Dodge Grand Caravan has been substantially revised for the 2011 model year, and we think the changes elevate this minivan on the consideration scale. The Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country offer class-leading interior convenience.
The 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan benefits from an extensive midcycle update. Changes for 2011 include revised styling, a new engine, an upgraded suspension, and a reworked interior.
For 2011, Grand Caravan has been repositioned to sell mostly below $30,000 while its Chrysler counterpart, the Town & Country, is packaged to sell above $30,000. For the Grand Caravan, that means several features are no longer available, including Sirius Backseat TV, FloTV, a power third-row seat, a dual-screen rear DVD entertainment system, and Swivel 'n Go seating with second-row seats that turn rearward to face a table that stows in the floor. However, the key features that make the Grand Caravan a compelling purchase as a people mover remain.
The new engine for 2011 is a 3.6-liter V6 that replaces three archaic V6s from 2010, offering more power and improved fuel economy. The new engine fixes a weak point and makes the Dodge competitive with the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey. This fine new 3.6-liter V6 is mated to a mediocre 6-speed automatic transmission, resulting in a combination that delivers adequate response for most drivers.
The 2011 Grand Caravan suspension is stiffer than before and the van rides lower, making it more responsive to driver inputs than the 2010 model. Gone are the annoying wallow and float characteristics we noted with the 2010 model. Yet ride quality is still quite smooth. Like all modern minivans, the Grand Caravan is big, so it can be a beast to handle in tight quarters. Grand Caravan, Sienna, and Odyssey are all the same size: extra large. Indeed, we should call these vehicles midi-vans or vans because there is nothing mini about them.
For 2011, the interior of the Grand Caravan is upgraded, and we find the new look far more attractive. The materials are richer, though, like most of its rivals, hard plastic dominates the dashboard. Still, the new soft-touch door tops, redesigned gauges and nice bits of trim are welcome.
Grand Caravan is about usable space. Super Stow 'n Go is standard. It offers more comfortable second-row seats that fold into the floor, offering useful cargo space with those seats up or down. The third-row seats fold into the well behind them, and with all the seats down the Grand Caravan can accept a 4x8 sheet of plywood.
The Grand Caravan's unique cargo and entertainment features make it a strong contender in the minivan class, and the 2011 changes only make it better. Families will like it, especially because those entertainment features will make for more enjoyable family trips. That is, after all, the reason the Grand Caravan remains so popular. While some options are gone, there are plenty of entertainment features that will help keep the kids occupied. They include three types of hard-drive radio, Sirius satellite radio, rear DVD entertainment, a wireless cell phone link, and a mobile internet hot spot. If you want more than that, check out the Chrysler Town & Country.
The Dodge Grand Caravan is all about transporting people comfortably, efficiently and safely, while keeping them entertained. Its designers focused on interior creature comforts, such as the popular Stow 'n Go seating system. Stow 'n Go consists of bins in the floor behind the first row of seats, and second-row seats that can be folded into those bins, resulting in a flat load floor for easily carrying larger objects. Or, when the seats are up in the normal seating position, the bins can accommodate toys, games, sporting gear, tools and other small cargo.
Dodge Grand Caravan Express ($24,995); Mainstreet ($25,995); Crew ($28,695); R/T ($30,595)
The Dodge Grand Caravan is attractive, as minivans go. The look is less boxy for 2011, as Dodge has softened the lines a bit while adding a touch of sportiness.
For starters, the 2011 Grand Caravan sits an inch lower than before. Up front, it has a sportier fascia with mesh inserts, a revised version of the Dodge crosshair grille, a slightly reshaped hood and quad headlights. At the rear, the liftgate is slightly modified to accept new DODGE lettering, there is a body color roof spoiler, the fascia is new, there a step plate with chrome trim, and the taillights add LEDs. Sixteen-inch wheels are standard. We think the available five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels look better.
A minivan shape does not lend itself to artistic sculpture. A description of the overall shape of this current generation of the Dodge Grand Caravan wouldn't sound too much different from a description of the 1982 model. There is a big box behind, where all the people and cargo fit, and a smaller box in front, for the engine. That very efficient outline defines every minivan on the road.
All the leading minivans, including Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, and Chrysler Town & Country, are within an inch or two of the Grand Caravan in overall dimensions. They're all big. The Grand Caravan has a 202.8-inch overall length and a 121.2-inch wheelbase.
These so-called minivans are quite large. However, they share their basic architecture with cars, using unit-body structures and front-wheel-drive platforms, with the engine mounted transversely. Conversely, full-size vans, such as the Chevrolet Express, are built on truck platforms, with body-on-frame structures, rear-wheel-drive platforms and giant, longitudinally mounted V8 engines. Minivans are lighter, more fuel-efficient and offer more responsive handling than the full-size vans.
