By on February 26, 2018

Image: 1994 Toyota PreviaWhen the Picture Time post for the Villager Nautica went up on these pages last year, the idea for this particular edition of Buy/Drive/Burn was already on my mind. In fact, in the big list of trios I keep for this series, this one has always been at the top of the list.

The year is 1994, and you’ve got a luxury minivan to set alight.

Sorry, no Previa for you. Today we’re talking American luxury — even though one of our trio is technically Japanese. Let’s go.

Mercury Villager Nautica

Mercury Villager Nautica, Image via FordThe top trim of Mercury’s Villager (a twin to the Nissan Quest) wore clothes from fashionable suburban mall clothing brand Nautica. Leather seats, embroidery, luggage, and the prestige of white wheels were all ensured by Villager Nautica. Underneath, power was provided by Nissan’s VG30 engine, a 3.0-liter V6 with a timing belt. It’s not as good as a VQ30, and it’s smaller than the V6 engines offered by the other two competitors. Anyway, the Villager has prestige and luxury, and the added bonus of being the less-commonly chosen alternative luxury van.

Chrysler Town & Country AWD

Image: 1994 Chrysler Town & CountryThis is the van most luxury customers purchased at the time (albeit perhaps without AWD). Chrysler was killing the minivan game ever since it invented it in the mid-80s, and in 1994 the top trim of the Caravan/Voyager/T&C trio was the Town & Country AWD. Changes in 1994 saw a redesigned dash layout and instruments, as well as standard passenger side airbags in T&C models. The Town & Country is a safe choice; the first minivan to meet 1998 safety standards back in 1994. Underneath is Chrysler’s trusty 3.8-liter V6, in use all the way to 2011 in the Wrangler. Plus, gold lace alloys.

Oldsmobile Silhouette

Image: 1993 Oldsmobile SilhouetteAhh, the Cadillac of Minivans. Hailing from 1989, the Dustbuster Silhouette is by far the oldest design here. Undergoing a front-end revamp and some trim changes in 1993, our top-end trim specification includes the vaunted 3800 Buick V6. Other highlights include configurable and flexible rear seating, where each rear seat is a captain’s chair. No benches for Oldsmobile passengers! Ride comfort is enhanced by the air ride package, which includes an air compressor for all inflationary needs.

This one’s tough, so where’s your purchase money go?

[Images: Toyota, Ford, Chrysler, General Motors]

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53 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Toasting a Luxury Minivan From 1994...”


  • avatar
    seth1065

    Ok since I bought my ticket to this hell show here goes, I would buy the oh so stylish Villager, drive the Town and country until the tranny blew up and based on the mid 90’s Chrysler rep it would not be to long, and burn? melt the Olds BC I had it’s uglier cousin the APV as a company car and know how much they suck.

    This is no way to start a Monday, Shame on you.

  • avatar
    tonyola

    This is a toughie. None of the choices exactly stir my blood.

    Buy – Chrysler. First, it’s all wheel drive. Second, it’s probably the easiest to keep running.

    Now comes the hard part…

    Drive – Mercury, for no particular reason except it’s not a GM Dustbuster.

    Burn – See Drive.

    • 0 avatar
      Flipper35

      Around here the local tranny shop replaces the 2nd gear cog in the Mopar slushbox and they say it is good for the life of the van. I know of one that went nearly 200k miles after the cog swap before the van was rust dust. I think it was around $1700 for the service. Mom and dad both had theirs replaced at that shop as well and never had a problem afterwards. I think they have had a dozen minivans total and only had issues with two and they both owned them the same time, 2 model years different.

      I would not degrade fire by setting the GM van alight. Elon Musk could have sent one in place of his roadster, but the aliens would probably nuke us from orbit for sending it to them. I don’t know how to dispose of it.

      The Merc isn’t too bad.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    Buy the Chrysler. Drive the Chrysler. Don’t burn the Chrysler though, drag it across the scales and at least get a few bucks for the metal. Save the hood ornament, those will be gone after the ‘95 model year and you’ll wish you had one!

