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.
The Club Wagon Chateau's styling is basic delivery van, yet Ford has given it a certain swagger. A particularly smart touch is the chrome-topped, wraparound front bumper that's surrounded by a standard ensemble of plastic grille, bold headlights, turn signals and hazard lights. The overall look is stylish, raked-back, clubby.
For its plain and simple ways, there was a richness to our test vehicle, with its deep Emerald Green finish highlighted by a lower band of brown and red stripes.
There was nothing spectacular about the rear double doors or the swing-out right-side loading doors, but we liked the way the smaller right-side loading door's release latch was built into the frame rather than positioned on the floor of the interior, as is the case with so many vans. Another highlight: recessed door handles that were flush to the vehicle, clean and aerodynamic. There was, however, no side-door parking protection, and that causes any driver to wince.
The Club Wagon Chateau's b-1-g headlights and wraparound turn signals were just what lights should be-functional and stylish, accented by a one-piece curved taillight in the rear that lent a rare bit of distinctiveness to a vehicle that, decoratively speaking, was without pretense.
The major focus of our Club Wagon was glass. Lots of it. There were big, beautiful, aquarium-like panels of glass that combined with plush, high-riding captain's seats and a Mocha premium-cloth interior to give our test vehicle a hotel-suite feel.
Add to that a good six inches of headroom and the wide walkways between the front seats, and this ranked as the kind of vehicle that could take the sting out of a 2,000'le trip. Our van offered six-way power on the driver's seat, lots of up-front hip- and legroom, a trim but nicely arranged console, analog instrumentation, an AM/FM stereo with a CD player that had rear auxiliary controls, and power side-view mirrors that were a snap to adjust.
A console is vital on any van, and ours was good but not a knockout. We opened the large plastic door and all sorts of handy shelving appeared in tandem with the glove compartment. Included was a storage rack for CDs, and beneath it another well placed corn compartment for everything else. A tray that could accommodate two cups pulled out and became part of an overall platform of about 8 by 12 inches - just right for holding books or maps.
Other pluses: a power unit for a personal CD player or a Game Boy built into the armrest of the driver-side backseat captain's chair; a fold-down rear seat that could sleep an average-sized adult; an independent fan for rear temperature control; six ceiling vents for maximum circulation; map lights; cupholders; three sets of dome lights and a utility rack.
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.
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