The 2011 Grand Caravan gets a new interior design, and it's a considerable upgrade versus the 2010 model. The dashboard is still hard plastic, but that's the norm for the class. The look and feel is much better, with a more flowing, one-piece design. The door tops are now padded, adding a touch of comfort, and the cloth and leather upholstery are upgraded. We liked the stain-resistant cloth seats on last year's models, but the cloth seats on the 2011 models look quite good as well.
Up front, the instrumentation is changed for 2011, with bigger black dials offset by blue-tinted graphics and chrome trim. There are big divisions so you can read each 5-mph increment on the speedometer. The shift lever sticks out just to the left of the center stack, an efficient location.
The steering wheel is new on the 2011 model. It incorporates trip computer, phone, audio, cruise control, and, when ordered, navigation controls. That's nice because the 2010 model had the trip computer controls inaccessibly placed on the dashboard behind the left side of the steering wheel. It now telescopes as well, allowing more drivers to find an ideal seating position. As an added touch, its available heated, which is nice on cold winter mornings.
The sloped A-pillars allow good visibility, but the long hood means the driver sits back a bit farther from the front bumper, so it's a little hard to gauge when parking.
The center console is integral on the 2011 Grand Caravan, instead of removable as it was last year. It offers deep storage, two cupholders and a covered shallow tray. There are also bottleholders in each front door, so the driver and front-seat passenger can each bring along two drinks at once.
The Grand Caravan is designed well for hauling youngsters, with some thoughtful features. Among them is the convex conversation mirror, which is handy for talking to those in the rear seats without having to turn around. We like this clever little feature.
The available DVD entertainment system is a snap to play, which is important because some of them, even those in much more expensive vehicles, are not easy to use. Plug in the DVD, press Play, and it works; the screen drops down from the ceiling and the viewing begins. Video can be shown on the front touch-screen when the transmission is in Park. It comes with wireless headphones for rear seat passengers and has jacks to plug in video game systems. When the DVD screen is deployed, the driver loses some visibility in the rearview mirror so more attention needs to be paid to the side mirrors. Sirius Backseat TV, which was offered on the 2010 model, is no longer available, though it can be had in the Chrysler Town & Country. That is another part of the strategy to price the Grand Caravan below $30,000 and the T&C above $30,000. Last year's dual DVD entertainment system is now only offered in the Town & Country. FloTV, which was offered in both minivans, is also gone as the company that provided it has gone out of business.
We like the Uconnect systems as well. There are three versions, all with a 6.5-inch touchscreen. The base version has a 30-gigabyte hard-drive that can hold about 6,700 music files. Another version has an integrated Garmin navigation system that works just fine but has cartoonish graphics. It also has a 30-gig hard-drive, but it can hold about 4,250 songs because some of the space is used for Navigation map information. The top version has a more familiar Dodge navigation system that we like better. It can also hold 4,250 songs and adds Sirius satellite radio, Sirius Traffic and Sirius Travel Link. This system comes with Uconnect Phone wireless cell phone link, voice recognition, and iPod control, and it can record voice memos.
With any of the systems offered, songs can be ripped from CDs, and music and pictures can be downloaded from thumb drives via a standard USB port. The hard drive is a great way to have ready access to your music collection without toting around a bunch of CDs. For further connectivity, Uconnect Web, a mobile wi-fi router, is offered as a Mopar accessory.
The second-row bucket seats are stationary, but the back folds forward and the seat tips up to allow access to the third row, all with the pull of a lever. Open the bins and you can then push the seats into them.
This system, now called Super Stow 'n Go, works superbly well. For a fairly simple invention, it's a masterpiece. To test it, we hauled a couch. In just a minute or so, and without having to refer to the manual, we dropped the second- and third-row seats flat into the floor. We unloaded the kids, then went to the furniture store to pick up a long leather couch. We converted the Grand Caravan from soccer bus to cargo van in 60 seconds, and easily carted the couch home. Power-folding rear seats are no longer offered, another concession to pricing.
In previous iterations, the second-row seats were notoriously flat and uncomfortable, compromises needed to allow them to fit into the underfloor bins. This time around, Dodge has added more padding to the seats, and also made them taller and wider. They're still not as supportive as the buckets in most competitors, but the new design should prevent some kids' complaints.
(The Swivel 'n Go seating option available on pre-2011 models has been discontinued, which is a shame. Swivel 'n Go offered second-row seats that rotated 180 degrees to face a stowable table that fit between the second and third rows. Dodge says about 25 percent of buyers chose this option, which seams to make it worthwhile to us, but many probably never used it. We liked it for long road trips because it allowed the kids to stay occupied with games or coloring books. Many wanted it for the better second-row seats, and Dodge has addressed this issue by making those seats more comfortable on the 2011 models.)
The third-row seats will fit three kids or two adults. It's as useful and comfortable as most competitors. The third-row folds into a well behind it to create a flat load floor. While the overall interior volume in the Grand Caravan isn't class-leading, it's close with a whopping 143.8 cubic feet of space with all the seats folded down. The competition offers more legroom, but all of these minivans are big inside and the Grand Caravan is comfortable for kids.