  • avatar
    la834

    The Chrysler T&C far and away the best vehicle here to buy, drive, ride in, and certainly to look at. Even if it were the FWD version but AWD just sweetens the deal.

    Burn: the Dustbuster. I drove one of those through a snowstorm and those triangular sail windows on either side of the windshield stayed covered with snow and created huge blind spots. Even in good weather, those huge stacked wiper blades blocked your view some. Also, cheap, unattractive interior that looked the same as the Chevy and Pontiac versions. (I do love the 3800 though; why do I remember these as only offering the 3.3L?

    • 0 avatar
      Middle-Aged Miata Man

      AWD added weight and complexity to a drivetrain that was already stressed in FWD guise. Nevertheless, I agree the Chrysler remains the best choice of the three.

      The other Dustbuster engine choice besides the 3800 (introduced in 1992) was the 3.1L V6 until both engines were replaced by the 3400 in 1996.

    • 0 avatar

      Nope, no 3.3. You could have 3.1, 3.4, or 3.8 depending on year and trim.

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        Yep, I definitely remember the later Pontiac dustbusters before they became the Montana had 3800s buried way beneath their cowls. I was cursed to do intake manifold gaskets on many of them.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    Those Chryslers seem to be eternal, even here in the salt belt in severely degraded condition, they are still conveying loads of (mostly Hispanic) kids around these days. Totally in demand at the Pick-A-Part yard too.

    When the dustbuster was being rolled out at GM, internally they called it the “plastic pachyderm” because the panels and substructure combined made it pretty chubby. But it did have a sweet powertrain.

    Don’t know much about the Merc, but they were assembled in my old hometown up on Lake Erie, and these days cranking out HD F-series there.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Buy the Olds, burn the Ford, drive the Chrysler.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    My mom and dad had a ’96 Quest and ’95 Maxima at the same time. I only had access to the Quest, so I always dreamt about swapping engines between the two in the middle of the night. The unbridled imagination and ambition of a 16 year old.

    Villager for me just off of nostalgia alone.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Pretty easy one for me.

    Buy the Silhouette because it has the 3800 and looks radical.

    Drive the T&C for vinyl siding and all-weather capability.

    Burn the Villager because the only thing I like about it is the color scheme.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Oh, this is easy. Buy the Nissan.. err Mercury, drive the Chrysler until the transmission explodes, and burn the Dustbuster before it catches fire in your driveway.

  • avatar
    paxman356

    I have driven variations of all three (regular Quest and Dodge Caravan both of which my brother owned, and an APV). Here’s what I would do:

    Buy: Villager. My dad raised us on GM, but I’ve bought Prizms and Vibes to fight the power! I liked the Mercury when my brother owned it, it is the most refined of the three.

    Drive: T&C. I drove the Caravan a good bit, as I had to deliver it to my brother after the transmission blew up, and he took my car back to Kentucky (at 18 and with no job at the time, my dad was not sympathetic to me losing a car for a week, especially since he had started making payments for me). This is not a bad van, although I hope the T&C came with a better sound system. C+C Music Factory sounded terrible on those tinny speakers.

    Burn: Olds. I’d want to rescue the 3800 before burning. But this was a pretty terrible car. GM did get the sound systems right on their cars, but that’s pretty much it. I remember blasting Bell Biv Devoe’s Poison in a Lumina APV, and loving it. But driving it? Meh.

    • 0 avatar

      POISON! P-P-POISON!
      so take precautionnnnn

    • 0 avatar
      Flipper35

      The Infinity system was pretty good for a factory unit.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Agreed. I’m assuming the Villager comes with the trick digital dash. Want.

      The Olds’ captain’s chairs, rocket ship styling, and 3800 are tempting, but a GM air-suspension hitting the quarter century mark is 100% kill-it-with-fire, I’ll bet it was shot before it hit ten years.

