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Conversion shops are accustomed to the sight of a big Ford Club Wagon rolling through the doorway. It's a thoroughbred van that has all the basics and design integrity suited for the customer's creative juices.
Still, it says lots about a vehicle's character when that same full-size van, carrying a factory-installed package, can win over the showroom customer. And that will happen plenty with the 1994 Ford Club Wagon Chateau, a seven-passenger blend of comfort, convenience and sheer drivability.
This is a full-sizer that threatens to make enthusiasts permanently swear off even the sweetest of minivans, all because of one glorious element: space.
Ford uses it brilliantly on the Chateau, making sure that this van brings a surplus of comfortable seating and ultra-visible glass to a sound overall package. In fact, you get the distinct feeling riding in the Club Wagon Chateau that you're aboard a plush tour bus. It's a matter of room, ambience and a lot of little things that make the ride anything but routine.
Its MSRP was steep: $24,348 for a brass-tacks version, $26,597 when we threw in a recommended option package that included a 5.8-liter V8 to provide a boost in power and acceleration for basic towing assignments.
What Ford offers with the '94 Club Wagon is a fundamental, full-size van of substance and minimalist styling. Performance is more than adequate and compensates for a look that's, by and large, no-frills. And while that's going to be just fine with the conversion crowd, it's also enough to suit the smaller percentage of showroom buyers who'll like the brawn and brassiness of this van.
With the Club Wagon Chateau, the delivery-van comparisons only apply to its shape and size. The drive we experienced in our test vehicle was a realm away from any old-era van crudeness. It was simply a comfortable big-van drive-as nice as you can get from a vehicle of this size.
Certainly, the 5.8-liter V8 engine helped deliver a sense of smoothness. Because the acceleration was steady but not at all spectacular, we think the available 7.5-liter V8 would be a wise alternative for the Chateau. On the expressway, passing was breezy and, blessedly, quiet-even as we drove by 18-wheelers.
Ride and suspension were reassuring, although all it took was a wintertime drive on icy roads to remind us that vans aren't ideal snow-and-ice machines. There just wasn't enough weight on those rear wheels. But that was a minor van complaint compared with the exceptional comfort this ride offered. There was no bounce, no jarring, no boat-over-the-waves effect that too many vans historically have produced. The ride was a dream.
At first, our test van's standard antilock braking system seemed to grab, but it ultimately proved to be steady and predictable. Same for the electronic four-speed automatic transmission, which had an efficient gear ratio and a convenient overdrive setting at the end of the shift column. There was no reaching for a button on the dash, and no concern that overdrive would need to be monitored if we were towing a boat or trailer-it was defeated at about the 60-mph mark. All in all, an appreciated engineering touch.
Steering and maneuverability were a cinch with the Club Wagon Chateau, crisper, even, than on many cars. Making 30-degree turns at 55 mph was effortless, and cruise-control fanatics will like the way Ford's engineers have built a streamlined, at-your-fingertips system into the steering wheel.
Buyers of this full-size van will experience solid performance, extreme comfort and some of the best visibility this side of a Hawaiian tour bus.
The '94 Club Wagon Chateau is not to be confused with a glorified Greyhound. Rather, it's a new version of an old van concept, one that puts a premium on fundamental big-van tenets: a bruising engine to get the job done; a smooth, comfortable ride made nicer by smart use of ample room; and spectacular all-over visibility, enhanced by this vehicle's high-in-the-saddle ride.
It's a nice reminder that, vehicularly speaking, an American tradition thrives.