The Dodge Grand Caravan is indisputably America's favorite minivan. Dodge sold 141,648 Grand Caravans in 2012, representing a 28 percent increase over 2011. Add in 111,744 sales for the 2012 Chrysler Town & Country, the Grand Caravan's mechanically similar but decidedly up-market cousin, and the resulting quarter-million minivans account for nearly half the entire U.S. minivan market. The Chrysler Group minivans have left Nissan, Toyota, Honda and some other bit players scrambling for the half that's left over, perhaps appropriate given Chrysler popularized the minivan.
The Town & Country is reportedly being phased out, following the exit of other manufacturers from the minivan segment, and we expect Grand Caravan to attract some of their would-be buyers.
Dodge lowered the base price of the 2012 Grand Caravan to $20,995, and has lowered the price again, to a 15-year low of $19,995 MSRP for the 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan. According to Dodge, that makes the 2013 Grand Caravan the most affordable seven-passenger vehicle currently on sale in the U.S.
Yet despite its low price, the Grand Caravan keeps acquiring attractive new features. For example, integrated Trailer Sway Damping is now standard on all 2013 Grand Caravan models. A second-row bench seat is now standard on 2013 Grand Caravan base models, increasing versatility. And a new, industry-exclusive dual-screen Blu-Ray video system is now offered on 2013 Grand Caravan Crew and 2013 Grand Caravan R/T models.
Dodge Grand Caravan is a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Industry for Highway Safety, the insurance industry's lobbying outfit.
The basic design of the current-generation Grand Caravan has been around since 2008, but it still looks fresh and crisp, especially next to some of the more forced and gimmicky styling we've seen on newer import-brand vans. Substantial interior and mechanical revisions back in the 2011 model year updated the Grand Caravan and have kept it more than competitive in its segment.
Grand Caravan rides lower and more firmly than minivans did a few years ago, making it more responsive to driver inputs. Long gone are the annoying wallow and float once characteristic of the breed. Yet ride quality is quite smooth. Like all modern minivans, the Grand Caravan is big, so it can be a beast to handle in tight quarters. The Grand Caravan, Toyota Sienna, Nissan Quest and Honda Odyssey are all roughly the same size: extra large. We should call these vehicles midi-vans or, simply, vans because there is nothing mini about them.
Power is provided by the relatively new 3.6-liter V6 that is rapidly becoming ubiquitous in Chrysler Group products. Unfortunately, it's still mated to a mediocre 6-speed automatic transmission, resulting in a combination that delivers barely adequate response for most drivers.
We found the interior of the Grand Caravan attractive, though, as in most of its rivals, hard plastic dominates the dashboard. Still, the soft-touch door tops, boldly contemporary gauges and some nice bits of trim are welcome.
Grand Caravan is about usable space. Super Stow 'n Go is standard on all but the base model, and optional there. It offers 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.
Grand Caravan's entertainment features make it a strong contender in the minivan class. 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. They include a variety of hard-drive radios, SiriusXM satellite radio, rear DVD or Blu-Ray entertainment, a wireless cell phone link, and a mobile internet hot spot.
Dodge Grand Caravan AVP ($19,995); SE ($22,995); SXT ($26,595); Crew ($28,595); R/T ($29,995)
The 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan is attractive, as minivans go. The look is crisp and tidy, but not boxy, with just a touch of sportiness. Unlike some of its competitors, the Grand Caravan neither blends in with the scenery, nor leaps out of it, screaming.
Up front is a curvy, almost car-like fascia with mesh inserts above and below the main bumper. Filling the upper grille are the trademark Dodge crosshairs, finished in matte black with a chrome outline; except on the R/T, where the chrome parts are replaced with body color.
Rear-end styling is more clever than conspicuous; on each side the rear roof pillar unites with the taillight cluster to form a single surface, which then bulges out just slightly to become the rear bumper and step plate before retreating back up to the roof via the taillight on the opposite side of the van. Recessed into this gentle U-shape is a subtly convex liftgate integrating a body-color roof spoiler.
Sixteen-inch wheels are standard, although Dodge has promised 17-inch steel wheels by mid-year. We think the available five-spoke 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels look better.
Still, 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 1984 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, Nissan Quest and Chrysler Town & Country, measure within an inch or two of the Grand Caravan in overall dimensions. They're all big, and with a 202.8-inch overall length and a 121.2-inch wheelbase, the Chrysler vans are the biggest of the bunch.
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.
