The wheelbase has been slightly extended and the stance has been widened. It's a couple inches longer and 18 pounds lighter. There's more headroom but it's no taller. Aerodynamics are better and it's quieter inside. The redesigned rear suspension delivers a good ride. Electronic stability control is now standard. The new Grand Caravan has earned five-star front and side crash ratings, and four stars in rollover ratings, from NHTSA.
The Grand Caravan is all about transporting people comfortably and safely, while keeping them entertained. Making the time pass quickly. Its designers focus on interior creature comforts, and they have succeeded with the '08 model.
The bells and whistles that make your Grand Caravan a mini rec-room are tempting, or maybe downright desirable, but they are expensive. You can get second-row chairs that swivel to the rear, and a table that pops up between those buckets and the third-row bench, for car-poolers to play gin rummy, or to eat indoors at a tailgate party. You can get a video system with screens on seatbacks, and wireless headphones and remote control. You can plug in your laptop. You can press buttons on the ceiling and watch in awe, or amusement, as the side doors and liftgate flip open and closed. Or you can fold it all up into the floor, and haul a stack of plywood or a load of hay.
The styling doesn't look radically new, but it's totally different. All the sheetmetal is new, as is the front fascia, rear fascia, and taillamps. The Grand Caravan looks more like a Dodge truck, now, in the nose at least. The hood is less sloped, and the new grille is the same chrome crosshair that fills our mirrors on the big Ram, Durango, and Nitro trucks.
The base 3.3-liter V6 gets an EPA-rated 17 City and 24 Highway miles per gallon.
Dodge Grand Caravan SE (21,740); Grand Caravan SXT ($26,805)
So the styling of the redesigned 2008 Grand Caravan doesn't represent a sea change. But it is clearly different. It looks fresh, as the old styling is ubiquitous. All the sheetmetal is new, as is the front fascia, rear fascia, and taillamps.
It's more aerodynamic, although it seems boxier because of the nose, which now looks more like it's in the Dodge family. It's attractive in a SUV-ish kind of way. The hood is less sloped than before, and it bears character lines. The grille is more upright, making the Dodge crosshair grille look more like a Dodge truck, especially in chrome.
The pillars are fractionally thinner, although because they're black and the glass is tinted, you'd never notice from the outside. Sixteen-inch wheels are standard, an increase over the previous 15s. They're boring looking, but the optional five-spoke 17s are better.
The wheelbase of the new Grand Caravan is 1.9 inches longer, and the overall length stretched 2.5 inches, so the overhangs are about the same. The front track has been widened by 2.5 inches, and the rear by 0.8 inches, without widening the vehicle at its sides. However the roof has been widened by 6 inches, allowing more overall interior room. Interestingly, the front track is now wider than the rear, a reversal from the previous generation.
Our test model was a base Grand Caravan SE with the $3740 H package, the $1995 Power and Remote Entry Group, and the $2120 DVD entertainment system. Also the $995 Special Appearance Group; add them all up and you could almost buy a Chevy Aveo just for the cost of the options.
The H package includes Chrysler's YES Essentials fabric for the seats, designed for the soccer-mom lifestyle, meaning it resists stains and odors left behind by dirty, smelly children. We quite liked the looks and feel of ours; and the black vinyl trim and satin aluminum-look plastic might be cheap but it isn't ugly. While these fabrics can be easy to clean, dog hair still has a way of sticking into them, so those who haul canines may still be better off with leather.
Six 10-year-old members of our soccer team liked the video player, during the 90-minute drive to the game. The DVD was a snap to play, unlike, for example, those in some expensive Audis. Put the DVD in, press Play, and you have a miracle: it works. The screen drops down from the ceiling, so the driver loses some visibility in the rearview mirror. There's also a convex conversation mirror, which might also be called the looking-at-your-kids-while-you're-yelling-at-them (without having to turn around) safety mirror.
The second-row bucket seats slide rearward to ease access to the third row, so there's less fighting and yelling about stepped-on feet. Or they flop forward with one lever. Don't get your foot caught on the seatbelt or you might end up face-down on the rear bench. You will want the optional LED pinpoint lighting for back there, for your children to read by so they don't fight or bug you while you're driving.