      • 0 avatar
        Featherston

        Isn’t the Olds’ air suspension really just load-leveling rear air shocks, as seen in various Cadillacs and Buicks over the years? I think this is a fundamentally different animal than air suspensions available on higher-end luxury cars. I don’t think the GM system is particularly expensive or problematic. I could be wrong, though.

        The shocks themselves are very affordable, in the $50-$90 for a pair from Monroe or AC Delco. The compressors (and labor) are expensive relative to the value of an early-’90s hooptie, but they’re not expensive in an absolute sense.

        I can only point to a handful of examples amongst people I know. The oldest (a ’99 Cadillac) was traded in after a trouble-free 11 years and 110,000 miles.

        Any horror stories out there? I am the type of crazy person who, if I owned the Silhouette, would want the suspension functioning correctly.

        Here’s a shock replacement on a ’97 Riv: youtube.com/watch?v=2GP8ASX8-vY

        • 0 avatar

          Rear shocks on my DeVille were going out, and it was gonna be $800+ IIRC to replace them.

          There are multiple things that can go wrong with the system – lines, pump, or the “dryer” whatever that is.

          • 0 avatar
            Featherston

            Yesterday I fell down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos about this. One of them entailed rebuilding the “dryer.” It’s a canister filled with dessicants that remove the moisture–as dessicants do–from the air as it’s pumped into the system.

            Based on my newfound, self-proclaimed expertise ;-) , I declare that $800+ to be high. I would think that would entail replacing every component in the system, which probably isn’t necessary. Who knows, though.

            Even if these systems are relatively cheap & reliable, I agree that the cost-benefit is dubious.

  • avatar
    gtem

    You’re killing me Corey! No Previa or MPV as options?!?! I refuse to participate!

    Actually no, I will participate and I’ll do it may way!

    Buy: Mazda MPV 4WD in two tone forest green over beige with lace-spoke alloys
    Drive: Previa Alltrac Supercharged
    Burn: all of your proposed entries

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    These all deserve death by fire, and the remains deserve to be ground into the Earth by a bulldozer. But I’ll play along.

    Burn: Mercury. Why? Because the real Mercury’s a hot place. I honestly can’t think of a better rationale here.

    Buy: Chrysler. Why? Because I think I could buy it for about $76.50 these days. Besides, I just got a big retention bonus from my last job, and the money’s burning a hole in my pocket.

    Drive: Olds. With a bag over my head. Yes, that may be illegal, but then again, something as ugly as the Olds should have been against the law in the first place. Fight the power!

  • avatar
    ernest

    Buy the Chrysler, drive the Mercury, burn the dustbuster.

    We actually shopped all three back then when they were new. Came home with a new Suburban.

  • avatar
    Cactuar

    The alloys on these pictures, are they aluminium? Seems like they became popular and used on many cars back then.

  • avatar
    anomaly149

    Maaaaan, when I was a little kid, my mom had a candy apple red 77 Firebird Trans-Am with a 405 Pontiac, T-tops, full running kit, screaming chicken hood art, the works. My folks traded it in on a 96 Previa with a hair dryer supercharger and second row captain’s chairs. I think I cried all the way home from the dealership.

    I ended up driving that Previa all through high school and a bit in college. It wasn’t sexy, but girls did enjoy putting their feet up on the dash. It was apparently a lot more comfortable than the low tier BMWs/ Audis a lot of my classmates drove.

    Plus the back seats folded flat :)

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Burn all 3.

    OK, that off my chest: Buy the Chrysler and 3 transmissions, Drive the dust buster because I can’t own that air suspension and burn the Nautica tie in because I hate this kind of irrelevant branding tie in.

  • avatar
    readallover

    I actually faced this conundrum in real life. Child number 2 arrived and I had to trade the Maxima (sob) for a people hauler. I just could not do a minivan and ended up with a Mercury Sable station wagon that was great while it ran ( the magically disintigrating gaskets on the 3.8 V-6 and the automatic transmission that did not like to shift into second on cold, wet days. Otherwise it did everything asked of it for 10 years.