Grand Caravan boasts a rich and inviting interior, characterized by strong, decisive lines and shapes and thankfully free of visual gimmicks.
The dashboard is hard plastic, but that's the norm for the class. The look and feel is that of a flowing, one-piece design. The door tops are padded, adding a touch of comfort, and both the standard-level cloth upholstery and the R/T-grade leather have a look of quality.
Instrumentation consists of 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 handsome, three-spoke steering wheel incorporates trip computer, phone, audio, cruise control, and, when ordered, navigation controls. It telescopes as well as tilts, even with the basic American Value Package, allowing more drivers to find an ideal seating position. The optional heated steering wheel is nice on cold winter mornings.
The sloped A-pillars allow good visibility, but the long hood means the driver sits back a bit from the front bumper, so it's a little hard to gauge the distance when parking.
Center consoles now come in three grades (or four, if you count the open storage bin in the AVP). SE has a removable console with four cup holders. Optional on SXT and Crew is a Premium console, also removable, which slides fore and aft for use by either the front or rear passengers. Standard issue on SXT, Crew, and R/T is a Super Console with capabilities between basic and Premium.
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, which has been around for some time.
The 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.
Late in the 2013 model year, the Grand Caravan will offer an industry-first Blu-Ray DVD video system on Crew and R/T models. Blu-Ray discs offer four times the definition of conventional DVDs. The dual-screen system designed for the Grand Caravan will feature a High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) input for video game systems, a 115-volt power outlet, and two USB ports so customers can charge their cell phones, laptops, tablet PCs or MP3 players. The Blu-Ray player can play both standard DVDs and Blu-Ray discs.
Three different Uconnect systems are available, and we like all of them. All come 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, SiriusXM Traffic and SiriusXM 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 in the floor and you can then push the seats into them.
This system, 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.
New for 2013, albeit only on the AVP, is a second-row bench seat that reclines, folds and is removable for added cargo room. It does not fold into the floor, but still comes with the concealed, under-floor storage bins that are normally part of the Super Stow 'n Go system. The bins can keep valuables out of sight while the van is parked. Second row Super Stow 'n Go seats can be added to the AVP as an option.
The second-row floormats are now anchored so they don't slide around, another nice improvement for 2013.
Standard on all Grand Caravan models, including the AVP, is a 60/40 split-folding third-row that also folds flat into the floor. This third-row seat will fit three kids or two adults. It's as useful and comfortable as most competitors'. 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.
The step from SE to SXT is about $3,600, but it may be well worth it just 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. The SXT should offer better resale value, also. Minivan owners tend to have full, busy lives, and small conveniences such as a power tailgate that raises as you walk up with your arms full can be worth a lot. 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 on driving impressions. The Dodge Grand Caravan is a transporting machine, not a driving one. That said, beginning with the 2011 model Dodge made several changes to help rectify that.
The basic layout hasn't changed: The rear end is still supported by coil springs and a twist-beam axle steadied by 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, particularly the sporty Honda Odyssey. (A Trailer Tow Package includes self-leveling rear shock absorbers.) The ride height was lowered one inch for 2011 and the suspension was completely retuned, with firmer rates for springs, shocks, and bushings, front and rear. The steering was made quicker and more direct. Kumho Solus KH25 tires provide a bit more bite.
The result is that the latest Grand Caravans are more controlled than the ones Dodge built just a few years ago. The van still leans a bit in turns, but acceptably so, and it gathers itself quicker to head back in the opposite direction. It no longer feels like you're at the helm of a ship. And we haven't yet driven the Grand Caravan R/T model, which offers even 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 earlier models is now long gone, 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 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 delivers 283 horsepower. 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, which subsidizes and mandates this inefficient fuel.
The 3.6-liter V6 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. Add the towing package, and the V6 packs enough grunt to pull 3600 pounds. However, it doesn't feel as powerful as the 283-horsepower figure would suggest. This same engine feels stronger in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is based on rear-wheel drive.
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 may be because it's tuned for fuel economy and producing good EPA 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 65 feet away, and it 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. So 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 Dodge Grand Caravan offers amazing versatility with one of the most convenient cabins in its class. The flexible seating, abundance of storage space, and impressive entertainment options can make life easier for busy owners. Add to that ride and handling characteristics that have greatly improved in recent years, and it's no wonder that the Grand Caravan is America's favorite minivan.
Sam Moses reported from the Columbia River Gorge, with NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago, and John F. Katz from south central Pennsylvania.