Stow 'n Go works, too. For a fairly simple invention, it's a masterpiece. In just a minute or so, and without having to refer to the manual, we dropped the second and third seats flat into the floor. We used our hands, although power retraction is optional for the third-row bench. Picked up a long leather couch at the used furniture store. From soccer bus to cargo van, in 60 seconds. We don't need no Dodge Sprinter van. Well, maybe if we want to load the whole team of 10 kids. One of them would have to drive.
If you don't count Stow 'n Go, the overall interior volume in the Grand Caravan isn't necessarily class-leading. In a Car and Driver comparison test with four other minivans, the Dodge (third overall) scored no firsts in space behind the front seat, middle seat or rear seat.
The instrumentation is good, black on light gray lettering, with big divisions so you can read each 5 mph. Our option package included a digital information display (it showed an average of 19.1 miles per gallon for one week of city and highway driving), but the button to change the information is in a terrible position, most easily (but treacherously) reached by your left hand through the three-spoke leather steering wheel. Otherwise you have to lean forward, reach around the wiper stalk, and fumble for it, which isn't a whole lot safer. Other information includes distance to empty (about 400 miles on a tank of gas), compass, outside temperature, and estimated time to destination. We never figured out how the van knew where we were going, especially when we ourselves didn't always know.
Still more useful information available on the dash includes: low coolant, low washer fluid, low oil, fuel cap ajar, door ajar, fuse fault, ESP off, and cruise control on. A tire pressure monitor is optional.
The leather-wrapped shift lever sticks out just to the left of the center stack, an efficient location. It's a manual automatic transmission, so the sturdy lever might be reached often to shift gears; ho
The main thing is, on the road, it's safe and stable. Electronic stability control is standard, and it activates fairly early.
Our SE test model had the smallest of the three engines, the 3.3-liter making 175 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 205 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. For the way we drove it during our week, which we believe is the way most Grand Caravan owners drive, it offered enough acceleration and speed. The 3.3-liter can be fueled with E85, an ethanol mix.
Higher performance is available in the SXT, with the 3.8-liter making 197 horsepower, or the new aluminum SOHC 4.0-liter making a big 240 hp. These engines only get one less mile per gallon, still on 87 octane, so it's something to seriously consider. Also, the 3.8-liter and 4.0-liter use a six-speed transaxle, compared to the four-speed in our SE with the 3.3-liter.
The four-speed automatic with overdrive shifted smoothly and wasn't overworked by our suburban demands. Theoretically, the more speeds the better, but it depends on the programming; in some cases, more speeds means more snatches or rough spots. Certainly, with a six-speed the acceleration from a standing start will be crisper.
Also, theoretically, a manual mode allows smoother transitions because the driver can choose when he or she wants to shift. Our four-speed had a manual mode, controlled by reaching toward the center stack and notching the shift lever from side to side. But we found little need or occasion to use it, because minivan driving occasions demand less sporty performance. However, with more miles and more demands, we might change our tune. Chrysler invented the manual mode 10 years ago, and it's good to have.
Suspension-wise, the redesign has changed leaf springs to coil springs in the rear, and brought a new twist-beam rear axle with a track bar, not independent. (A Trailer Tow Package includes self-leveling shock absorbers.) Despite being less sophisticated than other minivans, the ride is good. Our SE didn't bounce, wallow, or strike any notes of discomfort, during three hours with six kids in the back, and more hours driving alone over freeway and city streets. Our $1995 Power and Remote Entry Group option included a power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, which complemented the ride.
The brakes are plenty big, and although the Grand Caravan is no heavier than the competition (some 300 pounds lighter than the Honda Odyssey), its stopping distance from 70 mph was the longest among the five minivans tested by Car and Driver magazine.
The redesigned 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan offers substantial improvements at a lower price. The 3.3-liter V6 with 175 horsepower is fine, while the optional 3.8-liter and 4.0-liter engines make more power with almost the same fuel mileage. The transmission and ride are both smooth. But it's the interior where the Grand Caravan leaps high hurdles. There's little left wanting, from storage space, to lighting, to options like a DVD system and sound system with hard drive, and tables for the passengers to sit around. But the best optional feature is Stow 'n Go, allowing the rear seats disappear into the floor for carrying cargo. The Grand Caravan's versatility is unmatched.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from the Columbia River Gorge.