  • avatar
    Blackcloud_9

    All opinions based on anecdotal data and just ’cause I feel like it!
    BUY the Olds. I was one of the few that liked the “Dustbuster” design, I thought it looked futuristic. Props to GM for trying to inject some style in a basic box-on-wheels. This is a hard “Buy” to justify as my father-in-law owned a Chevy Lumina APV and it was mechanical nightmare. Although it had the 3.1 V-6. So, I’ll blame all of its issues on that.
    DRIVE the Villager. Mostly because I know nothing about it.
    BURN the T & C. Also, based on personal anecdotal evidence. My brother owned one of the earliest iterations of the Dodge Grand Caravan. After the initial honeymoon period wore off, all of its bits and pieces quickly degraded.
    I owned a 2000 Grand Caravan. Many mechanical issues. Just to name a few… Ate brakes at regular intervals – 18k miles on a set of brakes was stellar. Transmission failed at 80 k. Power window switch decided NOT to work as I was going onto an automated car wash. BURN Baby, BURN!

    • 0 avatar

      We had a Grand Voyager in my family of 1994 vintage. It did not do the following things very well:

      AC compressors
      Clearcoat holding
      Rust resistance
      Trim fidelity

      Don’t think we had any transmission woes that I recall. Definitely did on the successor one, a 99 Grand Caravan Sport.

  • avatar
    Ermel

    Buy the Oldsmobile, because it is a styling icon. No, really. That thing looks more futuristic than its own successor. Needs to be white, though, to more resemble the ICE railway train — most of them were here in Germany (albeit called Pontiac Trans Sport). Also, plastic body panels and ridiculously ’80s dash. One of those rare American cars I really, really adore for their quirkiness. I even drove one for a couple hundred miles (company car) and mostly loved it.

    Drive the Chrysler, because AWD. Burn the Mercury, because WTF.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    I bought a 1998 Mercury Villager – twin of the Nissan Quest. In 1998 the engine had a slight increase in horsepower to 155 and the transmission was upgraded from a 3-speed to a 4-speed. I drove an earlier model with the lower horsepower engine (140?) and 3-speed, and the engine revved very high at normal highway speeds, plus fuel economy was worse than the 4-speed models.) That was barely enough to make performance acceptable. Based on that, I would BUY AND DRIVE the 3.8 liter Oldsmobile in 1994 (the “Cadillac of minivans” per Get Shorty), and BURN the Chrysler.

    BTW, the Quest & Villager really came into their own from 1999-2002. The new 3.3 liter 170-hp was just enough extra grunt to make it pleasant to drive – two sliding doors, and slightly smaller size than competing makes. I saw a lot of these vans still on the road on a trip to New York City last year.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      Maybe you’re confusing this with Chrysler putting 3spds into their base vans for some time? Everything I see online seems to imply they all used a common 4spd RE4F04A Jatco, 3spd Jatcos went by the wayside by 1990 or so. And the HP rating on the VG30 was 151 the whole time before they went to the VG33 and 170hp (same motor as Pathfinder/Xterra of that era).

  • avatar
    Menar Fromarz

    I can’t remember the question, since all I have going in my head is:

    I see a silhouette-o of a van…scare me moosh scare me moosh, will you do the van dango?

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Buy: Mercury Quest, this was the very first car that I actually drove, ours earned about 200k miles with minimal fussing. Plus, its basically a station wagon Maxima when you get down to it. Cant say I like the new Quest as much having experienced a rental (which already had some interior parts falling off, the CVT transmission felt clunky on take offs).

    Drive: Chrysler Caravan, we used one of these for many vacations back in the 90’s. Other than a belt slipping it was pretty reliable. The transmission didnt go out surprisingly.

