 87
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 121.2 ins. (308 cm)
Overall length 202.5 ins. (514 cm)
Overall width 78.7 ins. (200 cm)
Overall height 68.9 ins. (175 cm)
Curb weight 4,483 lbs. (2,038 kg)
Base price $27,535
EPA fuel economy city/highway (mpg) 17/24 (13.8/9.7 L/100 km)
Market competition Honda Odyssey; Toyota Sienna; Nissan Quest; Kia Sedona

During our drive here – most of it on highways – the best fuel economy achieved with the 4.0L V-6 was 21 mpg (11.1 L/100 km).

The front suspension consists of all-new independent MacPherson struts, with coil springs over gas-charged shocks.

In the rear, a twist-beam axle rides on coil springs with a track bar and gas-charged shocks, replacing the leaf springs in the old minivan. Bushings and attachment points on the rear suspension also were upgraded to better isolate road noise.

Power rack-and-pinion steering guides the new minivans, same as before.

Together, the steering and suspension make for a comfortable drive in both the Grand Caravan and Town & Country. The vehicles exhibit minimal body roll and stay firmly planted on uneven pavement. Dynamically, however, the Odyssey still leads the segment.

Chrysler betters the competition on price. By carrying over significant content, the auto maker manages to slash the stickers, even though the previous models already were generally priced below Honda and Toyota.

The outgoing Chrysler minivan had 11,000 buildable configurations; the new one, thanks in part to eliminating the short-wheelbase model, has only 1,300.

Pricing for Grand Caravan begins at $22,470 and tops out at $27,535, while Town & Country falls between $23,190 and $36,400. All prices include a $730 destination charge. Of course, options can add upwards of $10,000 to the price of some models.

Chrysler sold 370,245 minivans in the U.S. in 2006 and declines to forecast sales for the new van when it begins arriving in showrooms later this month.

Pilot production started in July in Chrysler’s plant in Windsor, ON, Canada, to be followed soon by its sister facility in Fenton, MO.

Chrysler has much to be proud of in its new fleet of minivans. Management has been paying close attention, insisting on first-rate quality and a launch void of the problems that plagued the fourth-generation minivan’s debut in 2001.

A smooth rollout could generate Chrysler showroom traffic, even in Southern California.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com