Thirteen hundred dollars seems like a lot to spend for the convenience of not having to physically slide your minivan's side doors open or closed (there are two of them, by the way), or lift the liftgate, but it might be worth it. (Especially if resale value is considered.) Minivan owners tend to have full, busy lives, and small conveniences like having the power tailgate raise as you walk up with your arms full can be worth a million bucks. The buttons are located on the headliner between the front seats, and using them imparts a wonderful sense of ease and convenience.
The Grand Caravan leads the minivan field when it comes to interior convenience, capability and versatility. Chrysler has been working to give its minivans a competitive advantage in these areas for a long time, and those efforts show.
Minivans tend to generate pages of notes on the interior but little driving impressions. The Dodge Grand Caravan is a transporting machine, not a driving one. That was especially true with last year's model, which offered a smooth ride but suffered from sloppy handling and indifferent steering. Dodge has made several changes to address those issues for 2011.
For 2011, the ride height has been dropped one inch and the suspension has been completely retuned: The spring rates are firmer front and rear, new low-rolling resistance tires have been chosen, the bushings and shocks are firmer, and the steering is quicker. Those changes make a world of difference in the handling department. Yet ride quality has not suffered.
The suspension still features rear coil springs and a twist-beam rear axle with a track bar. In other words, it's not an independent rear suspension, so it's not as sophisticated as the setups in some rivals. (A Trailer Tow Package includes self-leveling rear shock absorbers.)
Though just as large, the 2011 Grand Caravan is much more controlled than last year. It still leans a bit in turns but acceptably so, and it gathers itself quicker to head back in the opposite direction. The new steering is quicker and more direct. It no longer feels like you're at the helm of a ship.
The Honda Odyssey was far sportier than the 2010 Grand Caravan, but our impression is that the 2011 Grand Caravan is almost as dynamically capable as the 2011 Odyssey. And we haven't yet driven the Grand Caravan R/T model, which offers sportier suspension settings.
The ride is still quite good, better in some ways. While drivers will feel more road imperfections, the ride is still quite supple and it won't jostle you or the kids over anything but the worst bumps. Better yet, the float and wallow that was too evident on recent models is gone on the 2011 Grand Caravan, as is the copious lean, so passengers' heads won't be tossed about with every flick of the steering wheel, stab of the throttle or push of the brakes.
The 2010 model offered three engines, and only the top engine was close to competitive.
For 2011, Dodge Grand Caravan comes with one brand-new engine, the 283-horsepower 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. It makes 32 more horsepower than the most powerful of last year's engines.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 17/25 mpg City/Highway, or 20 mpg Combined city and highway driving. With E85, efficiency falls off to an ethanol-guzzling 12/18 mpg, according to the federal government.
The new 3.6-liter V6 on the 2011 Grand Caravan gives Dodge an engine that is competitive with the other V6s in the class. It's smooth and quiet, offering decent punch from a stop and enough in reserve for passing. It increases towing capacity from 1800 to 3600 pounds. However, it doesn't feel as powerful as the 283-horsepower figure would suggest. That's odd because this same engine feels stronger in the rear- and four-wheel-drive Jeep Grand Cherokee.
We were disappointed with the 6-speed automatic transmission, which doesn't seem to communicate well with the engine or react well to the driver's right foot. That's likely because it's tuned for fuel economy, hitting those numbers, rather than responsiveness. We'd prefer a better balance of power and efficiency. There's also a button to push for an even more fuel efficient operating mode. Obviously, that only exacerbates the situation.
A couple of safety options that are worthy of note. The Blind Spot Monitoring system uses radar sensors to detect vehicles in the van's blind spots and warns the driver with lights in the side mirrors or a driver-selectable chime that sounds like the seat belt chime. We found it worked well, but like similar systems offered by other manufacturers it can sometimes give false readings. We've never seen one of these systems not detect a car that was there, however. But we think it's still important to look before you change lanes. The blind-spot system is an additional aid, not a replacement for awareness.
The Rear Cross Path system is activated when the van is in reverse. It uses radar sensors to detect vehicles crossing behind the Grand Caravan and warns the driver with lights in the side mirrors and that same chime. The system won't detect small objects, such pedestrians, so it's still important to proceed slowly. It does, however, detect vehicles up to 20 meters away, and is programmed to recognize the speed of oncoming vehicles and alert the driver only if they are traveling at a speed that could lead to an accident (in other words, stationary and very slow moving vehicles probably won't register). We like this system. It works well and is a useful aid in crowded parking lots.
The mechanical and design changes made to the 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan are all for the better. It's much nicer inside, handles far better, is quieter and has more power with better fuel economy. Grand Caravan offers amazing versatility with one of the most convenient cabins. The flexible seating, abundance of storage space, and impressive entertainment options can make life easier for busy owners.
Sam Moses reported from the Columbia River Gorge, with NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.