    Burn: Oldsmobile Dust thing, I actually like the goofy styling, even if its a very exaggerated copy of a Renault Espace. What I didnt like were the various tacked-on grilles GM employed to make them distinguishable (Pontiac got the worst ones), I especially didnt like how rather than leaving the 3800/4-speed as a standard setup, they’d punish you with an array of smaller engines and a 3-speed unless if you got a top of the line model.

    Despite that, Dustvans are surprisingly competent in Chump car/Lemons races with the right setup.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    We had 3 Chrysler/Dodge minivans of that generation. Don’t want to count up the number of 4 speed transmissions that were replaced. The 3 speed was however rock solid. Also had problems with the ABS. And the interior plastic cracking and splitting.

    Never drove the Villager/Quest but liked the idea of the ‘smaller’ minivan with that engine.

    Spent considerable time in Flying Dustbusters. Really liked the seat configuration of 5 separate removable/folding seats. The onboard compressor was carried over onto the Montana/Venture and came in handy on a number of occasions. Its avaialble drivetrain (3.8!!) was the best of the bunch. And polymer panels making the body more durable up here in the salt belt.

    Drive the GM, because it is the one that would probably still be operable.
    Buy the Chrysler, because I did.
    Burn the Merc, because?

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Buy the T&C, with a discount sufficient to cover the first new 4-speed transmission.
    Drive the Silhouette just for the unique aardvark snout experience.
    Burn the unfortunate Nissercury.

  • avatar
    jh26036

    Here’s the only worthy minivan.

    https://bringatrailer.com/2017/10/24/awd-turbodiesel-5-speed-1992-toyota-estima-in-oregon/

    Diesel, AWD, and manual.

    You can just burn the other three.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      Ooooh, and it’s got the rare (at least in the US) Cool Box! I dig the Estima – the only drawback is that they use the narrower body (compared to the Previa). Several years back, a guy transplanted a 3C-T into a Previa, and was running it on used fry oil (he owned a company that did fry oil conversions on diesels, called Golden Fuel Systems).

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    The typical failure with the Villager (and Quest) is broken exhaust manifold studs, and the exhaust leaks that accompany them.

  • avatar

    Buy – the Merc because I like the styling.
    Drive – the T&C
    Burn – the Olds

  • avatar
    PandaBear

    Buy and drive the ones with durable transmissions, and burn the one that doesn’t.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus

    I’ve driven all three contenders. None set my heart aglow.

    Buy the Mercury- easily the most reliable. Decent ride/handling, comfortable, not ugly.

    Drive the Olds, because “Oldsmobile” and “3800”. Styling aside, it isn’t that bad. I’ll just try super, super hard to not crash it.

    Burn the Chrysler, do the world (but not AAMCO) a favor. If I went for a minivan with all four wheels powered, it would be an Aerostar E4WD or some weird Japanese thing like a Delica. Something far more robust.

  • avatar
    ryanwm80

    I would buy the Chrysler. The Previa is eye-catching, but I drove one that a former girlfriend had, and I wouldn’t want it – the seats were uncomfortable, the interior noise was surprisingly loud, and the fuel economy wasn’t any better than the 3.8 in my mom’s ’97 Town & Country van. And the Previa didn’t hold up any better than my mom’s van – it (the Previa) had a major rattling noise from the exhaust, major oil leaks from every engine seal, and a few other minor problems. She traded the van for a Mini Cooper S convertible. My mom still has her ’97 Chrysler, and has never had a problem with the transmission.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Back then, the Town and Country was what the sophisticated family man bought. If the Silhouette was the Cadillac of minivans, the T&C was the Imperial. Everyone knows that Imperials were better than Cadillacs. At least when in a time when it mattered. Buy.

    The Pillager was the minivan Ford employees drove before there was the Windbag. An over-priced also-ran. They were also big POSes. Drive if I had to.

    There was little redeeming about the dustbuster vans. Even the Olds version. GM desperately trying to make a futuristic styling statement that led to the longest dashboard in history and very strange outward visibility. Low-rent GM interiors, wretched handling (even for a minivan). Most were rightfully crushed and burned early in their lives.


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